September 26, 2019; Civil Beat
At Maunakea, Hawaii’s most sacred mountain, Native Hawaiians are in their third straight month of a direct action. Hundreds have joined an occupation that is blocking construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope, a project of a university consortium that has reignited the Hawaiian sovereignty movement.
In what appears to be an escalation by the state in its efforts to get construction underway, Hawaii’s attorney general has issued a subpoena to the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA), seeking information on OHA’s financial support for the protests. OHA is a quasi-independent agency with a mission of improving the lives of Native Hawaiians. Its nine-member board of trustees is elected by the public. Its funding comes from trusts set up to serve Native Hawaiians and from a portion of revenues from “ceded lands”—public lands of the Hawaiian Kingdom that were taken when the nation was illegally annexed and occupied by the United States at the end of the 19th century.
Because of its status as a state agency, OHA has never been in the forefront of the Hawaiian sovereignty struggle. But this past July, the board unanimously approved a resolution to support “the health, safety, and legal needs” of the Maunakea protectors, or kia‘i. In documents released this week, the agency reveals that it has thus far spent $39,000 to help the demonstrators. Much of the funding has gone to 160 hours of staff time, primarily for recording and publicizing the demonstrations.
Additionally, according to Civil Beat, the agency approved $67,000 in contracts for portable toilets, dumpsters and tents to ensure the health and safety of their beneficiaries occupying the mountain. According to OHA spokesman Sterling Wong, these expenditures will depend on “the health and safety situation on the mountain.”
“The resolution authorized OHA to assess our beneficiary needs related to safety and welfare on the mountain so whether we continue to fund certain things depends on the assessment,” Wong told Civil Beat. The contracts expire December 31st of this year.
OHA trustees have been visiting the mountain encampment since July. OHA Trustee Carmen Hulu Lindsey was among the mostly Hawaiian kupuna (elders) arrested for blocking the road in July. Last week, three trustees visited the mountain, according to the Hawaii Tribune-Herald.
Colette Machado, the board of trustees’ chair, told the kia’i that the agency is “seeking to support the Hawaiian community in ways that the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands has not been able to, such as restoring access to Maunakea’s summit for all cultural practitioners.” Noting the limited power of OHA, she says, “Don’t give up on OHA. Allow us to do what we can. We have some limitations. We have no powers…except our commitment, which is to serve our people. Outside of that we have no authority to govern anything else, but your voices are being heard.”— Karen Kahn