HONOLULU — Walter Ritte has been fighting for decades to protect Native Hawaiian rights, inspiring a new generation of activists trying to stop construction of a giant telescope they see as representative of a bigger struggle.
In his early 30s, Ritte occupied a small Hawaiian island used as a military bombing range. Now at 74, he’s still a prolific protester, getting arrested this week for blocking a road to stop construction of the one of the world’s most powerful telescopes on Hawaii’s tallest peak, which some Native Hawaiians consider sacred.
For activists who say they’re protecting Mauna Kea, the long-running telescope fight encapsulates critical issues to Native Hawaiians: the 1893 overthrow of the Hawaiian kingdom, clashes over land and water rights, frustration over tourism, attempts to curb development and questions about how the islands should be governed.
It’s an example of battles by Native Americans to preserve ancestral lands, with high-profile protests like Dakota Access pipeline leading to arrests in southern North Dakota in 2016 and 2017.
For Native Hawaiians, opposition to the $1.4 billion Thirty Meter Telescope isn’t universal — some support the educational opportunities from the project and are facing backlash from those questioning their identity.
Ritte’s first taste of activism came during a resurgence of cultural pride and identity that began in the late 1960s and 1970s. He and other Native Hawaiian men hid on the small island of Kahoolawe that the military used for bombing practice. They were arrested, but the U.S. eventually stopped the training.
“We didn’t know anything about ourselves as Hawaiians,” Ritte said of his youth. “When we got involved with Kahoolawe, we had no language, no history.”
The young people leading the fight against the telescope grew up learning about his experiences and speaking Hawaiian amid an ongoing cultural renaissance. A 30-year-old leader of the telescope protest, Kaho’okahi Kanuha, credits Ritte and the Hawaiian movement for allowing him to grow up rooted to his culture.
“Uncle Walter can talk about not knowing the language and not knowing the history. But he knew how to stand up, and he knew how to fight,” Kanuha said. “Because of the things they did, the results were Hawaiian language programs. The results were revitalization of the culture and of understanding and of awakening.”
At Mauna Kea, Kanuha wears a traditional battle helmet as he speaks Hawaiian with protesters and negotiates with law enforcement. Thanks to the movement, he said he was able to learn Hawaiian at an immersion preschool and eventually earn a bachelor’s degree in Hawaiian language from the University of Hawaii.
He’s fighting a project that dates to 2009, when scientists selected Mauna Kea after a global campaign to find the ideal site for what telescope officials said “will likely revolutionize our understanding of the universe.” The mountain on the Big Island is revered for its consistently clear weather and lack of light pollution.
The telescope won a series of approvals from Hawaii, including a permit to build on conservation land in 2011. Protests began during a groundbreaking in 2014 and culminated in arrests in 2015.
Last year, the state Supreme Court upheld the construction permit, though protesters are still fighting in court and at the mountain.
Thirty-four people, mostly elders, were arrested this week as officials try to start building again.
The swelling protest is a natural reaction to the pain Native Hawaiians have endured and the changes the islands have seen, said Glen Kila, program director of Marae Ha’a Koa, a Hawaiian cultural center.
“The pain began when they took people off the land,” he said. “And then they took governance and stewardship of the land, like Mauna Kea.”
The battle is bigger than the telescope, said Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu, a teacher and cultural practitioner.
“The TMT and Mauna Kea is just the focal point. For me it’s just a galvanizing element,” she said. “It goes back to the role that foreigners played and continue to play in Hawaii.”
From 18th century explorer James Cook’s arrival in the islands, to laborers brought to plantations and today’s tourism, the telescope is another example of outside interests overtaking Hawaiian culture, she said.
“They capitalize and commercialize our culture,” Wong-Kalu said. “They prostitute the elements that make us Hawaiian. They make it look pretty and make it look alluring in an effort to bring more money into this state.”
But not all Native Hawaiians see the telescope as representative of past wrongs.
“My family feels that they’re trying to use the TMT to boost their sovereignty issue,” said Annette Reyes, a Native Hawaiian who supports the telescope project. “I want sovereignty for the Hawaiian people. I want them to have their country back. But TMT shouldn’t be the lightning rod for it.”
Reyes pointed to telescope officials’ pledge to provide $1 million every year to boost science, technology, engineering and math education. She said opponents have called her a fake Hawaiian for supporting the project.
For some, it’s not just a political issue. It’s spiritual for Kealoha Pisciotta, who’s long fought the telescope.
“The problem is being Hawaiian today is a political statement,” she said. “We have to take political action to practice religion.”
Mauna Kea is a “living entity” that “gives life,” Kila said.
“So that’s a different philosophy from the scientific world, that it’s just a mountain that can be used for an observatory. It can be developed. For us, that’s sacrilegious,” he said.
For Ritte and others, the telescope is the latest battle over Hawaiian culture. He spent 11 hours Monday lying attached to a grate in the road leading up to Mauna Kea’s summit with seven other protesters.
“We protected and saved Kahoolawe from the United States military,” Ritte said. “Now we have to save and protect the rest of our islands.”