Protecting Mauna Kea: Talking Story

San Diego Free Press  Grassroots News & Progressive Views  MAY 22, 2015 BY WILL FALK

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Looking up at the still, lingering morning stars from the best stargazing location in the world early on the third day since my arrival at the occupation on Mauna Kea, my personal velocities catch up with me and I listen. I stand at 9,200 feet above sea level. North and above me, Mauna Kea’s shoulders broaden as they rise into the heavens. Down and to the east, a thick cover of clouds hides the valley below and deadens the rattle of rifle fire coming from the US military training center on the Mountain. Wind scatters the volcanic dust at my feet.

I have never been to a place like this, never looked down on the clouds from any where other than a plane seat, never marveled at the feel of lava pebbles in my palm and I wonder what it all means. Dawn’s thin air only offers my own reflections back to me.

I’ve been on the road for over a year now and the traveling leaves me feeling dizzy. After two suicide attempts, I decided to take tangible steps to alleviate my despair. A great part of my despair stemmed from the realization that life on Earth is running out of time. Even mainstream scientists are seriously questioning the ability of the human race to make it through the next half-century. Part of this destruction is rooted in the way the dominant culture has strayed too far from land-based, traditional knowledges. Traditional knowledges are often rooted in stories based on the land. So, one way to understand the destruction is to see how the dominant culture has forgotten the original stories the land is telling us.

My path out of despair has lead me all over this side of the world from the Unist’ot’en Camp on Wet’suwet’en territory in northern so-called British Columbia to Kumeyaay territory in so-called San Diego all the way across the ocean here to Hawai’i and Mauna Kea.

Moving at this pace, I sometimes feel profoundly lonely. Each new place means leaving friends behind and entering a social environment where no one knows who I am. My friends and family are scattered across North America. When I’d rather see my friends smile in person and hear their laughter transported over a breeze instead of the internet, I feel a deep sorrow. I know it is a self-imposed exile, but still, I yearn for home.

“Home” is something I do not have time for. The world is burning – our home is burning – and before I can rest comfortably in my home, I need to work to make sure that home does not burn down. Writing seems to be my talent, so I come to Mauna Kea persisting in my rejection of home, and offer up my pen.

Sitting down to write these first few days on Mauna Kea, to engage in the support I’ve promised, I’ve found that my migrations have an even deeper side effect: I struggle to relate to the places I’m in. New slants of sunshine are disorienting. New smells from a strange wind confuse me. I do not know the names of the birds I hear singing or the names of the trees who give me shade.

Writing is a spiritual practice for me that involves listening for the voices I know are speaking from the natural places I’m in. I’m finding it hard to understand what I am hearing here because I have not had enough time to develop relationships with the non-human beings living here on the Mountain. I have not heard enough of Hawaii’s history. I do not have the experiential referents to hear a story. I keep stumbling on the thought that I cannot possibly do this place justice in three days. Hawaiians have lived with Mauna Kea for time immemorial and already know what these other beings are saying.

Each time I try to describe a hill I’m looking at, the sound the sparse mountain trees make in the evening breeze, or the sight of the thin, new moon hanging low in the sky outside our tent, I sense much deeper stories at work. I feel incapable, unprepared, lost. I am not just seeing, hearing, and feeling these forces on a physical level. I sense these forces are working on a level deeper than I have the language to express.

How can I possibly write something comparable to the stories and wisdoms developed over millennia of listening by the original peoples who live here? Is English – a language developed in a land thousands of miles away – even adequate to the task? Or, am I struggling to articulate what I’m hearing because those voices are properly described in the Hawaiian language?

***

In these first three days, I have been showered in Hawaiian hospitality and my loneliness is alleviated. At the occupation, kapu aloha is thriving. I’ve spent most of my time “talking story” and I’ve learned just how potent Hawaiian traditional knowledges are. “Talking story” is a Hawaiian term meaning something similar to, but more than “chit-chat,” closer to “getting to know each other,” or “craic” in my own Irish tradition. Through talking story with the protectors here, I’ve heard about everything from the strategic military prowess of King Kamehameha I to the genius traditional navigational techniques of Hawaiian sailors to the high percentage of NFL players that come from Hawai’i.

Most importantly, though, I’ve been receiving an education in Hawaiian spirituality. I will not and cannot claim to know or understand very much of what has been shared with me. I’ve heard about the physical forms Hawaiian deities take – forms like snow, thunder, mist, and bamboo.

I’ve heard about Mauna Kea existing in both realms of the land and the sky and how traditionally humans were not supposed to travel very far up Mauna Kea. My experiences with death cause me to state that my favorite thing I’ve learned about Hawaiian spirituality, so far, is that every being that gives and facilitates life is a god revered for its role in supporting life.

Looking around me with my vision enhanced from the Mauna, I ponder life. The shallowness of my breath on the Mountain reminds me of those last moments before I lost consciousness each time I tried to kill myself. Both times I laid in what I thought would be my deathbed I was confronted with the shame knowing that suicide would prevent me forever from standing on the side of the living. Both times I saw the story of my life stretch out before me and knew I wanted the story to go on.

***

Last night while I was pondering my inability to write anything of substance, I experienced a series of significant events. First, while a few of us sat around talking story, the conversation turned to the Thirty Meter Telescope project. Stopping this project is, of course, why we’re here.

Many of the occupiers here are my age – I am 28 – and interestingly several of them were educated in Hawai’i’s first Hawaiian language immersion program. One of those who graduated from this program is a man named, Kahookahi Kanuha, and I’ve heard him call the movement to protect Mauna Kea the most powerful Hawaiian movement since the resistance to American occupation in the 1890s. One of the reasons for the power of this movement, he explained, is that Hawaiians are getting their language back.

This fits what I understand about history. In my own Irish tradition, for example, the path to independence included a strong Gaelic language revival in the late 1890s with artists like William Butler Yeats and Lady Gregory creating new, specifically Gaelic works, with Gaelic language schools springing up around the nation, and a new academic interest in what had been an illegal language.

I know, too, that one of the first things colonizers do is work to erase the colonized’s language.

This happened in Hawai’i in 1896 when the illegal Republic of Hawai’i forbade the use of the Hawaiian language in schools. Indigenous languages are so important to decolonization because as Haunani-Kay Trask writes in her diagnosis of colonization in Hawai’i, “From a Native Daughter,” “Thinking in one’s own cultural referents leads to conceptualizing in one’s own world view, which, in turn, leads to disagreement with and eventual opposition to the dominant ideology.”

Later that night, after I heard Kahookahi explain that the Hawaiian language revival is empowering his people, the director of Hawai’i’s Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) stopped by to talk story with the Mauna Kea protectors. In many respects, the DLNR’s interests are opposed to the Mauna Kea’s protectors, but he was invited in a spirit of dialogue and respect, and to his credit he visited (and brought us desert). During the course of the conversation, the director said, “There is fear in misunderstanding. And when you learn to understand, you learn not to fear.”

***

I am writing this Protecting Mauna Kea series, in part, to understand how it is possible for a culture to think it is acceptable to desecrate another people’s most sacred site by building a massive telescope on the top of a beautiful mountain. I want to understand what the individual humans responsible for this project think and feel. Are they simply mistaken about the nature of physical reality? Do they really think that digging deeply into a mountain to build a telescope will be harmless? What I have learned, so far on the Mountain, from the protectors, from Kahookahi, and from the director of the DLNR provide, perhaps, an answer.

Quite simply, when you understand a place is full of stories and the beings who provide these living stories, it becomes very difficult for you to destroy those stories. When you understand the language of a place and learn how to communicate in that place, it becomes very difficult for you to destroy that place. When you learn to talk story wherever you are, you can learn to understand, and fear becomes more difficult.

I think the TMT project is the result of a culture that has forgotten how to talk story, has forgotten the living stories unfolding everywhere around us. When you look at Mauna Kea and see a simple mountain – just a collection of earth as I’ve heard some insensitive folks describe it-you will treat it one way, but when you look at Mauna Kea and see, as traditional Hawaiians do, a vast collection of stories and living story-givers, you will treat it in a much different way.

Maybe the TMT project is a symptom of a culture moving too fast, governments spreading too far from the lands that created them, and peoples alienated from the homes of their ancestors?

Maybe the dominant culture is caught in the same problems I face in my travels? Moving with too high a velocity, it is confused, it is lonely, and instead of talking story with Mauna Kea, it seeks answers in the stars.

I have taken a great amount of comfort in the willingness of the Mauna Kea protectors to talk story with me. I am beginning to feel like I am making good friends. They are quick with inclusive stories and jokes. They are sharing the stories of Mauna Kea and my loneliness subsides.

All credit for this is due to the Mauna Kea Protectors.

I believe those controlling the TMT project have lost their stories and suffer a deep trauma because of this. They have forgotten that the land is the source of all meaning and feel justified destroying the land to build an attempt to find meaning on other planets. I think they would do well to truly talk story from a position of respect with the Mauna Kea Protectors. You never know what you’ll learn.