Hawaiian protesters started a school on Mauna Kea to teach local culture to the next generation

The classes at the community-run Puuhonua o Puuhuluhulu University focus on topics including indigenous rights, history and a variety of other subjects taught through a Hawaiian perspective.
Image: Aerial of tents at protest site
Tents at the protest site with Mauna Kea in the background.Michelle Broder Van Dyke / for NBC News

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By Michelle Broder Van Dyke

MAUNA KEA, Hawaii — Protesters have been gathering on the slopes of Hawaii’s tallest mountain, Mauna Kea, for almost three weeks hoping to halt the construction of a giant telescope atop land considered sacred by many Native Hawaiians.

One University of Hawaii professor saw the large gathering at the intersection of the road that leads up to the summit of Mauna Kea as an opportunity to create a Hawaiian-led education system by providing classes to protesters with the help of other educators present at the protest site.

Presley Keʻalaanuhea Ah Mook Sang, a Hawaiian language instructor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, said she first came up with the idea to start a community-led school or “teach-in” after witnessing the crowd swell in that first week from hundreds of protesters to thousands.

"It was basically me feeling like because we had the resources and knowledge here, that we should utilize it," Ah Mook Sang said.

The classes at the community-run Puuhonua o Puuhuluhulu University focus on topics including indigenous rights, history and a variety of other subjects taught through a Hawaiian perspective.

Ah Mook Sang established Puuhuluhulu less than a week after the protests began July 15, calling upon her former professors and colleagues to assist her in teaching the classes. The school quickly grew to a daily schedule of four one-hour blocks with five concurrent classes. The educators, she said, come from a range of different professional backgrounds but keep the focus of the classes on subjects related to Mauna Kea and indigenous rights.

Class titles varied from “Decolonizing Religion” to “Is legal personhood a path to consider for Mauna Kea?”

"The morning is more indigenous peoples and native rights and towards afternoon is more Mauna-focused,” Ah Mook Sang said. “They share about the place names, they share about the history with development, why the Mauna is sacred, they share different olis [chants] written just for the Mauna.”

Mauna Kea, Hawaii’s tallest mountain that peaks at 13,796 feet above sea level, is so tall it rises above the clouds and gets cold enough that it sometimes gets snow. Astronomers say Mauna Kea is the ideal place to build the $1.4 billion Thirty Meter Telescope, which they hope will be able to look back in time 13 billion light years, believed to be close to when the universe began.

Protesters, who call themselves "protectors," dance hula during a noon ceremony in front of the Kapuna Tent last Saturday, while thousands of people watch. Michelle Broder Van Dyke / for NBC News

The protest is the zenith of a decades-long battle over the site where a dozen observatories already stand. Hawaiians say Mauna Kea is sacred and they do not want it further desecrated by the TMT that along with a parking lot and support buildings will have a footprint of about five acres.

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On Tuesday, Hawaii Gov. David Ige rescinded an emergency proclamation, that has been in place since July 17, allowing law enforcement to close parts of Mauna Kea and to use National Guard troops to deliver construction equipment up the mountain. Ige said there weren’t any current plans to move any heavy equipment up the mountain. The decision came as two tropical storms, Erick and Flossie, were heading toward Hawaii.

"For the safety of all involved, we want to de-escalate activities," Ige said at a news conference.

But that hasn’t stopped dozens of people from gathering daily at the base of Kipuka Puuhuluhulu in temperatures ranging from 40 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit to learn about subjects such as law, history, arts, health, gender studies, science and spirituality taught through a Hawaiian perspective.

From left, Kamuela Park, who has been at the protest since it started and Kaipu Baker, who taught a course on Hawaiian language Saturday at Puuhuluhulu, pose in front of Kipuka Puuhuluhulu and a group of tents, where protesters have been sleeping.Michelle Broder Van Dyke / for NBC News

Kaipu Baker, a recent University of Hawaii at Manoa graduate who taught a Hawaiian language class on Saturday, said he was introducing his students to a Hawaiian equational sentence, which will help them describe and identify their surroundings.

“When we look at this mist we’re not just seeing the mist, we’re seeing Lilinoe, who is one of the goddesses who live on Mauna Kea,” Baker said. “You can only access that if you know the language and the stories embedded in the language.”

Noelani Puniwai, an assistant professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, who taught a course at Puuhuluhulu on climate change, said she has been working for more than 20 years with different groups and students to reforest the mountain, which has been impacted by invasive plants and cattle grazing.

She explained that Mauna Kea is sacred to Hawaiians for many different reasons, including a genealogical connection — her cremated grandparents are buried under koa trees on the slopes of Mauna Kea and her children’s placentas are buried in the same area — and it also plays a role in the environment of the entire island, affecting its rain cycle.

"As we bring health back to her, then we bring back to our communities," Puniwai said.

Noelani Puniwai, wearing a red hat, teaches a course at Puuhuluhulu University called "Climate Change" on July 27, while students gather in a circle on the hardened lava.Michelle Broder Van Dyke / for NBC News

The connection between the University of Hawaii, whose goal is to be a “Hawaiian place of learning,” and Mauna Kea is complicated, creating some conflict with the professors who are involved with the protest and Puuhuluhulu, according to Puniwai.

Since 1968, the University of Hawaii has been leasing the land at the summit of Mauna Kea. The area is on “crown lands,” land that belonged to the Hawaiian kingdom before it was overthrown in 1893 and is now managed by the state with the intended purpose of benefiting Hawaiians. The crown lands are still debated, as many Hawaiian groups believe they were illegally stolen. The university has been accused several times over the years of mismanaging the land, including in the ‘90s when the Sierra Club filed a complaint about the trash from the observatories.

Puniwai said teaching at Puuhuluhulu is a way to show she doesn’t condone her employer’s actions and to show her support for the protest.

The teaching experience at Puuhuluhulu — where classes are more like “an exchange” between student and teacher — feel very different from the traditional university setting, Puniwai said.

“I can have a role in having discussions with them, helping them understand different issues, and they can help enlighten me in different ways,” she said.

Jimmy Nani'ole, a kupuna who taught last Saturday at Puuhuluhulu University, 10 days after being arrested.Michelle Broder Van Dyke / for NBC News

Jimmy Naniʻole, one of 38 revered elders or kupuna who were arrested on July 17 for blocking construction equipment from going up to the summit of Mauna Kea, taught a class on July 27 tiled "Ka manao o ka wa ma mua,” which refers to the thought of time past.

“That kind of understanding I don't think people are willing to spend much time talking about,” Naniʻole said. “It seems very abstract.”

Naniʻole said in Hawaiian culture there are two types of questions. The first, “ninau,” is “a question that has an answer.”

“Most of our academic experiences, content and curriculum are in that kind of understanding,” he said.

He said he was really interested in the second term, “ui,” which is “the question that really has no answer, but is a quest.”

An ahu, a small structure that has been built as a place to put lei and other offerings, is seen at the protest site along Saddle Road (also known as Daniel K Inouye Highway) with Mauna Kea in the background.Michelle Broder Van Dyke / for NBC News

Baker, who voiced Maui in the Hawaiian language version of Disney’s Moana, will start a master of fine arts Hawaiian theater program at the University of Hawaii this fall. He said he saw the protest site as a model for Hawaiian self-determination.

“This is really just the impetus, the very beginning,” Baker said. “When I look at this, I think this is nation-building.”

As for Ah Mook Sang, she’s hoping to keep the spirit of Puuhuluhulu alive and maybe see it expand to the other islands, where there’s already interest in forming branches of the community-led school.