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A Decolonial Education Takes Shape at Mauna Kea’s Ecological University

We must fight for the university and for our future in this moment of profound ecological unraveling.

A light snowfall covers Mauna Kea on the Big Island of Hawaii.

Located near Mauna Kea’s summit, Puʻuhonua o Puʻuhuluhulu is a refuge established to protect Mauna Kea, where hundreds have set up a space offering food, shelter and provisions. An abundant place of wind, water and lava, it is also a piko, Hawaii Island’s vital center of convergence sacred for Native Hawaiians (Kanaka Maoli) and supporters like us who stand in solidarity to protect our living environments. A street section protected by kūpuna (elders) opens space for ceremony, song, dance and announcements, while blocking construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope, poised to be the world’s largest.

Mauna Kea’s living history poses a ripe opportunity for educators to address both colonialism and worldmaking that exercises an environmental justice paradigm in the service of abundant, decolonial futures. It also encourages us to rethink the functions of a university, particularly its obligations to serve Indigenous communities by foregrounding experiential environmental knowledge.

As some refer to Mauna Kea as an ecological university, now offering daily classes, Puʻuhonua o Puʻuhuluhulu demonstrates how anticolonial struggles widen opportunities for decolonial education. Throughout, signs for Pu‘uhuluhulu University declare it “an actual place of Native Hawaiian learning.”

“Actual” responds to the University of Hawaii’s purported mission as a “Hawaiian place of learning” while leading the charge to build the Thirty Meter Telescope atop Mauna Kea’s summit in the face of overwhelming opposition. The teachings of the kia‘i (protectors) and the Mauna (mountain) have inevitably reverberated into our classrooms as the semester begins.

The EAducation of Puʻuhuluhulu (“ea” means life, breath, sovereignty) entails a “free school,” part of a movement that includes the survival schools of the American Indian Movement and Mní Wičhóni Nakíčižiŋ Owáyawa, the Defenders of the Water School at Standing Rock. It chimes with bell hooks’s engaged pedagogy and the contributions of Brazilian educator Paulo Freire. Pedagogical practices grounded in Indigenous historical knowledge, futurity and storytelling about the environment center Native experience while shaping bottom-up movements to heal our imperiled world.

For example, a July 31 class taught by Hawaiian kūpuna and activist Walter Ritte focused on “Aloha ‘Āina” (love of the environment that feeds and nourishes). Native Hawaiian scholars Noenoe Silva and Noelani Goodyear-Kaʻōpua refer to aloha ʻāina as the cornerstone of Hawaiian intellectual traditions and the basis of sustainable futurity. The University of Hawaii at Mānoa has declared aloha ‘āina the primary thematic pathway for the WASC Senior College and University Commission reaffirmation of its accreditation process. What does an actual place of Native Hawaiian learning, informed by aloha ‘āina, look like in practice?

Mauna Kea as Teacher

From Puʻuhonua o Puʻuhuluhulu, one feels both small and wholly connected to the universe in the presence of the highest mountain on Earth from the oceanic base to the summit. Mauna Kea spreads across the horizon, peaks capped with snow, often covered with its famous mists. Scholar Iokepa Casumbal-Salazar casts the sacred status of Mauna Kea as an ancestor, portal to the deities, elder sibling, primary source of water, place of spiritual being and reflection for Kanaka Maoli.

The sacredness comes alive through the stories of elders with generational ties to the environment. Over breakfast, Gerald “Uncle Jerry” Wahinekapu, from Kona, shared that he has hunted sheep, goats and pigs in the area with a bow and arrow throughout his life. Whereas it was previously an open hunting ground, these practices became restricted as the number of telescopes on the summit grew.

“I know they want to get rid of the local hunting so that they could build their observatory. I didn’t even realize they have 13 now, I’m still in shock. They end up taking more than they say they’re going to,” Uncle Jerry said. Over time, the invasive animals that hunters had controlled — pigs, sheep and goats — flourished while the regulations posed hardships for families and the number of telescopes continued to grow.

“This is one of our Hawaiian rights: to gather, to hunt and to fish. The state has prevented the Kanakas who have gone down to the ocean. They have restricted us from the ocean and the mountain for gathering to feed our families,” Uncle Jerry’s wife, Sheri Wahinekapu, said. “Now we need this more because of the cost of living here in Hawaii. They’re preventing us from self sustainability, and it’s a very precious right. On top of that, we’re prevented from teaching the younger generation how to throw net because we’re prevented from going where we need to go. Hawaiians were the first to talk about conservation. Now we’re being restricted; we’re being held back.”

Those hardships are part of the reason why Uncle Jerry says he’s proud that younger generations are fighting the construction of the observatory. “When we started, there was nobody listening…. I’m just so proud that our Hawaiians, our young generations are speaking up. The movement that’s going on now is so awesome.”

Such stories represent the power of place-based learning at Mauna Kea, and we will take them back into our classrooms. We will also encourage students to reflect on environments meaningful for them. Such experiential, engaged pedagogies facilitate the development of multiple literacies in the service of environmental justice.

In this vein, University of Hawaii professors are breaking down the confines of what constitutes the classroom itself. Approximately 100 University of Hawaii professors are enabling students to earn credit while living and learning on the Mauna — contributing to University of Hawaii’s mandate as a federally designated Native Hawaiian-serving institution and mission to exemplify a model Indigenous serving institution. This will enable students to make connections that address the roots of our problems in order to forge collective efforts toward environmental justice.

The Emergence of Sustainable, Decolonial Futures

The Thirty Meter Telescope may further restrict access for hunters and other cultural practitioners. Opponents of the world’s largest telescope also highlight the project’s environmental dangers, namely that it emits waste that could very well poison a major watershed system, as the Mauna serves as a water collector. Past issues include the leakage of up to 1,000 gallons of sewage and other chemical spills. Others have pointed to the cozy relationships between technological innovations in astronomy and the U.S. military, the latter being one of the largest polluters on the planet. As a lifegiving force, the Mauna’s devastation would equate to the devastation of an entire way of life.

This conflict further epitomizes the systematic exclusion of Native Hawaiians from land management decisions, shedding light on the limits of existing legal parameters and institutional practices. The governor’s July 17 State of Emergency Proclamation and less spectacular administrative procedures, such as court hearings, have provided legal grounds for violence, particularly the arrest of kūpuna on July 17.

Adding insult to injury, the governor’s attempt to engage in public consultation through a voluntary online survey cannot seriously address the multifaceted experiences of those with longstanding ties to these sacred places, drawing an illusion of democracy at the expense of those on the front lines. This conflict reveals how legislative and judicial procedures are not neutral arbiters of justice. The Thirty Meter Telescope enacts environmental racism: uneven environmental harms adversely impacting the Native Hawaiian community, and restrictions from life-giving resources entangled with the persistent realities of colonialism.

In contrast is the kiaʻi practice of kapu aloha. A commitment to love and compassion without assenting to harm, it enacts Indigenous self-governance to actively create Hawaiian worlds. It also draws from techniques of nonviolent resistance that have effectively challenged asymmetrical relations of rule throughout the world.

Uncle Jerry describes this as a profound development in Kanaka efforts for self-determination: “This movement now with kapu aloha is amazing…. Kapu aloha is key,” he says. “It’s magic.”

The tireless organizing of the kia‘i have created a teachable moment about colonialism, environmental racism and worldmaking for an environmentally just planet. The message of Puʻuhuluhulu University is that in place of top-down colonial rule, Mauna Kea exemplifies the emergence of aloha ʻāina governance: deep, loving, and reciprocal relations with environmental forces and each other to create abundance in our lives. This paradigm brings forth a radically different kind of political, non-extractive life. In this moment of planetary crisis, we need solutions. Aloha ʻāina offers a powerful living, breathing example of sustainability and justice, ea enacted through reflection and action.

We must fight for the university and for our future. In this moment of profound ecological unraveling, all of our lives depend on it.

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