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  • At Home on the Mauna: Ecological Violence and Fantasies of Terra Nullius on Maunakea’s Summit
  • Hi’ilei Julia Hobart (bio)

it was the middle of summer in Hawai‘i, and snow was falling on the summit of Maunakea.1 Screen grabs taken from webcams bolted to the exteriors of the powerful telescopes that stand sentinel up there showed the unseasonal blanket of white that drifted down from the sky on July 17, 2015.2 One view, taken from the vantage of the Canada-France- Hawai‘i telescope, appeared on the Instagram feed managed by @protectmaunakea with a hashtag that read #PoliahuProtectingMaunakea (Figure 1).3 The commenters agreed that the timing seemed purposeful, with one writing, “The Mauna is protecting itself—at least for a while.” These reactions to the snowfall celebrated the fact that freezing conditions had temporarily halted activity and access to the construction site for the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT), which protesters had been occupying for nearly four months.4

Attributing the snow to Poli‘ahu, an important akua (god) of the cold who is known to reside at the top of Maunakea, many Kānaka Maoli recognized the event to be an exercise of her desire to protect the sacred mountain from desecration. The snow and reactions to it importantly signal Kanaka Maoli perspectives on the agential forces of the elements as not just atmosphere, precipitation, and temperature but as intention, ancestor, and spirit. In the context of the TMT controversy and Native Hawaiian resurgence more generally, animacy has emerged as a potent point of resistance that contends with Western colonialism’s effects on land and knowledge formations. In contrast, much of Maunakea’s development, from earliest Western contact to the present day, has been predicated on an idea of its emptiness. This article analyzes how elemental agency takes on particular importance on the summit because it is there that animacy most challenges how modern- day formations of terra nullius have been employed toward capitalist ends in the name of science. Such an argument is not limited, however, to Hawai‘i: the superimposition of Western spatial imaginaries—particularly emptiness—upon Indigenous geographies has been used to justify a number of development projects, from uranium mines and the Nevada nuclear test sites, to the construction of oil pipelines across unceded Native territories. [End Page 30]

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Figure 1.

Snowfall on the summit of Maunakea, July 17, 2015. Screen capture of Instagram post.

Speaking, then, to the fields of Indigenous studies, settler colonial studies, critical science studies, and geography, this article focuses on historical and contemporary narratives of human and nonhuman activity on Maunakea in order to contextualize the logics of scientific and capitalist development on the summit beyond present-day protectorship. Specifically, I pay attention to how its landscape has suffered a process of deanimation across the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, when discourses of absence have systematically produced the Mauna as a place without humans, spirituality, nation, or even atmosphere. I locate this process in three phases: first, in the nineteenth century, when the earliest Western visitors summited the mountain and communicated written accounts of its desolation to Western audiences; second, in the mid-twentieth century, when U.S. military infrastructures increased access to the mountain and consequently facilitated a boom in both leisure and scientific activity, particularly in the form of winter sports framed as tourist novelty and NASA space walk simulations; finally, in the present moment, when the astronomy community and other political and economic beneficiaries have cast Maunakea as a crucial point of access to the galaxy, using the summit as both a place for celestial observation and an ongoing earthly simulation for Mars and the moon. Each of these moments is a plot point on a timeline of cumulative efforts to frame [End Page 31] Maunakea as empty and thus available for occupation by enacting Indigenous erasure through the recasting of place itself.


While snowfall is relatively unusual on Maunakea’s summit in the summer months, the impressive altitude of the dormant volcano produces its characteristically cold and dry conditions year-round. At 32,000 feet from ocean floor to summit, Maunakea is the tallest mountain...


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pp. 30-50
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