Universities are employing indigenous land acknowledgments across the nation in hopes of expressing recognition, honor and awareness about indigenous peoples who -- since time immemorial -- have been (and are still) living on the lands of what is now America. As a Diné who understands, and is continuously learning about, the powerful connection between land/place and people, I am grateful to hear and read these statements. I interpret such efforts as sprinklings of a seed, a planting of consciousness and an indication of what Adrienne Maree Brown calls “collaborative ideations” about the world around us and our connections and responsibilities to them.
But as such statements proliferate at universities across the country, some of those same institutions are disrupting efforts to honor and recognize the relationship between land and indigenous peoples, stifling the growth of the seedling.
For example, my social media feeds are flooded with updates of the powerful Kia’i, the Kanaka Maoli protectors who are safeguarding Mauna Kea, Hawaii. A proposed $1.4 billion telescope, the Thirty Meter Telescope project, is planned for construction atop Mauna Kea, severing the “visceral relationship” between Native Hawaiians and Mauna Kea. And the project is funded and supported by a handful of partners that include some of those same universities that are echoing statements of creating relationships with indigenous communities. For example the University of California, Los Angeles, part of the University of California system, has created content to explore Native American and indigenous affairs resources and terminology, including an indigenous land acknowledgment. Yet the University of California system is listed as a partner for the telescope project.
We must recognize that what is occurring at Mauna Kea is not an isolated new issue. This is a pervasive, continuing structural problem undergirded by what the late Patrick Wolfe refers to as “settler colonialism”: the erasure of indigenous peoples and the constant efforts to occupy and maintain control of indigenous land.
I have been thinking about our work in higher education and ways unjust practices -- specifically in research -- fracture the relationships of people and land by participating in settler colonialism. It is research methodology that makes me pause and wonder what we truly mean when we say we engage in “ethical and moral” research. Where and when do we draw the lines of such responsible research? In this moment, Mauna Kea’s experience is helping me shape this understanding while also posing questions, thoughts and actions to consider.
Does the phrase “ethical and moral” mean militarization to advance research? On July 17, police arrested 33 people, most of them were kūpuna (elders) as they protected Mauna Kea. Several elders were using wheelchairs and canes as they were swept away, some in tears, and locked into police vans. The governor of Hawaii issued a state of emergency, which is a political action historically and currently used in multiple states that disenfranchises and dehumanizes groups of people by stripping away basic rights of life and liberty. In the midst of all of this, the state police are shielding university research while sanctioning and harming precious kūpuna Kia’i, the Kanaka Maoli protectors.
Does “ethical and moral” mean neglecting land and water to advance research? Four state audits have documented and criticized the state and the University of Hawaii's mismanagement of Mauna Kea. In 2015, Governor David Ige said that the state of Hawaii has “not done right by” Mauna Kea, and “in many ways [has] failed the mountain.” In 2017, the Office of Hawaiian Affairs filed a complaint against the University of Hawaii and the state of Hawaii citing issues such as: 1) failure to negotiate sublease terms by allowing 11 of 13 telescopes to not pay rent and 2) failure to create an environment respectful of Mauna Kea’s cultural landscape, including not adequately protecting Native Hawaiian traditional and customary rights and practices. From this vantage point, it seems as researchers are turning their back on the destruction of the land and water that gives us life.
Does “ethical and moral” mean the erasure of indigenous peoples to advance research? Indigenous peoples have been fighting for existence, to be heard, to be understood since settler contact. This fight is not over. Indigenous peoples across the world are advocating for visibility and for the protection of the land and water they are from. And that distinction is at the heart of this fight: a deep connection and relationships to the land and water. As law professor Williamson B. C. Chang stated at a meeting of the University of Hawaii Board of Regents, "It is a relationship, a deep visceral relationship: beyond reason, beyond law, beyond rationality."
Proper consultation and community engagement on matters such as this are incredibly important as articulated in treaty rights, congressional law and state policies. Yet the Kia’i are dismissed as thousands (and growing) gather at the base of Mauna Kea and plea for the halting of the telescope project and the protection of the mountain and generations of people present and in the future. I ask researchers who are eager to see billions of light-years into space, what about seeing and listening to the peoples and places that are right before our eyes?
I am not dismissing the innovation of technology, telescopes or in research. Indigenous peoples are scientists and researchers who have been investigating questions for generations. Rather, I am standing in solidarity with Mauna Kea Kia’i against the continuous destruction of the precious Mauna Kea imposed by the encroachment of industrial development on state-granted, conservation-ceded land. I am standing in solidarity with others in efforts to curtail research practices driven by capitalism, dominance, racism and settler colonization. I am in standing in solidarity with them in their desire to protect the land and waterways -- for all people. And I am looking to universities to stand in solidarity with Mauna Kea and cultivate the seeds of indigenous land acknowledgments that have been planted.
With any planted seed, the subsequent phase of growth is vital. That is the purpose for planting: for unearthing and anticipating evolution, for transformation. In university settings, let’s not neglect the seedlings. The transformation is ripe for nourishing what has been planted. It is a good season to restore and sustain the relationship between land and people.
Universities have an opportunity, especially in research, to engage in ways that support indigenous peoples and the land on which those institutions reside by standing next to indigenous peoples and not policing them, by listening to indigenous peoples and not ignoring their concerns, and by seeing indigenous peoples and affirming their sovereign rights to land/water and futurity. I am calling for research that in an ethical moral and way respects humanity and our precious nahasdzáán (female earth).