CANNON BALL, N.D. — On a blustery day when new snow blanketed the hard prairies of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard boarded a plane to Washington, D.C., where she was scheduled to vote on bills related to pay for injured veterans and investment rules for small businesses.
By most accounts, Gabbard’s visit to North Dakota had been a success.
The Hawaii congresswoman arrived Saturday as part of a contingent of military veterans who vowed to act as human shields for protesters fighting the Dakota Access Pipeline because it threatened the reservation’s water supply. Her timing was immaculate because on Sunday the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced it would halt the project while alternative routes are considered.
The one blemish came during an event in a field about two miles from the Standing Rock protest camp as Gabbard addressed dozens of veterans about the importance of fighting for the tribe’s cultural rights and access to clean water.
As she finished, a Native American veteran called out from the crowd. He wanted her to address an indigenous struggle that has been playing out in her own backyard — the proposed construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope atop Mauna Kea, the state’s tallest mountain and a place some Native Hawaiians consider sacred.
“We cannot forget our brothers and sisters in Hawaii,” the man said.
Like the Dakota Access Pipeline, the battle over the TMT has resulted in large-scale protests over environmental impacts and indigenous people’s rights that garnered international headlines. Demonstrators occupied land and erected barricades to stop construction. Some were arrested.
Gabbard had not yet taken a public stance on the TMT. But in that moment she was put on the spot.
“The people there have stood strongly and spoken for the land,” Gabbard said. “That issue, it looks like, has resolved thanks to the position and the stands that they’ve taken.”
Her response didn’t please a Native Hawaiian in the audience who has emerged as a prominent figure in the Standing Rock protest.
“No,” boomed Andre Perez, interrupting Gabbard. “Mauna Kea is not resolved.”
Perez, an Air Force veteran, told the crowd that he was one of many Native Hawaiian demonstrators who was arrested on Mauna Kea last year. He noted the project is the subject of an ongoing contested case hearing before a judge appointed by the Hawaii Board of Land and Natural Resources and that the telescope could still be built.
“It’s not official yet,” Perez said. “We’re still struggling to protect Mauna Kea. Let’s not lose sight of that.”
Gabbard agreed with Perez. But she also noted that the TMT International Observatory Board of Governors is seeking a backup location outside of the U.S. In October, the board announced the Canary Islands of Spain would be the alternative site should Hawaii decide not to issue permits for the project.
Perez told Civil Beat after his encounter with Gabbard that it was important to confront the congresswoman, especially during such a high-profile event that was being covered by many media outlets.
“I couldn’t bite my tongue,” he said. “She’s coming here to support the Lakota, the Standing Rock Sioux. She’s coming here to help with their water. The irony and contradiction would be that we have major water struggles going on with East Maui. We have burial issues. We have sacred sites protection.”
Gabbard has been an outspoken opponent of the Dakota Access Pipeline in recent weeks, saying that the project threatens the drinking water of the Standing Rock Sioux and did not fully consider the impacts to culturally sensitive sites.
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On Thursday, she took the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives to urge President Barack Obama to halt construction of the pipeline.
“I understand that she wants to try to use her political status to try and help this issue, and that’s great, I respect that and I appreciate that,” Perez said. “But it will not look good to the people of Hawaii if she doesn’t take the proactive approach that she’s taking here for important indigenous issues in Hawaii, because she’s a representative there.”
Gabbard responded to Perez’s comments while walking to her car after the veterans event. Her next stop was the Oceti Sakowin Camp, where many of the Standing Rock protesters had pitched tents and teepees to settle in to block the pipeline.
The congresswoman told Civil Beat that she’s aware of the concerns of those who protested on Mauna Kea, and that she wanted to bring that insight with her when she came to the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. But she also said she wanted to understand how the protesters here might help her address the concerns of Native Hawaiians in the islands.
She acknowledged that she misspoke when addressing the veterans.
“I wasn’t trying to say that the issue has been resolved, but it is working its way there,” Gabbard said. “And the impact that people like (Perez) and others have made has been great.”
Gabbard said she would do what she could to ensure that Hawaiian voices are heard. Ever since U.S. Sen. Dan Akaka retired in 2012, no new member of Hawaii’s federal delegation has been of Native Hawaiian descent.
Recent studies suggest there are more than a half-million people in the U.S. who identify as Native Hawaiian, although many of them are of mixed ethnicities. Nearly 300,000 of them live in Hawaii — about 21 percent of the state’s population of about 1.4 million.
On Monday night, Gabbard clarified her position on the TMT. In a statement, she reflected on her first visit to Mauna Kea as a child, saying it was an uplifting and enlightening experience for her, even though she was alarmed at all the buildings, many of them telescopes, that had already been constructed there.
“I am personally opposed to building yet another telescope on Mauna Kea, but the question of whether we support or oppose TMT is too simplistic,” Gabbard said in the statement. “It’s a much bigger and more complex question — what lessons must be learned from the past in Mauna Kea’s desecration, and what is the pono path forward?”
She noted not all Native Hawaiians oppose the project. In fact, there are some who passionately support building it despite the concerns of protesters. She said both sides should be heard.
“As we discuss the use of crown land, our responsibility is to ensure that the process is open, transparent, and embraced by our Native Hawaiian community,” she stated.