MAUNA KEA, HAWAII (HawaiiNewsNow) - An 'ahu or altar that was built along the Mauna Kea summit road has been bulldozed by a Mauna Kea Support Services (MKSS) employee. MKSS is a service organization that operates under the direction of the Office of Mauna Kea Management, but officials say the employee was not specifically authorized or asked to remove the structure.
Officials say the employee bulldozed the 'ahu to gain access to a pile of rocks and gravel needed to shore up a potentially eroding road following heavy rainfall on the mountain sometime before August 25, though they don't have an exact date.
"This is blatant destruction of a religious artifact, of really a shrine -- a temple. To me, not only is it insensitive -- it's a hate crime," said Lakea Trask, one of a handful of Aloha Aina advocates who has spent the last 173 days on Mauna Kea in protest of the Thirty Meter Telescope project.
The stone altar was erected by protestors who say they're standing in protection of the mountain as a sacred Native Hawaiian place.
They say they discovered the 'ahu was bulldozed on Sunday when they went up to pray.
"Now we can't even pray. Everybody else can pray in this land, but we cannot pray as kanaka. That's not right, brah. This is wrong and whoever did this is going to answer for this," said JoJo Henderson in a video posted by Na'au News Now to Facebook on Sunday.
"They dismantled our altar without the right protocol, without even having a cultural person there to walk them through it the right way -- they just grabbed the bulldozer and tossed it off to the side. So yeah, it's very hurtful," Henderson told Hawaii News Now.
The 'ahu was built off the road along a wide shoulder area on June 24 -- the same day more than 700 people gathered to prevent TMT crews from reaching their construction zone.
"The ahu Ka Uakoko once stood here and it represented the resurgence and the rebirth and the strengthening of our culture and our religion and our spirituality and our sovereignty," Pueo McGuire said in the Na'au News Now clip.
Two other 'ahu were also constructed that day, however they were removed because their placement on the roadway obstructed a lane of traffic. A group who calls themselves Aloha Aina advocates voluntarily removed the 'ahu when they were given the choice to take it down themselves or have it bulldozed. At that time advocates say they were told the third 'ahu would be allowed to remain because it did not prohibit access.
University of Hawaii officials say the MKSS employee didn't violate any rules. They reiterated no structure is allowed on Department of Land and Natural Resources' conservation district property without the necessary permits.
However, members of the Kahu Ku Mauna advisory board, which was established by the Mauna Kea Comprehensive Plan, say they are supposed to be consulted on all Hawaiian cultural matters affecting the area under UH's management.
"There's cultural protocols that need to be put into effect. There's administrative protocols and they're not following those either. Everytime the chancellor or the president of the university goes out into the community and say that Hawaiian culture 'means something. It is very important. It is significant'. It obviously is not," said Tiffnie Kakalia, the Kahu Ku Mauna Vice Chair.
Kakalia says this incident is just the latest in a string of failures by the the Office of Maunakea Management and UH to seek advisement from Kahu Ku Mauna.
"The fact of the matter is the Hawaiian community is not being heard and not being valued, although it is being said that we are," said Kakalia.
UH officials say in hindsight they would have preferred the situation be handled differently.
As for the employee, officials confirm he still has his job -- though it's unclear if he faces any disciplinary action.