Something big and beautiful is happening in Hawaiʻi. Currently, hundreds of Native Hawaiians and allies are camped at the base of Mauna Kea, a mountain located on Moku o Keawe, or Hawaiʻi Island. They are organizing to protect the summit of Mauna Kea from the construction of a proposed Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT).
This project has been in the works for years, and has drawn opposition from Native Hawaiians who object to the environmental and cultural impact of a massive 18-story, five-acre telescope complex on sacred land. In Hawaiian moʻolelo (stories and traditions), Mauna Kea represents the piko (umbilical cord) and thus birthplace of Hawaiʻi island and the Hawaiian people. The summit is associated with a number of important akua (gods and goddesses), and is the site of numerous burials, altars and other spiritually powerful sites.
The opposition to telescope construction on Mauna Kea has a long history,dating to 1968, when the first telescope was built on the mountain. There are currently 13 telescopes already on the summit, several of which are no longer even in use. Many of these were built without proper permits and over community protests and lawsuits expressing concerns about environmental impact — Mauna Kea is the primary aquifer and source of freshwater for the island — and protection of significant cultural sites. There is a clear history of mismanagement of the observatories, including problems with waste disposal and spills.
In 2015, Native Hawaiians and allies halted the TMT project by camping out and blocking the road to construction crews for months, until the Hawaiʻi Supreme Court officially stopped construction in December 2015. After working its way through state courts, the TMT project was recently reissued the required building permits. On July 10, Hawaiʻi Gov. David Ige announced that construction would shortly resume. This sparked the call for Native Hawaiian kiaʻi (a Hawaiian language word meaning protectors, which they prefer to being called “protesters”) to return to Mauna Kea, where over the last week and a half they have created a remarkable puʻuhonua (sanctuary). The Puʻuhonua o Puʻuhuluhulu is an organized society, governed by the principle of kapu aloha, a prohibition against acting without kindness and love towards all. It offers free meals, medical care, and classes on topics related to Hawaiian language, history, environment and more to anyone willing to show up to support the cause.
While what’s happening at Mauna Kea is inspiring to many Native Hawaiians and other Indigenous peoples around the world, proponents of the TMT and mainstream media alike have often represented the struggle simplistically as a fight between science and culture. In such discourse, what is often presumed to be the self-evident good of advances in astronomy for humanity is often pitted against what is portrayed as a minority of Native Hawaiians clinging to outdated and selfish traditions. There are many problems with representing Native Hawaiians’ efforts to protect Mauna Kea in this way, and as a Native Hawaiian scholar who studies the history of science in Hawaiʻi and the larger Pacific, I want to highlight several here.
First, Western science, including astronomy, has always been directly implicated in colonialism in Hawaiʻi and other Pacific Islands. James Cook, the British naval captain who was the first European to set foot in Hawaiʻi, undertook his three Pacific voyages as scientific expeditions, his first voyage commissioned by the Royal Society of London in 1769 to view the transit of the planet Venus from the Pacific to aid in studies of global longitude and navigation. Cook’s presence in many Pacific Islands ushered in devastating diseases and other Western influences that drastically changed Indigenous Pacific worlds.
The rhetoric of scientific advances being good for all humanity rings hollow in the Pacific context due to much more recent histories as well. After World War II, the U.S. and France used their Pacific territories as testing grounds for nuclear weapons. The reasoning the U.S. provided Marshall Islanders as to why they should vacate their home, Bikini Atoll, was that the nuclear tests would be “for the good of mankind.” What was not explained or adequately compensated for was that Bikini Atoll and other test sites would become permanently uninhabitable and that Marshall Islanders would experience thyroid cancers, miscarriages and a number of other deadly health impacts from the testing. So, Indigenous Pacific peoples have many good reasons to be skeptical of promises of a “greater good” — promises which have long served the interests of colonial powers at the direct expense of Indigenous Pacific lives and lands.