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.
Relatedly, Indigenous Pacific Islanders have long been seen as “inferior” to Western civilization and incapable of advancing science. Until at least the 1970s, it was still commonly accepted among Western scholars that Pacific Islanders had populated their islands randomly and without skill through “accidental drift.” Despite the fact that Cook, for example, relied heavily on the cultural, linguistic and geographic knowledge of a Tahitian navigator, Tupaia, Cook has often been singly credited as the intrepid explorer and discoverer of Pacific Islands. In reality, Indigenous Pacific Islanders developed sophisticated practices of long-distance sea voyaging far earlier than Europeans, venturing first from established communities in what is now Papua New Guinea around 1600 B.C.E., and successively creating homes across Melanesia, Micronesia and Polynesia over the next several centuries.
In 1976, the first voyage of the Hōkūleʻa, a traditional double-hulled Polynesian canoe, sailed from Hawaiʻi to Tahiti. This journey spurred the revitalization of canoe building and Indigenous Pacific traditions of navigating the wide Pacific Ocean through knowledge of the stars. This revitalization remains strong today and has helped young Pacific Islanders take pride in their ancestors as skilled explorers and navigators.
To portray Native Hawaiians as anti-science for opposing the TMT project is to replay colonial and racist rhetoric that deems Indigenous Pacific people unintelligent, backwards and uncivilized. Racism against Native Hawaiians and other people of color in Hawaiʻi is often difficult to call out today, for reasons that can also be traced back to Western science.
The idea of Hawaiʻi as a unique racial “melting pot” was created in part through the work of social scientist Romanzo Adams, a founder of the department of sociology at the University of Hawaiʻi in the 1920s. Adams lauded Hawaiʻi’s racial diversity, citing the presence of white Americans, Native Hawaiians, and immigrant communities from across Asia, Puerto Rico and Portugal. To him, “racial mixture” between these communities in Hawaiʻi would soon eliminate race and racism altogether. This ideal, however, was largely predicated on the idea of Native Hawaiians dying out and Asian Americans assimilating into white American norms.
This idea of Hawaiʻi as a place free of racism is obviously absurd but has had surprising staying power. The idea of Hawaiʻi as a tropical vacation destination infused with an always welcoming Hawaiian culture melds with this idea, encouraging the public in and outside of Hawaiʻi to downplay the ways that Native Hawaiians continue to face both individual and structural forms of racism and colonialism in their own home.
The state of Hawaiʻi, eager to promote the tourism industry and other potentially lucrative forms of development like the TMT, often similarly adheres to the ideal of Hawaiʻi as racially harmonious while actually perpetuating racism against Native Hawaiians. On July 19, for example, Governor Ige gave a press conference about the situation at Mauna Kea in which he defended his issuance of an emergency proclamation that grants the state expanded powers to police the kiaʻi. Ige stated that the kiaʻi were endangering themselves and the public, citing reports of drug and alcohol use and inadequate bathroom and trash facilities.
The kiaʻi, as well as many witnesses and reporters at Mauna Kea, have robustly disputed such claims, documenting well-organized facilities from a kitchen to a long row of maintained port-a-potties. Ige has since visited the puʻuhonua himself and softened some of his rhetoric, but it remains important to call out his unsubstantiated characterizations of kiaʻi as racism stemming from a long colonial history of seeing Native Hawaiians as uncivilized and incapable of self-government.
To some extent, various state politicians, including Ige, have begun to acknowledge that Native Hawaiians have valid, longstanding concerns about the impacts of colonialism on generations of our community. But even when recognizing historic injustice, Ige and others also frequently fall into a rhetoric of helplessness about the weight of past wrongs that seemingly could never be undone. Pro-TMT scientists willing to acknowledge the history of colonialism in Hawaiʻi similarly tend to throw up their hands, declaring that contemporary astronomy cannot and should not be held accountable for past injustice.
This is simply untrue. One of the most beautiful things that the kiaʻi on Mauna Kea are proving is that actions can be taken today to heal the legacies and ongoing forms of colonialism and change our future. The vibrant life of the puʻuhonua that continues to develop and respond to the desires and needs of Native Hawaiians and allies at Mauna Kea proves to many of us that we are more than capable of self-government, of producing and teaching meaningful knowledge, of caring for our bodies and our land.
Today’s opposition to the TMT — and the decades-long opposition to how telescopes have been built and managed on Mauna Kea’s summit — is informed by an extensive history of science implicated in colonialism across the Pacific. This helps to explain why this issue is so deeply important to Native Hawaiians. There is one, clear and specific action that the kiaʻi are asking the state, the University of Hawaiʻi and the TMT corporation to take to begin to address past and current scientific and colonial injustice: Do not build the TMT on Mauna Kea. Science and colonialism deeply shape Mauna Kea’s past, but they do not have to determine its future.