The Fight for Mauna Kea Is a Fight Against Colonial Science*The protests by
Native Hawaiians against the Thirty Meter Telescope are a cry for respect
for indigenous autonomy.*
By Keolu Fox <> and Chanda
<> Today 7:00 am
[image: Hawaii Protests]
gather to block a road at the base of Mauna Kea on July 15 to protest the
construction of a giant telescope on sacred Native Hawaiian land. (AP Photo
/ Caleb Jones)

Kānaka ʻŌiwi, or Native Hawaiians, have long gazed into the sky to develop
sophisticated knowledge systems about the stars, and have even welcomed
non-Hawaiian communities to join in doing so. In 1874, King Kalākaua
invited British astronomers to observe the transit of Venus; he
dreamed of building
an observatory
on the Big Island, perhaps at a school.

Nearly a century and a half later, the island of Hawai’i is getting a
world-class observatory, but not at the invitation of Native Hawaiians, and
not at a place of their collective choosing. A consortium of several
international universities backed by six countries wants to build a $1.4
billion Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) on Mauna a Wākea, a dormant volcano in
Hawaiʻi that, measured from its base, is the tallest mountain in the world.
This observatory will allow scientists to peer deep into the far reaches of
space and time, perhaps to see galaxy formation as it was just getting
underway. But it will also disturb hallowed ground, a spot of deep
cultural-spiritual resonance as well as ecological sensitivity for Kānaka
ʻŌiwi. Since construction was slated to begin last week, hundreds of Kānaka
ʻŌiwi activists known as *kia’i* (protectors) have assembled at the site,
wrapping themselves in blankets and chaining themselves to cattle guards to
prevent the National Guard from escorting telescope-building materials up
the Mauna Kea access road.

Mauna a Wākea has long been a site of sacred cultural activity for Kānaka
ʻŌiwi, at times serving as a burial ground. The sacredness of the Mauna is
embedded in its Kānaka ʻŌiwi name, which reflects its connection to the
sky: Wākea is the sky father in Kānaka ʻŌiwi cosmology. Despite this
history, scientists from the United States, Europe, and Asia have been
digging up the land since the 1960s to build 13 astronomical
observatories—a desecration, in the eyes of many Kānaka ʻŌiwi, of a sacred
site by people who are also violating indigenous sovereignty. With the TMT,
which will extend 18 stories and be accompanied by a second
21,000-square-foot building, Indigenous Hawaiians have determined they will
not back down, even in the face of arrests, even as the governor has issued
an emergency proclamation.

“We are taking a stand not only to protect our mauna and aina, our land,
who we have a genealogical connection to…,” protector Kaho’okahi Kanuha
told CNN
“We are fighting to protect it because we know if we cannot stop this,
there is not very much we can fight for or protect.… This is our last

As a Kānaka ʻŌiwi geneticist and black Caribbean and American
astrophysicist, we have been watching the last week’s developments with
horror, particularly the arrests of the Kūpuna, or elders. We were both
taught to always respect our elders. We were taught to listen intently and
speak when spoken to. For Kānaka ʻŌiwi, it is a deep-seated value to
respect the Kūpuna. As we witnessed many of the matriarchs and patriarchs
from the Native Hawaiian community putting their bodies on the line to
protect the Mauna, we asked ourselves, “How did we get here? And where do
we go from here?”

In its worst incarnation, the conflict over the TMT has been framed as a
clash between out-of-date spirituality and rigorous, modern science, with
TMT supporters dismissing the Kānaka ʻŌiwi as violently “anti-science”:
stuck in the past, resistant to a superior Western modernity, and putting
that modernity at risk in the process. It’s a frame that was on display as
early as 2015; world-renowned, barrier-breaking astronomer Sandra Faber
famously wrote an e-mail characterizing the protectors across Hawai’i as “a
horde of native Hawaiians who are lying about the impact of the project on
the mountain and who are threatening the safety of TMT personnel.” Faber
ultimately apologized, but the bias of her words and the support they
received has echoed into the present, in the words of others and in the
characterization of the protectors by far too many TMT supporters as ugly
stereotypes of the confused, angry, dishonest Indigenous American.

Beyond their patent offensiveness, such characterizations are as false as
they are unhelpful. “Science and culture have long coexisted in Hawaiʻi,”
Ecohydrologist Aurora Kagana-Viviani wrote
in a recent *Medium* post, in which she traced the ways the scientific
establishment all too often continues to ignore this evident fact. What
have not always coexisted are scientific inquiry and fundamental respect
for the people who come under science’s microscopes—or inhabit the realms
of its telescopes.

Indeed, far from some replay of an ancient clash between tradition and
modernity, this is a battle between the old ways of doing science, which
rely on forceful extraction (whether of natural resources or data), and a
new scientific method, which privileges the dignity and humanity of
Indigenous peoples, including Hawaiians and the black diaspora. It is a
clash between colonial science—the one which, under the guise of progress,
has all too often helped justify conquest and human rights
violations—and a science
that respects indigenous autonomy

If we were to examine each stage of approval in the process of developing
the TMT, it seems painfully obvious that the long legacy of colonialism
played a significant role in determining which stakeholders had a seat at
the table and which ones didn’t. It is clear that the systems of approval
that claim to be inclusive of Kānaka ʻŌiwi perspectives have instead
supported the agendas of universities, politicians, and legislative bodies.
Nor does it seem that very much (if any) feedback from the cultural
knowledge holders of the Kānaka ʻŌiwi community has been taken seriously,
or that any compromise regarding decision-making power was given serious
consideration at any stage of the project.

There is also the basic question of why Native Hawaiians should only have
representation rather than control over these decision-making processes
that shape the future of their sovereign lands. Kānaka ʻŌiwi could
participate only as officials appointed to colonial government
organizations or by pleading in public forums that had no power over the
final decision.

The Kūpuna are the keepers of knowledge in Kānaka ʻŌiwi communities.
Instead of becoming human barricades, shouldn’t they have been included in
conversations about the development and construction of what will become
not only one of the largest telescopes in the world but also the largest
building constructed on the Big Island of Hawaiʻi, built on the most sacred
piece of geography in Native Hawaiian history?

We believe that if Kūpuna were properly included as stakeholders throughout
the development of the TMT plan, fair compromises might have been reached
that would not only have resulted in Hawaiʻi’s remaining a world-class
destination for observational astronomy but also truly supported Hawaiian
culture in the process.

We understand that the past cannot be undone. But the future is unfolding
now. In the last week alone, the Kūpuna have been
arrested—criminalized—along with some younger *kia’i* for trying to protect
a long-sacred space. And the colonial governor, David Ige, has declared a
state of emergency, which allows him to mobilize the National Guard against
the *kia’i*.

We have been among the many scientists
who have called on TMT and the State of Hawaiʻi to refuse to criminalize
those who are protecting the Mauna. This is the most basic respect that
should be shown to the elders. But more must be done. TMT should institute
a moratorium, such as the one put forward by State Senator Kai Kahele
and halt the construction attempts that began on Monday July 15; instead,
the State of Hawaiʻi and a diverse community of Kānaka ʻŌiwi, including the
Kūpuna cultural knowledge holders who are most familiar with the Mauna’s
historical and spiritual significance, should negotiate a process to build
consensus on what should happen next.

The movement we are witnessing today is not new, despite some claims made
by scientists on social media. It has been at least a century in the
making, from the first arrival of colonialism in Hawaiian lands. It is time
for the State of Hawaiʻi to negotiate in good faith with this movement and
for scientists to support a process of justice, reconciliation, and
healing. As protector and University of Hawai’i professor Bryan Kuwada says
“We live in the future. Come join us.”

Keolu Fox <>

Keolu Fox is an Assistant Professor of Biological Anthropology at the
University of California, San Diego and visiting professor in the
Department of Biology at the University of Hawaiʻi, Manoa, both of which
are institutional members of the TMT consortium.

Chanda Prescod-Weinstein

Chanda Prescod-Weinstein is an Assistant Professor of Physics & Astronomy
and Core Faculty in Women’s Studies at the University of New Hampshire and
a Research Affiliate in Science, Technology, and Society Studies at the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology.