More Than a Fight for the Heavens

U of Hawaii is in conflict with itself as it pursues the controversial
Thirty Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea while also being a leading indigenous
By Colleen Flaherty <>
July 25, 2019

Protesters on Mauna Kea

Protests against the U.S. military’s bombing of the uninhabited but sacred
Hawaiian island Kaho’olawe in the late 1970s led to a Hawaiian renaissance.
And the University of Hawaii system has played a role in that movement,
offering programs in Hawaiian language and Hawaiian studies and otherwise
supporting Native Hawaiians and their culture.

Now Hawaiians are again occupying a sacred space as part of a larger
cultural effort, at the foot of a dormant 14,000-foot volcano, Mauna Kea,
on the Big Island. Protesters have been camped out there for week, halting
the long-delayed construction of the $1.4 billion Thirty Meter Telescope.

But this time, the university’s path forward is less obvious, as faculty
members and students are divided on the project.

“We strive to be one of the leading indigenous universities in the country,
and many of the most ardent opponents of TMT have been faculty and
students, so this has been extremely challenging for us,” said Dan
Meisenzahl, university spokesperson. “Higher education is about the pursuit
of knowledge, and this would be an amazing tool for advancement in the
field of astronomy.”

That said, “again, we’re committed to be one of the leading indigenous
universities in the country,” he added. “I really don’t know what’s going
to happen.”

Among the planned telescope's longtime opponents is Jonathan Osorio, dean
of the Hawaiʻinuiākea School of Hawaiian Knowledge at Hawaii, and a native
islander who was born in Mauna Kea’s “malu,” or shadow-protection area.
Osorio said this week that he and fellow protesters “do not object to
telescopes. We object to them on Mauna Kea, and we have 13 of them on our
mountain anyway. That is enough.”

*To the Mountaintop *

After a decade of legal challenges, plans for the telescope on Hawaii’s Big
Island were supposed to proceed to actual construction this month. But many
Native Hawaiians and their allies moved the fight against the telescope
from the courts to the streets -- namely Mauna Kea's access road.

The protesters' roadblock has the project at a standstill. There have been
arrests but it's unclear if anyone in Hawaii has the will to force everyone
to leave. The latest official statement
the telescope came on July 10, when Hawaii governor David Ige, a Democrat,
and the Thirty Meter Telescope International Observatory announced that
construction would start five days later.

“After being given all the necessary clearances by the State of Hawaii and
respectfully reaching out to the community, we are ready to begin work on
this important and historic project,” Henry Yang, chair of the
observatory’s Board of Governors, said at the time. “We have learned much
over the last 10-plus years on the unique importance of Mauna Kea to all,
and we remain committed to being good stewards on the mountain and
inclusive of the Hawaiian community.”

He added, “Hawaii is a special place that has long pioneered and honored
the art and science of astronomy and navigation. We are deeply committed to
integrating science and culture on Mauna Kea and in Hawaii, and to
enriching educational opportunities and the local economy.”

Only one or two places on earth -- maybe none -- rival Mauna Kea mountain’s
conditions for astronomical research: the enormous volcano slopes gently,
curbing turbulence from Pacific trade winds. It’s surrounded by thousands
of miles of flat waters, isolated from the light interference of major
cities and typically shrouded in clouds at its lower elevations. And the
air at the summit is extremely dry, increasing air transparency at infrared
and submillimeter wavelengths.

But the mountain isn’t revered just for its scientific value. Mauna Kea,
whose summit is said to be the realm of the Hawaiian gods, is also a sacred
site. Historically, only Hawaiian royalty and priests were permitted to
ascend its peak or visit Lake Waiau there. Poli’ahu, Hawaii’s most
beautiful goddess, is still said to live on Mauna Kea. And Hawaiians have
long visited for cultural and religious reasons.

With some friction, spirituality and science -- along with tourism, which
primarily benefits the once tsunami-ravaged city of Hilo -- have managed to
coexist atop Mauna Kea for decades. There are already the 13 telescopes
Osorio referenced, on land managed by the university. Maunakea
Observatories publish more research papers annually than even the European
Southern Observatory’s facilities in Chile or the Hubble Space Telescope.

Still, as part of a state plan for Mauna Kea, five of those 13 telescopes
-- including one belonging to the University of Hawaii at Hilo -- have been
or may be decommissioned in the near term. And there are no plans to build
additional telescopes atop the mountain, save one: the TMT.

The TMT is one of a new class of giant telescopes that are unprecedented in
sensitivity. The project’s board selected Mauna Kea as the site in 2009,
after a five-year global search for somewhere exceptionally dry, stable and
cool. And the telescope will be a feat of engineering, with a 30-meter
primary mirror. When it's built, wherever it's built, it might help
scientists find out what dark matter and dark energy are, and when the
first galaxies formed and how. It might even provide clues as to whether
there's life elsewhere in the universe.

The telescope is a joint development of the California Institute of
Technology, the University of California system and the governments of
Canada, China, India and Japan. But under an agreement with the telescope,
the University of Hawaii will get up to 10 percent of the coveted viewing

Brent Tully, a professor at the university’s Institute for Astronomy in
Honolulu, said Mauna Kea is simply “unrivaled as the best place north of
the equator for ground-based observations.” Places in Chile are comparable,
but they access the southern skies.

Mauna Kea is “the planet's gift to humanity as a place to observe the
heavens,” Tully said, describing himself as a “heavy user” of the
facilities already in place. The access road demonstration has shut down
the existing observatories but Tully's work hasn't been affected so far.

*Beyond Science and the Sacred*

Of that and related protests, Tully said that Hawaiians “have a legitimate
grievance with the loss of their independence as a sovereign nation,”
dating back to 1893. And it’s “very sad that a joint endeavor by many
peoples to expand our human awareness of our place in the universe has
become embroiled in the sovereignty issue.”

While many students have spoken out against the telescope project, some
have spoken up in favor. Olivia Murray, an undergraduate at Hawaii who was
born and raised in Hilo, said that she’s already benefited from the
economic opportunities the telescope brings to the Big Island. TMT has
donated millions to the THINK Fund for academic and community engagement --
think robotics competitions and science fairs -- and, in Murray’s case, the
Akamai internship program. She’s working at the Gemini Observatory in Hilo
this year and last year worked at the TMT project office in California.

“Without TMT's continued financial support, many of these programs could
not continue,” she said.

Tully mentioned sovereignty and Murray, economics. But Osorio, the dean,
said that most of the debate has been framed as science versus the sacred.
In reality, he said, there are a constellation of concerns: economic,
environmental and those pertaining to racism and “consultation and consent”
of Native people.

“I really object when people cynically employ the argument that it is all
one sacredness to justify a project that offends so many people for so many
reasons,” he said. “The biggest problem with the TMT is that more than a
decade ago, a number of state institutions decided that the telescope
should be built and really brooked no opposition from anyone.”

Then, Osorio said, when Hawaiians' resentment grew, proponents “seized on
the notion of this shared reverence to suggest that TMT opponents are being
unreasonable. But we are not.” It’s “mahaʻoi,” or an unacceptably
aggressive intrusion, to require that “we accept the astronomers' reverence
for science as a condition for having them honor ours,” Osorio continued.
“Should we travel to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum and
insist on a permanent exhibit of Native Hawaiian practices and their
relationship to the study of the heavens?”

In any case, he said, “This is not about sacredness for the proponents of
the TMT -- unless they really believe that somehow the rejection of this
latest and very large project somehow projects a primitiveness and
backwardness among our residents that embarrasses them and complicates
their ability to extract more monetary value from new construction and

Hawaiians’ protests have attracted the support of many across academe, who
see the TMT -- in the words of geneticist Keolu Fox of UC San Diego and
physicist Chandra Prescod-Weinstein of the University of New Hampshire --
as colonial science.

“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,” they wrote
<> in *The
Nation*. “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.”

Hulali Kau, a writer and advocate working in Native Hawaiian and
environmental law, said, "To anyone that continues to try to frame TMT as a
science versus culture argument, I would say that this struggle over the
future of Mauna Kea is actually about how we manage resources and align our
laws and values of Hawaii to connect a past where the state has subjected
its indigenous people to continued mismanagement of it lands with its
uncertain future.”

Among many concerns, including the university’s past management of the
observation space, Kau said she worries that the TMT will include two 5,000
gallon tanks installed two stories below ground level for chemical and
human waste.

Mauna Kea, a conservation district, is home to the largest aquifer in
Hawaii, she said. “There are still questions as to the environmental

Kau noted that the university was previously embroiled in an indigenous
space dispute, when it attempted to patent three strains of taro, or
“kalo,” a popular food source. It finally dropped the patents several years
later, in 2006.

Other institutions are implicated in telescope debate. There are petitions
<> to
divest Canada’s research funding from the telescope, for example. In
response to such calls, Vivek Goel, vice president of research and
innovation and strategic initiatives at the University of Toronto, released
a statement
that the institution “does not condone the use of police force in
furthering its research objectives.” Goel said he’d conveyed those views
through the Association of Canadian Universities for Research in Astronomy.

“We know through our own Canadian experience that a commitment to truth and
reconciliation impels us to consult and engage with indigenous communities
and to work collaboratively towards change,” he added. “We must work to
uphold those principles as we engage with indigenous communities beyond our
borders as well as within them.”

Noelani Goodyear-Kaopua, associate professor of political science at
Hawaii, chained herself to a cattle guard during the first day of protests
last week, in preparation for any engagement with law enforcement.

She said that “in no framework of ethical research is it acceptable to
arrest dozens of people to set up research infrastructure and conduct
research. Peaceful coexistence does not involve calling out police forces
from multiple islands, tactical teams and the National Guard.”

And yet, she said, that is what the university, state and TMT partners “are
supporting at this moment.”