Mauna Kea Protests Aren’t New. They’re Part of a Long Fight Against
[image: A sign sits along side the protest camp against the TMT
construction near the slope of Mauna Kea, taken on August 1, 2015.] A sign
sits along side the protest camp against the TMT construction near the
slope of Mauna Kea, taken on August 1, 2015.Steven Chase
/ flickr
By Maile Arvin <>, Truthout
<> Published July 27, 2019

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

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

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.