Mauna Kea Protests Aren’t New. They’re Part of a Long Fight Against Colonialism.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.