The Fight for Mauna Kea

An artist's rendering of Polynesians finding the Hawaiian chain.

An artist’s rendering of Polynesians finding the Hawaiian chain.

Native Hawaiians, in historical context, aren’t necessarily native to the island chain. It is figured that around 1 CE is when Polynesian settlers began to populate the islands; and approximately 1200 years later, Tahitian settlers grew into the Native Hawaiian population that we can identify today. But after over 500 years of isolation, the native peoples that had found their home nestled amongst the majestic volcanoes would find themselves conquered by one single ruler: Captain James Cook of Great Britain.

This little doucher is Captain James Cook, if you didn't already guess that.

This little doucher is Captain James Cook, if you didn’t already guess that.

And despite being small in size, the Native Hawaiians are a formidable political entity that has established themselves as the protectors of Hawaii’s original culture and values. Their beliefs are a complex, multi-fragmented system that manifests itself in the form of the high gods, Kū, Kāne, Lono, and Konaloa, many lesser gods called kupua, and familial guardian spirits that protect each Hawaiian family. It was the belief that the Hawaiian royalty, or kahuna, acted as the link to the gods until the upheaval of the monarchy in the 1800s. Mauna Kea is considered one of the most, if not the most, sacred site to the Hawaiian people; it is considered to be the home of many Hawaiian deities, a place that encompasses the feeling of being at oneness with the world. This oneness is essential to their beliefs. And Mauna Kea, or “The White Mountain” is considered the place where the Sky Father, Wakēa, and the Earth Mother, Papahānaumoku were married and created the Hawaiian Islands.

A sacred glacial cinder cone, one of many atop Mauna Kea.

A sacred glacial cinder cone, one of many atop Mauna Kea.

But this invasion caused a complete upheaval of traditional Hawaiian lifestyle; lush rainforests and valleys were converted into American plantation style farmlands, which caused an influx of workers from China and Japan, as well a rapid increase in white settlers to the islands. These white settlers were primarily protestant ministers, who quickly attempted to eradicate traditional Hawaiian activities and practices, such as the hula, and surfing. The assimilation of Native Hawaiians began in 1837 with the western education of Hawaiian royals, less than 30 years after King Kamehameha united the islands under one royal family. Soon, the independent islands would be conquered after attempts at sovereignty under white rule; and the territorial period for the islands began. While Hawaiian practices had become restricted and lessened through conversion, it wasn’t until Hawaii became annexed by the United States that the native Hawaiian language, cultural practices, and religion were considered illegal; and their culture almost completely eradicated.

The dichotomy of the lush jungle mountain and the farmland below it is a product of the sugar plantation era. That building is one of the last standing sugar plantation building on Kauai.

The dichotomy of the lush jungle mountain and the farmland below it is a product of the sugar plantation era. That building is one of the last standing sugar plantation building on Kauai.

Hawaiian culture experienced a revival in the 1960s, after nearly a decade of statehood. As a result, pressure to apologize for the desecration of their history began to build as a grassroots movement to reestablish Hawaiian culture grew. So in 1993, President Bill Clinton apologized on behalf of the people of the United States for the political coup de tat of the Kingdom of Hawaii, and the stripping of human rights of the Native Hawaiians. But the political upheaval of the Kingdom of Hawaii continues to be a political debate to this day as some Native Hawaiians are protesting for sovereignty.

Protestors flock to Mauna Kea holding the Hawaiian state flag to prevent the building of the TMT.

Protestors flock to Mauna Kea holding the Hawaiian state flag to prevent the building of the TMT.

Today, Native Hawaiians continue to fight for their rights in a multitude of ways, but particularly through the protests of the Thirty Meter Telescope: an Extremely Large Telescope, or ELT, that is set to built atop Mauna Kea by 2024. The Mauna Kea Observatories, which consist of 13 observatories, all owned by a multitude of countries, have caused astounding astronomical observations. Mauna Kea’s dry, alpine climate and stable winds make it a great place of astronomical ground-based observation. But what sets Mauna Kea apart is its lack of light pollution; a top the highest peak in the Hawaiian chain, in a very isolated part of the Pacific Ocean, Mauna Kea is the greatest spot on earth for ground-based observation.

But Mauna Kea is considered the home of the gods to the native Hawaiians. The Thirty Meter Telescope would be a 5 acres, 18 story complex atop what has already been destroyed for 13 other observatories, some of which could be considered out of date for the technology that has evolved since the building of observatories began in the 1960s. And with the legacy of colonialism destroying what was considered to be a world recognized political power (complete with passports), Native Hawaiians are even more desperate to protect what little sacred spots are left after decades of their culture being destroyed. And not only would a sacred heritage be destroyed, there are several environmental impacts as well.

An artist's rendering of the Thirty Meter Telescope.

An artist’s rendering of the Thirty Meter Telescope.

The TMT would require dozens of more roads to be built up and atop Mauna Kea, which would disturb the native fauna and flora that reside on the mountain, such as the Nene Goose, and the Silversword plant. And part of the Hawaiian religion is a oneness with all things, which includes a special protective element towards the environment. But legally, the TMT could still be built; it meets all environmental requirements, will be the first telescope atop Mauna Kea to be considered a no-waste facility, and is not within view of designated sacred sites (the cinder cones atop the mountain are considered to house the gods). At any moment, the Thirty Meter Telescope could begin its construction, despite the Mauna Kea Observatories promise to take in the “scientific, environmental, and cultural aspects” of Mauna Kea.

Protestors flock to Mauna Kea holding the Hawaiian state flag to prevent the building of the TMT.

In reading this article, there are things you need to consider. The Thirty Meter Telescope would be the most powerful telescope ever built behind the Hubble Telescope due to its enormous size and perfectly strategic location atop Mauna Kea. The scientific possibilities of this telescope are astounding, and almost incomprehensible at this point in time. But after centuries of having their culture and livelihood destroyed by outsiders, the Native Hawaiians are not wrong to protest its building. It would have not only cultural impacts by essentially cutting their cord that attaches them to the gods, but also huge environmental impacts for Mauna Kea’s wildlife and aquifers beneath the mountain. They protest the building, not the science. The TMT’s construction is set to begin this month.

If you wish to donate to either side of the argument here are links that allow you to do so:

Mauna Kea Legal Defense Fund: http://kahea.org/donate/mauna-kea-legal-defense-fund

Thirty Meter Telescope: https://www.facebook.com/TMTHawaii/

One thought on “The Fight for Mauna Kea

  1. This is an interesting blog post to me because I’ve recently become interested in native populations and their rights and how the modernization of a large portion of the world can affect these populations. After reading this article, I can see why this is a topic of debate however I side more with he natives of Hawaii seeing as the construction is of cultural value.

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