The Fight For Mauna Kea Is A Fight Against Colonial Science

| Resist!

Above Photo: Demonstrators 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)

The protests by Native Hawaiians against the Thirty Meter Telescope are a cry for respect for indigenous autonomy.

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 stand.”

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.”


    The oldest science is that of indigenous people throughout history who have realized that Mother Nature will tell them, if they listen, everything they need to know to live as human beings should live.

  • David Eberhardt

    which volcano will this be on? there are already several telescopes atop Mauna Loa- no where have i seen the rationale for building one on the southern Kea
    there does seem to b a knee jerk defense of “the old ways” when modern science (forget abt colonialism) has given us so much- as a scientific Marxist- i am opposed to the old or any religions- superstitions that have led to battle after useless battle- indeed to human sacrifice
    “mother” nature? a shark devours a seal- cool
    respect for the elders? fine
    how about addressing the shads of grey

  • David Eberhardt

    doubtful- talk to drought victims of the sahel

  • David Eberhardt

    is the “oldest science” automatically the best? the most reverent? too much bs in the name of religion (and I am a Dorothy Day non violent militant leftist)


    I take your point. Natural disasters are real. But 1) our science doesn’t seem to have gone very far in solving that one (speaking as a Northern Californian not far from the former town of Paradise)! 2) We are assured by spiritual experts that such will not be the case when we are truly and fully living rightly. I know, definitely a matter of faith, requiring several pages to make acceptable even just as a rational hypothesis.

    I like the feel of the idea that simply paying attention to Nature could be called “the oldest science”. But there’s nothing wrong with “the new science”; all true science has always consisted of rational thought about demonstrably true premises, and expanding the bubble of our awareness of how it really is with things can only be helpful (it’s now absolutely essential).

    And regarding religion; without a doubt, bs has never been spread more thickly anywhere. BUT…beneath all that lies, in all our great religions, spiritual gold. You have to dig for it but it’s there and boy, do we need it now!

  • David Eberhardt

    GOOD POINTS- NO where have i seen why they want to build on Mauana Kea rather than Muana Loa where there are already several telescopes bringing back wonderful discoveries- as to the new scence- brings us the nuclear weapons- the old religions and superstions are charming (a have tried ahuasca- did nothing for me)- and as a member of the Catholic left can dig liberation theology, zen and sufi- i was brot up in the church, my father and brother ministers and i am descended from the mormon Prophet Joseph Smith-


    I’m not knowledgeable about the technicalities but I too wonder if Mauna Loa would be an acceptable alternative. At the very least, I’d recommend genuine, informed respect for the Hawai’ian Kanaka Maoli culture, to which we did exactly what we did to the Indian cultures. We’re all in this together; surely we can reach agreement on our common interest (starting now with simple survival) if we’ll just chill and give it a try.

    Powerful psychedelics have their place; they can take us further down the road and help us see where we’re going. But the effect is temporary; we have to use it to see how well we’re living; how consciously and effectively we’re moving forward in our daily life; expanding the old bubble!

    I’ve never seen a better motto than the Theosophists’: “There is no religion higher than Truth.”

  • chetdude

    Think the genocide of the Native-American People’s who were living on the continent when Columbus “discovered” them.

    The same thing has happened here after Cook “discovered” the Hawai’ian islands…”The native population succumbed to disease brought by the Europeans (particularly smallpox), declining from 300,000 in the 1770s over 60,000 in the 1850s to 24,000 in 1920″.

    I am a life-long technologist and great fan of astronomy (and a Marxist, Non-Theist) and believe me, there has to be a way around this that finally respects Native Hawai’ians, their culture and their HOMELAND while still allowing for scientific exploration. For instance, 9 sites were considered for this monstrosity of an installation, why use Mauna Kea?

    I can give you a clue (grounded in Marxist thought). Here in Hawai’i as it is in the rest of the capitalist world, when in doubt about why something is happening, “Follow the money”. The Hawai’ain power structure, politicians, etc. are as corrupted by money and power as anywhere else. So maybe the PTB figured that hell, there aren’t that many Hawai’ians left to put up a fuss, path of “lowest cost” and least resistance.

  • chetdude

    The telescopes, including a few slated for removal now that they are allegedly at the end of their useful life are ALL on Mauna a Wākea (Mauna Kea) not Mauna Loa.

    There are NO telescopes on the ACTIVE volcano Mauna Loa, the southern volcano that I live on…

  • chetdude

    Mauna Loa is still an active volcano. We also get pretty decent earthquakes once in a while in the southern part of the island because of that — not good for “seeing”…

    Nor would a vent opening with subsequent lava flow…

    And it’s not so much about the telescope as it is another example of running roughshod over Native People because their culture is in the way…in their Homeland…

  • David Eberhardt

    i stand corrected- i visited the telescopes already on the (northern most?) mtn i thot was mauna loa- so this wld b another one right? on mauna kea- have to get out my map of the big island

  • David Eberhardt

    thanx Chet- my cousin, Bob Mac k lived in Hilo- straighten me out- they are proposing this telescope with the others then? on the northern? most volcano (where the others already are) called Mauna ? I think of the Big Island often- fondly- truly a special place- maybe send my ashes to Haleakala on Maui
    “First Peoples” an good documentary dvd.
    I support The Spark (Trotsky) in the U S- Lutte Ouvriere in France. Just got back from their wonderful yearly festival. We’re running Workers Party candidates.

  • David Eberhardt

    wait a minute- the coverage of this has been so poor- there were already telescopes on mauna kea- providing useful info- WERE THEY PROTESTED?? is this then a NEW movement???what gives??????????????

  • Jon

    David, Yes, there were protests, but only in recent years has the mass consciousness and determination risen to this level, as it did recently with Puerto Rico. Many parallels in the history of these two island nations. This effort is a sub set of the ongoing national liberation struggle in Hawai’i to regain full independent sovereignty.

  • Jon

    First of all The mountains are Mauna Kea(white mountain) and Mauna Loa (long mountain). The 13 existing telescopes are on Mauna Kea already, for which the University is paid the sum of $1 per year in lease, and without the consultation, much less consent, of the Hawaiian population.

  • David Eberhardt

    thanx- am beginning to understand-as a fan of astronomy (not astrology) it occurs to me that reparations could mean back pay for leasing- involving more native Hawaians in the oversight and approval of everything Hawaian, including star gazing (see Gil Scott Heron ) “Whiteys on the moon rap. In that capitalism rules Hawaii, that needs to change- I support Unions and a Working Party- as here in Michigan and Maryland. What is the protest position on astronomy? (we have Hubble here in Baltimore- a fabulous organization).

  • chetdude

    They are trying to build the TMT on Mauna Kea — the largest of the 5 volcanoes that make up the Big Island of Hawai’i — where there are 13 other telescopes.

    Manua = mountain.

    However, this new one would seriously dwarf the sprinkling of smaller installations already up there. I’ve been up there and although they are a slap in the face of Natives, they aren’t the massive presence that the TMT would be. Think of it as the TMT dropping a CITY on top of the mountain next to the existing village…a decision making “process” that Native Hawai’ians were again excluded from participating in.

  • David Eberhardt