Amid continued protests over the construction of the Thirty Metre Telescope on Mauna Kea, Haunani Kane suggests scientists can learn from Hawaiian culture
30 July 2019
For over two weeks, kia‘i mauna (Hawaiians and their allies) have been protesting on the access road to the proposed site of the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) on Mauna Kea, a sacred peak on Hawaii Island. If built, the telescope could help us understand the formation of planets and galaxies. But the history of telescopes on Mauna Kea is deeply upsetting.
Mauna Kea is the tallest mountain in the world from its undersea base and an excellent place to make astronomical observations. It is already home to 13 telescopes, however the scientific advances these have achieved have been clouded by neglect of the site’s culture and history.
In Hawaiian tradition, Hawaii Island is the eldest child of sky father Wākea and earth mother Papahānaumoku. Mauna Kea is the umbilical cord that connects Hawaii to the heavens, and connects humans to land.
But despite previous public protests, the Supreme Court of Hawaii ruled in 2018 that construction of the TMT could continue on Mauna Kea. Part of the reasoning behind the ruling was that adding another telescope to the site wouldn’t have much further impact upon the mountain’s natural and cultural resources, due to the degradation already caused by constructing the existing telescopes.
Kia‘i mauna disagree: we see a fourteenth telescope on the site as a further desecration of our land and culture.
This culture isn’t a relic, it is alive today. I am the science director for the Polynesian Voyaging Society, and I have been trained in the ways of my ancestors to use the heavens, oceans and mountains to navigate across the ocean by canoe. Technology can fail at sea, and using our minds and the ancestral teachings to seek an island’s mountain peaks is a better guide than any GPS.
This training has played an important part in the education of Hawaiian scientists like me. Throughout my research into the impacts of sea level rises on Pacific islands, I have needed to collaborate with others and consider multiple perspectives to find my way – just as I have when voyaging by canoe. Surviving at sea requires resilience and compromise, two essential traits in scientific research.
But while I and many scientists of my generation feel our culture informs our research, astronomy on Mauna Kea stands apart as something divorced from the ethos of Hawaii. The best way forward would be to acknowledge there is an important place for culture in the pursuit of knowledge. Scientific efforts must incorporate aloha ‘aina, our love of the land, into their construction projects.
All that is needed is for those in charge of the observatories to value our heritage as much as they do the celestial objects they observe with their telescopes.
Some astronomers have spoken out in support of the kia‘i mauna. But if universities, the state of Hawaii and the kia‘i mauna can’t find a way forward, those behind the TMT should ensure they don’t go on to repeat the mistakes made in Hawaii elsewhere.
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