What’s at Stake at Mauna Kea?

Diane Aoki
Mar 9 · 8 min read

How where you stand reveals who you are

Photo by Daniel Gregoire on Unsplash

The island that I live on, like all of the Hawaiian Islands, was originally formed from volcanoes. There are five volcanoes here, three considered active and two not. One of these dormant volcanoes is the subject of a major controversy. Mauna Kea, which last erupted 6,000 to 4,000 years ago, is the tallest mountain in the world, if you are counting from the sea floor. Even if you’re not, it’s pretty tall, 4,207.3 miles, about 14,000 feet. Its height as well as other factors such as low humidity and absence of light pollution, make it a desirable location for astronomy.

The latest proposed telescope, called the Thirty-Meter Telescope (TMT), is the subject of the most contentious protest to a development in my memory. In the 70s, there were actions to stop the bombing of Kahoolawe, which were ultimately successful. I recall protests in the 80s and 90s over the H3 freeway on O’ahu. In Kona, before I moved back here, local activists acted to protect a strip of pristine coastline that was being pursued for an exclusive beachfront community. There are many stories of activism in Hawaii. Current events do take a front seat in one’s memory and there is something about this controversy that is different, more significant. Protests in support of the “protectors” have taken place in places outside of Hawaii, such as in Las Vegas, California and Guam. I mean, if superstars Jason Momoa and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson visit the site in support of the protestors, if Janet Jackson refers to it in a concert in Honolulu, that’s pretty impactful, right?

There is something going on. Something in the air. Something like a tipping point. Something bigger than local politics. Something. What is it?

Photo by Author at Site

This is not the first telescope on Mauna Kea. There are currently thirteen telescopes and a history of resistance throughout. But nothing has ever happened on this scale before. In a New York Times article, the current protest is linked to the 2016 and 2017 actions against the Dakota Pipeline. However, they are very different, as described in this Civil Beat piece. Protesters or Protectors, as they prefer to be called, whether they are Native Hawaiian or not, are putting their lives on the line to end the desecration of a sacred place, as in the Dakota Pipeline. There is a big difference though. There, it is about indigenous people standing up to Big Oil and the fossil fuel industry. In the case of Mauna Kea, the enemy is astronomy.

Some people in support of the project are fine with the talking points that it will bring jobs and economic benefits to the island. End of story. But for most people, there are other factors at stake. Both sides put more importance on other factors, such as cultural aspects, to defend their positions.

It is not about being on the side of the Hawaiians or not. There is a schism within the Hawaiian community that resonates with the schism in the community at large. According to a Civil Beat poll, 44% of Hawaiians are in favor, as opposed to 64% of registered voters. Pro-TMT Hawaiian supporters claim that there are more of them but that they are afraid to speak out due to intimidation and online bullying. The policy at the Mauna is to practice “kapu aloha” which would not allow bullying, but online behavior is another creature.

When I first learned that Kalepa Babayan, one of the original navigators on the famous Hawaiian sailing canoe Hokule’a, was a vocal supporter of the TMT, my knee-jerk reaction was to assign his support to the fact that he works for the `Imiloa Astronomy Center, which is a part of the University of Hawaii at Hilo. The University manages the land in question. My rule of thumb is always “follow the money.” The ads featuring Hawaiian woman educators seen repeatedly during the height of the controversy in the summer also made me skeptical of their sincerity. If you have a way to benefit from your position, then you can not be objective about your claim. Though this is a useful rule most of the time, there is more to it than that. For example, Babyan said in a testimony at a public hearing:

“I’m a modern Hawaiian. I believe in my traditions, I believe in my culture, but I think that’s consistent with our progression … to be highly reflective and highly motivated to learn about the world we live in, and so we ally ourselves with the tradition of curiosity and exploration…”

Another Hawaiian, Peter Apo, an elected trustee of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs said in an interview:

“If you look at Hawaiian tradition, the spirituality and commitment to, I guess, quote ‘sacredness’ of what was traditional practices, customary traditional practices, was the opportunity that the ocean, or the land, or the mountain, or the sky provided to improve the quality of life …”

Hawaiian supporters of the telescope claim, as these men do, to be aligned with their “culture,” that their culture holds values such as curiosity and exploration, which is seen in the tradition of long-distance ocean travel by which the Hawaiians first came to these islands. Pro-TMT Hawaiians often quote King Kalākaua as a leader who embraced modernity.

“It will afford me unfeigned satisfaction if my kingdom can add its quota toward the successful accomplishment of the most important astronomical observation of the present century and assist, however humbly, the enlightened nations of the earth in these costly enterprises…” ~ King Kalākaua, September 1874 as quoted in the Pacific Commercial Advertiser, upon arrival of a British expedition of astronomers to Hawaii.

Yet, in their claims that they are culturally consistent, never once do they mention religion or spirituality. On the other hand, this is the most significant claim made by the protectors. According to Hawaiian tradition, the Earth Mother, Papahānaumoku, and the Sky Father, Wākea, created the Islands, with Hawai‘i Island being the first. Mauna Kea is the Mountain of Wākea. This fact alone is enough to be considered sacred. Honolulu magazine has an article that goes into even more evidence of the sacredness inherent at Mauna Kea.

Photo by Steve Halama on Unsplash

The building of the TMT does not affect me personally. I am a fourth generation immigrant, not a native Hawaiian. I don’t have friends or family who will benefit directly by getting a job there. I believe that is the case for most people — both pro and con the TMT. We stand for or against what it represents. And though it may not affect me in a direct way, I am compelled to take a stand because of what it represents to me, which is just as or more important than a direct benefit. Taking a stand is an expression of what I value, who I am, the basis of my walk in the world.

For me, there are two main factors. One, it represents an affirmation of a belief system that is real to me — a belief in the presence of a “godness” — an ineffable certainty about a spiritual entity no matter what you call it. This non-material spirit is everywhere, yes, but some places are more infused than others. I believe this, and this is what the protectors are protecting. When you are there with them on the Mauna, you feel it. You feel it in the mountain, in the camaraderie, and in their reverence to the place itself.

Taken by author at the site

Secondly, it represents an inevitable justifiable response to a history of colonial “taking.” The Hawaiian nation was illegally overthrown and the United States has never been held accountable for it. With the continued taking, there comes a time when enough is enough. There comes a time when the taking has to stop, And even if there is some sort of pay-out, for example, the often-touted STEM education opportunities for students, there comes a time when colonized people become empowered to resist. It may have come generations later. Though they have failed in the legal institutions that allowed the injustices, they continue to seek justice.

Because colonialism in Hawaii is entwined with conversion to Christianity, it is easy to see why the traditional belief system is not considered. The absence of this factor in the TMT supporters’ justifications speaks volumes. It holds no holy water, if you will. The missionaries wiped this out. Yet, the Hawaiian beliefs in the spirits inhabiting the land live on. It is evident at the Mauna.

It is not that I don’t believe in science. In this era of misinformation, propaganda towards a certain agenda, and climate change denial, how can you NOT believe in science? There are important scientific endeavors occurring all over the world. We need to listen to scientists as they warn us about climate change and how to prevent epidemics. We must support them as they try to discover cures to diseases such as cancer and Alzheimers. However, I don’t believe that the supremacy of scientific possibilities is absolute. Case in point, the development of nuclear weapons and the ability to destroy our planet is not something to be lauded. I haven’t been convinced that the research possibilities with the TMT are matters of life and death, as medical ones are. There is much important work to be done in scientific research. I don’t get this one. I don’t see the point. A lot of flash. A phallic imposition.

Earlier, I hinted that the situation at Mauna Kea was part of “something” bigger. I mentioned cultural and religious aspects, and the tension between native religion and science. I included the continuation of colonialism. There is an explosion of political protests across the world, according to Amnesty International. The reasons are varied but with the commonality that they are standing up to the powers that be, the status quo, injustice. I believe this protest is included in this “explosion.”

But there is even more. I save this last “something” for the end. An article in Smithsonian mentioned a conflict between ways of being and knowing. This is the “something” that resonates with me. It is related to a shift in global consciousness. The leaders of this shift are native people protesting worldwide, who are saying enough is enough. There is also a movement of women, a female energy that is rising to end the violence against women, including Mother Earth. This shift includes young people who see that they are inheriting a world much damaged by the current norms. We seek harmony with Mother Earth rather than exploration, conquest, and power over her. The combination of indigenous, youth, and women’s rights movements is proving to be synergistic and hopefully effective. The resistance is strengthening. When you stand for Mauna Kea, you stand for this, you are a part of this. When you stand against it, you are aligning with the status quo, a status quo that is not about equality, preservation and justice, but more about power, exploitation, and destruction.

I stand with the Mauna. I stand with my Mother.

Diane Aoki

Written by

Playwright, essayist, teacher, artist, songwriter, poet. The Creativity Activist. Learn more: https://www.dianeaoki.com

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