Note: This piece was originally published in The Daily of the University of Washington and is republished with permission.
When she was growing up in Hilo, Hawai’i, in the ‘50s, Dr. Val Kalei Kanuha could see Mauna Kea from her house. The Mauna, a mountain located on Hawai’i Island, or the Big Island, is a sacred place for Native Hawaiians across the entire archipelago.
When measured from the ocean’s floor, Mauna Kea is the tallest point on Earth. According to Native Hawaiian religion, the Mauna was created when Wākea, the sky god, formed a union with Papahānaumoku, the Earth Mother. It therefore represents the piko, or umbilical cord, of Native Hawaiians. Families still leave their umbilical cords on the Mauna.
Kanuha left Hawai’i to go to college, but returned home during school breaks. Upon her return, she noticed something odd: a white dot on the Mauna.
“It honestly looked like a zit,” Kanuha said, noting that the Mauna had remained untouched until that point. “It looked odd to me.”
Kanuha didn’t pay much mind. But the zits kept coming. One in 1970, three more in 1979, two more in the ‘80s. Dr. Kanuha quickly learned that the zits were massive telescopes, owned and operated by foreign governments, universities, and organizations. Today, there are a total of 13 telescopes on the mountain.
Since the erection of the first telescope, Native Hawaiians have been fighting against the desecration of Mauna Kea. But the movement gained unprecedented support and attention after the plans of a 14th telescope, the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT), were announced about a decade ago.
Over the summer, resistance reached a tipping point and garnered international attention when the mountain’s protectors, or kia’i, began occupying the Mauna in order to block the TMT’s construction vehicles. After Hawai’i Gov. David Ige issued an emergency proclamation to clear the way, 33 protectors were arrested. The kia’i have been occupying Mauna Kea since July 14, effectively blocking on-site construction of the telescope, with police-protector relations only escalating.
Kanuha — now the assistant dean of diversity, equity, and inclusion at the UW School of Social Work — is not alone in her sadness and outrage regarding the TMT. For her and other faculty members, these feelings are exacerbated by the fact that the UW is involved in the project.
On July 24, 10 days into the kia’i’s occupation of the Mauna, 42 UW faculty members sent a letter to President Ana Mari Cauce, denouncing the university’s affiliation with the project, saying it is “complicit in supporting a project that will desecrate sacred sites, disturb and threaten ecological systems, and undermine Indigenous sovereignty.”
The UW is part of the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA), which is an associate member of the TMT International Observatory’s governing board.
The letter claims that the TMT is a violation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which demands that states “consult and cooperate in good faith with the Indigenous peoples concerned through their own representative institutions in order to obtain their free, prior, and informed consent before adopting and implementing legislative or administrative measures that may affect them.”
Christina Kaululaniku’uwa’a Sun, a graduate student studying public health, caught wind of the drafted faculty letter. Sun, who has been the only Pacific Islander in her program for the last decade, has expressed her opposition of the TMT. She recounted sending the faculty letter off to all of her professors for them to sign. Not all of them did.
“It might be because they think the benefit of being a part of the UW and being part of the consortium that benefits from the TMT outweighs the culture that I’m trying to fight for: Indigenous rights and sovereignty,” Sun said. “It’s a huge slap in the face.”
The construction of the TMT is a difficult subject for Sun, whose family is from Kaua’i. She remembers watching coverage of the conflict over the summer.
“You see elders being carried off the Mauna, and they’re being arrested by their own people,” Sun said. “It’s heartbreaking.”
Astronomy as colonialism
Recent events on Mauna Kea are intense and upsetting, but the TMT is not unlike the rest of Hawai’i’s history. The way Sun sees it, the TMT is just the most recent example of a long history of white colonialism.
Sun described the violent annexation of Hawai’i, during which the federal government, motivated by business interests, imprisoned Queen Liliʻuokalani in her own palace and forced her to give up power. Sun noted that to this day, many people are unaware of that history.
Even before the Kingdom of Hawai’i was taken over, the islands suffered under Christian missionaries and business interests who banned many aspects of Hawaiian culture with the goal of forced assimilation and cultural genocide.
Ariana Cantu, a lecturer at the School of Social Work and a signatory of the faculty letter, described her feelings toward the TMT.
“I feel like we’re in a time where we should know better, yet we continue to perpetuate the same behavior over and over again to continue exercising supreme power and authority over people when we know absolutely there were Native Hawaiians on that land way before us,” Cantu said.
Twelve of the 42 signatories were from the School of Social Work, which, according to Cantu, is not a coincidence, as social work lends itself to this type of activism.
“We run by a code of ethics,” Cantu said, “[which includes] valuing the dignity and worth of the person, of people, and trying to elevate people’s ability to self-determine [and] self-govern.”
Cantu sees the TMT as absolutely an issue of Indigenous sovereignty.
“It reminds me of the Dakota Pipeline, it reminds me of our Duwamish folks who are still fighting for federal recognition,” Cantu said. “We are essentially saying, ‘We see you, but we are going to ignore you.’”
A turning point
Kanuha says that two things make the TMT different from the other 13 telescopes on the Mauna. First is the scope of the TMT.
The TMT is categorized as an ELT: an extremely large telescope. If constructed, the TMT would be 18 stories tall and would disturb almost nine acres. It would be the largest visible-light telescope in the world. It would also require ground drilling to make way for three 5,000-gallon tanks which would store water, domestic waste, and chemical waste, which raises concerns about the environmental impact the TMT would have on Mauna Kea, which hosts important water aquifers for the island.
Kanuha cited past audits of the University of Hawai’i (UH), which manages Mauna Kea and leases out the land. In 1998, the State of Hawai’i’s Office of the Auditor found that the UH’s management was “inadequate to ensure the protection of natural resources” and that the UH “neglected historic preservation, and the cultural value of Mauna Kea was largely unrecognized.”
The report goes on to detail how “trash from construction was cleaned up only after concerns were raised by the public. Old testing equipment constructed in the early years of development has not been removed as required by the lease agreement.”
Sun explained that long before the UH controlled the Mauna, the land was governed by the ali’i, or chiefs, and purposefully remained undeveloped.
“They were all formerly governed by very strict protocols,” Sun said. “That’s not the case anymore. The university now has access to the land and they’re granting control to third parties.”
Kanuha’s second point is that the TMT is the 14th telescope on the Mauna. Many of the other 13 telescopes are not currently in use. Cantu echoed this sentiment.
“There are opportunities to take what exists and share the information that already exists instead of trying to one-up the technology,” Cantu said. “Why are we shying away from that opportunity and instead trying to independently build something new, something larger at the detriment of people who are saying, ‘No thank you, no more.’?”
Cantu also pointed out that the TMT has other locations they could choose. Most notably is the Canary Islands, where the Spanish government has welcomed the telescope, although there has been pushback from environmental activists. Back in August, amid resistance to the telescope, the TMT International Observatory began the permitting process in the Canary Islands.
In response to widespread criticism of construction on Mauna Kea, officials from the TMT issued a statement last August which acknowledged those who oppose the project for cultural or religious reasons, but ultimately deflected responsibility.
“TMT is a bystander in that larger conversation that has been going on for many years. And whether or not TMT is built in Hawai’i will not bring closure to it,” the statement reads.
The TMT International Observatory is a non-profit and has also touted the economic impact the telescope would have on the state of Hawai’i. Its contract with the University of Hawai’i includes an annual million dollars going toward a STEM education program.
Kanuha, however, says she sees through the TMT’s facade of goodwill.
“Nobody talks about astronomy as an industry, because it’s science and it’s education, but it’s absolutely an industry,” Kanuha said. “But it’s not an industry for us.”
Kanuha described a tension between academic research and the “corporatization of science,” saying she has no doubt that at least some of the TMT’s motivations are monetary.
The conflict atop the Mauna has often been characterized as a tension between science and culture. Sun explained that a Westernized culture of STEM informs this misguided interpretation. This culture only validates knowledge that is acquired through specific scientific means and often treats native epistemology as legends and myths rather than legitimate knowledge.
“We have our own ways of generating knowledge,” Sun said. “Food systems for example. There’s a lot of agro-ecological knowledge and practices that were banned; they were forbidden in the last century as missionaries and business interests came onto the island.”
The forced removal of elders from Mauna Kea seems to Sun as just another example of an important knowledge transfer being broken.
“If we don’t have our elders, if we don’t have our knowledge, if we don’t have our culture, if we don’t have our lands, then what do we have to pass on to future generations?” Sun asked.
Regarding STEM culture, Kanuha highlighted the fact that the Mauna’s protectors are not anti-science, saying that Native Hawaiians have already “done their part” in hosting 13 telescopes on Mauna Kea. She also sees an incredible amount of irony in the TMT. Native Hawaiians, she explained, are a people who are more connected to the stars than most. Native Hawaiians are one of the few cultures that can navigate the wide ocean using only the stars.
“Hawaiians can look to the stars without telescopes, and we have always been doing that,” Kanuha said. “We are one of the few cultures that can navigate without any tools, with just ourselves. And you think that you can come and teach us something?”
The UW’s response
After receiving the faculty letter, President Cauce issued a written response, where she stated that the AURA’s “role in the TMT is primarily one of providing scientific guidance,” and that it was unclear whether the AURA can have any impact on the construction of TMT.
Cauce also wrote that “we do not condone the use of violence or force against the Native Hawaiian elders (Kupuna) and their supporters engaged in peaceful demonstration.”
Cauce has promised to reach out to her colleagues from other universities about a “potential response.” In an email, Cauce said she will reach out to her colleagues who are members of the Association of American Universities later this month to gauge whether other university presidents are discussing the TMT. According to TMT media spokesperson Scott Ishikawa, no members of AURA have reached out to the TMT to express concern.
Kanuha says she appreciates Cauce’s condemnation of arrests on the mountain, although she thinks Cauce could have said more. Regardless, she is optimistic about the future of Mauna Kea. When she visited Mauna Kea this summer, she was joined by thousands of other protectors.
“It’s not going to be built,” Kanuha said. “I’m positive. I don’t know how or who is going to stop it, but it is not going to be built.”