Polynesians were among the world’s greatest explorers.  By mastering the science of celestial navigation, our ancestors were able to explore and colonize the world’s largest ocean at a time when most European vessels dared not venture beyond sight of land.

This is an extraordinary achievement which has cemented Polynesian culture’s place in world history beyond all comparison to any contributions made by their religious/superstitious beliefs.

Ancient Hawaiian religious beliefs were not nearly as impressive from a historical viewpoint as our ancestor’s real world application of the science of astronomy; not by a long shot. Every culture has superstitious beliefs, but not every culture discovered America and brought back sweet potatoes in the First Millennium. Not every culture conquered the vast Pacific Ocean.

It was science, not the irrational fear of pagan deities and inanimate objects, which brought Polynesians to Hawaii.

Mauna Kea Observatories Find Possible Habitable Planet

Observatories on Mauna Kea provide scientists with a nearly unparalleled scientific viewing platform.

The Kapu system represented the absolute authority the aliʻi had over the people, including the power over life and death. Using this religion as a form of mind control, the aliʻi and the priestly class were able to trick the commoners into accepting their rule as legitimate since “mana” granted semi-divine status to mere mortals.

Of course, the ali’i used this system to their own personal benefit and this absolute political power was rife with abuse. Revolts were extremely uncommon, and when they did occur, the old ali’i was simply replaced by a new one. Their brutal treatment of makaʻāinana under this system is well documented, and like the class systems of other cultures, was used as a form of control to ensure that power always remained with the inbred noble caste.

The aliʻi continued their endless feudal wars for centuries until one man — Kamehameha The Great — finally won this Game of Thrones by quickly adopting the science and technology of gunpowder. Readily accepting the rapid changes being made to Hawaiian society by western contact, Kamehameha gladly used western technology to his benefit while simultaneously refusing to abolish the class system which granted him legitimacy and brought him to power in the first place.

Today we have a new generation of Hawaiians who insist on resurrecting the old gods and superstitious beliefs which were used by the elites of Hawaiian society to oppress and subjugate the common people. They claim to represent the wishes of our ancestors, but who exactly are they speaking for?

There is no evidence, historical or otherwise, to suggest that our ancestors would have opposed the construction of a device that would have allowed them to see stars that they have never seen before. Indeed, there is no historical evidence to suggest that our ancestors were opposed to ANY new technology of ANY kind.

I’ve scoured the historical record and I have been unable to find any instances where Hawaiians were against science and technology en masse. This new movement appears to be an entirely novel concept, but where is it coming from?

Neo-luddism and new age spiritualism, imported directly from California and the mainland, have combined with certain aspects of Hawaiian culture to form a brand new religion/culture. This new anti-science movement is opposed to all kinds of beneficial technologies, from telescopes to genetic engineering and even vaccines.

Many Hawaiians, economically disadvantaged and lacking a proper education, fall victim to these kinds of ideologies because they offer the promise of “ancient knowledge” as a solution to modern problems. This highly idealized version of history is extremely popular with many Hawaiians. But this neo-luddite view is ahistorical and ignores what life was really like before contemporary history and what life was really like under the kapu system for the vast majority of kanaka maoli.

Neo-luddism and new age spiritualism, imported directly from California and the mainland, have combined with certain aspects of Hawaiian culture to form a brand new religion/culture.

Hawaiians, like all people, are a diverse group of individuals. There is no “Hawaiian view” on the Thirty Meter Telescope, any more than there is a “haole view” on the issue or a “Maui view.” The protesters atop Mauna Kea represent one particular aspect of Hawaiian culture while entirely ignoring the rich tradition of scientific exploration which brought Polynesians here in the first place. There are some Hawaiians who identify with BOTH our scientific heritage AND the spiritual aspect of our culture, but our views are often shouted down by the extremely vocal protesters.

It is for this reason that I feel compelled to speak up in defiance of the threats of social isolation leveled at me by the protesters. Some have claimed that I am not Hawaiian because I do not agree with their interpretations of what our ancestors would have wanted.  Some have even threatened me with death for daring to speak out against their religion, in true kapu fashion.

Others claim that I am “out of touch” with Hawaiian culture, and should “consult my kupuna.” I have, and my kupuna taught me to think independently, logically, and never to blindly follow the crowd.

It is time we had a serious discussion about how we are going to move forward.  This telescope IS going to be built regardless, and many of the protesters need to be mentally prepared for that once the novelty of the protests die down and reality starts to sink in.

We need to find a balance between respecting Mauna Kea and the spirit of our ancestor’s insatiable desire to explore the vast, distant worlds that lie beyond their shores.  It is time to resurrect that ancient curiosity, awe, and thirst for knowledge of what exists beyond the horizon, beyond the deep dark ocean of space, and into the unknown.

To see the unseen, to know the unknown, to discover new worlds, that is the spirit of Polynesia. Our ancestors found a way for science and religion to coexist, and so can we.

Community Voices aims to encourage broad discussion on many topics of community interest. It’s kind of a cross between Letters to the Editor and op-eds. This is your space to talk about important issues or interesting people who are making a difference in our world. Columns generally run about 800 words (yes, they can be shorter or longer) and we need a photo of the author and a bio. We welcome video commentary and other multimedia formats. Send to news@civilbeat.com.

About the Author

Featured Video

Conversation With Sacha Pfeiffer