The long-standing overtly contentious face off between Native Hawaiians and the University of Hawaii’s aggressive advocacy of maximizing Mauna Kea as a premier site for astronomical observatories is heading into its most serious period of conflict.

Time is running out for any diplomatic resolution to the culture versus science impasse as construction begins for a new $1.3 billion, 18-story, Thirty Meter Telescope covering 9 acres of mountain top, adding significantly to the critical mass of the 13 telescopes that are already there.

The legal and procedural windows of dialogue attempting to resolve the issues are for the most part shutting down.

Thirty Meter Telescope Mauna Kea top view

An artists’ depiction of the Thirty Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea as seen from above.

The State Land Board had signed off on a notice to proceed with construction on March 6 and now is apparently ignoring a few last-ditch legal challenges. As of this writing, undeterred, and with increasing commitment, opposition to the project has escalated to civil disobedience by protestors led by Kealoha Pisciotta, leader of the organization Mauna Kea Anaina Hou.

She is quoted as saying: “We are not giving up, and we’re standing for what we believe in.”

The protestors, in growing numbers, are intent on slowing or halting all construction-related traffic attempting to get to the construction site and police are threatening arrests. Protestors are now beginning to organize on the UH Manoa campus. The project is at a flash point.

To understand why this is so important to Hawaiians like Kealoha Pisciotta we need to understand the history as to how we got here.

Mauna Kea when measured from the ocean bottom is over 33,000 feet high — taller than Mount Everest. It is considered one of the world’s most important and in-demand sites for astronomical observation. The mountain is classified as state conservation land managed by the State Department of Land and Natural Resources.

In 1968 the department issued a 65-year lease to the University of Hawaii Institute of Astronomy for all conservation land above 9,200 feet to clear the way for the first telescope built that same year. That lease was recently renewed for another 65 years after clearing a number of third-party legal challenges brought by Hawaiians and environmentalists.

That first telescope in 1968 triggered a mini-assault on the mountain and there are now 13 telescope complexes operated by 11 countries generating revenues in the millions of dollars. UH pays the state $1 a year for the land lease. UH then sub-leases to the observatories for $1 a year.

Then the observatories sell telescope viewing time. The average viewing time rate I’m aware of was $1 per second. Suffice it to say that the monetary value of Mauna Kea viewing time is astronomical. The value of Mauna Kea to the University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy’s global standing cannot be measured.

It seems to me the basis of the conflict is not a matter of either party being right or wrong. It’s about belief systems. It’s about how the parties talk to each other.

At the other end of the spectrum stand the Hawaiians for whom Mauna Kea has immeasurable cultural value. The mountain represents the zenith of Hawaiians ancestral ties to creation itself. The upper regions house the highest ranking spiritual spaces accommodating Hawaiian deities such as Wakea (Sky Father) and Papa (Earth Mother), Na Akua (divine deities), Na ‘Aumakua (divine ancestors). There are burial grounds of high ranking chiefs and priests. The mountain is regarded with great reverence where cultural and religious practices are still performed. The degree of passion and devotion to Mauna Kea as a culturally sacred place cannot be measured.

Mauna Kea Thirty Meter Telescope protest

Protestors are trying to stop the UH from building a large telescope on Mauna Kea on the Big Island.

I would also note that Hawaiians are joined by ecological and environmental watchdog constituencies with natural resource management concerns about stewardship issues in the state’s management of the geo-cultural landscape of plants, native birds, rare insects, historic sites, and so forth.

So, how does one bridge the apex when science slams head on into culture?

It seems to me the basis of the conflict is not a matter of either party being right or wrong. It’s about belief systems. It’s about how the parties talk to each other.

So far, I believe both sides have tried to be respectful of the other but neither has been able to reach across the table with any degree of breakthrough communication. So although there has been no apparent lack of dialogue, it seems the dialogue occurs without understanding.

I struggle with the irony that the search for knowledge is so fundamental to Hawaiian culture. That to our ancestors science and culture seemed symbiotic. The genius of the culture, in fact, lay in its absolute devotion to understanding the natural world and pressing the boundaries of how nature works.

Hawaiians knowledge of the heavens seems particularly profound as a human achievement. Their accomplishments in non-instrument navigation based on their intimate knowledge of the stars learned over hundreds of years of sitting on mountain tops – star gazing – and making mental maps of how stars moved from east to west, and, most remarkably, how the rising and setting points of the stars shifted as the world turned on its axis.

Of all the stakeholders in the Mauna Kea controversy, the biggest disappointment has been the state of Hawaii.

Surely, our pre-contact ancestors would have eagerly embraced every opportunity to access the kind of technology offered by these telescopes as a means of expanding the knowledge base. It seems imperative that we find a way to culturally integrate the growth of science-based celestial knowledge of the universe into our Hawaiian spiritual beliefs of Mauna Kea as fundamental to the growth of ourselves as a people in our centuries old pursuit of native wisdom. I have to believe this in my heart.

From the academic community of university administrators, scientists and astronomers, I sense a certain unstated academic arrogance. I don’t believe the arrogance as being intentionally disrespectful. But, I do think the protesting Hawaiians are viewed through a lens of intellectual snobbery.

To those I would note that the native people of the Pacific, in open ocean voyaging canoes, without sextant, compass, jib sail, or stern post rudder, sailed and completely explored one-third of the earth’s surface, by the stars, hundreds of years before the Vikings dared leave sight of landfall, or Magellan made his way into the Pacific. Hawaiians and Hawaiian culture are not strangers to science.

An expensive, congressionally supported attempt to bridge the gap between the two sides gave rise to the Hilo-based ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center, a cultural science museum and planetarium which is intended to bring the Hawaiian community and astronomers together to discuss and mitigate their differences. While ‘Imiloa has been an educational boon for Hilo, from a political perspective, it seems to have fallen short of its diplomatic objective of building a bridge between the two camps.

Of all the stakeholders in the Mauna Kea controversy, the biggest disappointment has been the state of Hawaii. The state, through its Department of Land and Natural Resources, is the final arbiter of all decisions in the management of the conservation lands of Mauna Kea.

Fundamental to statehood, an abiding trust responsibility between the state of Hawaii and the Hawaiian people was handed over by the federal government. The foundation of that trust responsibility is the management of the 1.8 million acres of ceded lands referred to as the ceded land trust. The trust responsibility is sacrosanct and requires that the state of Hawaii manages these lands in ways that are not culturally inconsistent with Hawaiian customs, traditions, or constitutionally protected native rights.

Mauna Kea is a vital part of the ceded land trust. Over the years, the state has failed in its trust responsibility to Hawaiians in the management of the growth of the observatories on Mauna Kea.

This developing crises will be an interesting test of leadership for the governor, the university, the Department of Land and Natural Resources, and the astronomy community.

It would be an understatement to characterize the situation as jittery. I get the same feeling about the character, commitment, and high stakes nature of this protest movement that I had during the early days of the stop the bombing of Kahoolawe movement. In that case, Native Hawaiians took on the entire military industrial complex of the United States and the rest is history.

About the Author

  • Peter Apo
    Peter Apo is a former trustee of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs and legislator. He is the president of the Peter Apo Company, a cultural tourism consulting company to the visitor industry. He has also been the arts and culture director for Honolulu, the city's director of Waikiki Development and served as special assistant on Hawaiian affairs to Gov. Ben Cayetano.