The construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea represents one of the greatest quests for knowledge in the history of mankind. Arguments that this project constitutes a grievous cultural and religious injury to Mauna Kea seem to fly in the face of historical practices by Hawaiians.

Yes, Mauna Kea is sacred. It is sacred for the honor and opportunity it provides us. Yes, Mauna Kea warrants the highest level of cultural sensitivity, but it should be a cultural sensitivity that respects and celebrates exploration of the universe and that is totally consistent with the historical record of Hawaiians and their search for knowledge.

Most puzzling to me is the contradiction of the Hawaiian spiritual and religious devotion to our ancestral history and genealogy. When we are presented with the opportunity to install and look through a portal to the universe where someday we might see where our ancestors came from, is our response: Not in my back yard?

ONE TIME ONLY PUBLISHING RIGHTS - Herb Kane's painting, the Navigator on Observatory

The “Navigator on the Observatory,” a work of the artist-historian and writer Herb Kane, highlights the importance of reading the stars to find our way.

Courtesy of Deon Kane, Trustee, Herb K. Kane LLC

My own understanding of the relationship between Hawaiian spiritual beliefs and the search for knowledge is that the two were symbiotic, especially when we look at how they seem to have played out over a period of hundreds of years.

The search for knowledge has always been fundamental to Hawaiian society. For centuries, the native intellectual pursuit of understanding the natural world was driven forward at the highest levels of Hawaiian society. The application of a remarkable body of knowledge about the natural world — which was acquired over centuries of observation, cognitive retention and application — shaped the development of Hawaiian society from the earliest days of discovery and settlement between the years 450 and 1300.

As Hawaiians’ knowledge of the natural world grew, they began to experiment with altering and reshaping large areas of natural landscapes into a quilted system of interlocking land uses that flowed from mountain to sea.

Around 1300, when two-way voyaging between Hawaii and other parts of the South Pacific mysteriously ceased, Hawaii entered a period of total isolation from the rest of the world. This isolation lasted for nearly 500 years, until the arrival of Captain Cook in 1778.

During this period, unfettered by outside influence, Hawaiian intellectual development soared. Hawaiians began to shape their own unique geo-cultural identity as a native society. Structurally very complicated governance evolved, as did cultural, religious and social development systems unmatched by any other Pacific society. The learning systems and the building of a knowledge base in many domains were rigorously attended to and very disciplined.

As Hawaiians’ knowledge of the natural world grew, they began to experiment with altering and reshaping large areas of natural landscapes into a quilted system of interlocking land uses that flowed from mountain to sea. They turned mountainsides into terraced food production systems for managing taro and other crops.

They diverted natural streams from mountains to the sea and created elaborate gravity-flow irrigation systems that fed every part of the valley-shaped habitats called ahupua’a that cradled the population. The ahupua’a production system ran from the top of the valleys to the outer edges of the reef providing for the needs of everyone from chiefs to commoners.

Today, Hawaiian genius is known in many fields. In marine engineering, it reshaped miles of coastline on every island to build large fishpond complexes for sea products from dozens of species. It offered an astounding display of biological science, utilizing concepts such as photosynthesis that were applied to manage submerged plant and algae growth, not to mention numerous varieties of fish, crustaceans and limpids.

Digging into mountainsides to create rock quarries to produce an array of stone tools and weapons also required Hawaiians to alter natural landscapes. These quarries were commonly found on all of the major Hawaiian Islands, but by far the largest and most complex in all of Polynesia was on Mauna Kea.

On Mauna Kea, they built a quarry complex where they made the adze, a hand pick, as well as other tools. The complex covered 7.5 square miles extending from the 8,600-feet altitude level to an elevation of 13,000 feet. Most of the quarry complex is located on a broad summit plateau encircling the entire mountain at 11,000 feet to 12,000 feet.

Alterations of the natural environment, mountain and sea were a common management practice throughout the islands and they occurred in every chiefly jurisdiction.

Overcoming Modern Shortcomings

There is little doubt about the dismal record of the modern management of Mauna Kea since the first telescope lease was issued in 1968.

So I welcomed Gov. David Ige’s affirmation that “we have in many ways failed the mountain.” And I especially welcome the governor’s subsequent — and substantive — call to action as sincere and achievable.

If we can hold our anguish and frustration, and commit to the long-term reduction of inappropriate activity — commercial, recreational, and industrial — the mountain will one day be returned to a state of reverence.

For one, he formally suggests to the University of Hawaii that the TMT be the last telescope installed on the mountain. He also advocates the formal adoption of a binding decommissioning plan for as many telescopes as possible, with one to be removed this year, thereby shrinking the overall footprint of the telescope complexes.

Gov. Ige also suggested that UH restart the environmental impact study process prior to any decision on a lease extension. This would: include a full cultural impact statement; impose access rules that significantly limit and condition non-cultural access to the mountain; require anyone going up the mountain to receive cultural training in the cultural aspects of the mountain; and return all lands not specific to astronomy to the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources jurisdiction.

If we can hold our anguish and frustration, and commit to the long-term reduction of inappropriate activity — commercial, recreational, and industrial — the mountain will one day be returned to a state of reverence. Until then, the TMT must still recover from failed leadership from the state, the university and the private-sector tenants of Mauna Kea.

Mauna Kea, the Public Land Trust

It is worth remembering that Mauna Kea is part of the 1.8 million acre public land trust that was ceded to the state of Hawaii in the Hawaii State Admissions Act as a condition of statehood.

That act includes a complex sentence that is worth reading — and perhaps re-reading — for people engaged in this topic. It says these properties should be held in trust for five purposes so that “such lands and the income therefrom, shall be held by said State as a public trust for the support of the public schools and other public educational institutions, for the betterment of the conditions of native Hawaiians, as defined in the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act, 1920, as amended, for the development of farm and home ownership on as widespread a basis as possible for the making of public improvements, and for the provision of lands for public use.”

Pending judicial intervention relating to Maui’s Haleakala telescope, which might affect Mauna Kea, the state has a trust responsibility to all the citizens of the state of Hawaii regarding the management of Mauna Kea.

This means decisions about the TMT on Mauna Kea should be for all of the people of Hawaii to accept or reject. Translated into daily governance, this means that in the end, the question will be whether the rule of law will prevail on behalf of all of the people of Hawaii.

A TMT Temple?

Given the debate over the TMT, it is ironic that the telescope may end up being the most culturally sensitive one of them all. The people behind it persevered through a seven-year planning and permitting process and met all the requirements of federal and state law. They continue their outreach to embrace legitimate cultural issues, but not a request to leave the mountain.

Much knowledge of the stars came from centuries of sitting on mountaintops observing and memorizing star paths. For Polynesians, the centuries spent studying the stars and building sky maps that provided the navigational knowledge to explore and discover many specks of land over one-third of the earth’s surface is a singular distinguishing characteristic that may be unmatched by any other society on earth. All of this was accomplished long before Magellan ventured into the Pacific.

This is all part of why there is little reason to think our ancestors would have brushed aside the TMT. Their quest for knowledge about the stars was too important to them. The truth is that no one knows for sure what they would or wouldn’t feel about the TMT if they were here now. For all we know, they might have been in favor of building a temple — as they often did for important purposes — so they could place the TMT on it.

Find reader-generated stories about the TMT and Mauna Kea on our Connections page. And you can continue the discussion; click the red pencil to write your own commentary.

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.