As a caravan of cars drove down Mauna Kea the first week of major protests on the mountain, Michael Aina lifted his hand and threw a shaka to his friends who were watching him and other observatory employees evacuate.

Aina is the infrastructure supervisor and deputy summit superintendent at Keck Observatory and one of more than two dozen employees who left the summit after activists set up a camp on the mountain to protest the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope.

He’s also a former mixed martial arts fighter who grew up on the lava fields of Hawaii Island as part of a big Native Hawaiian family.

The ongoing protests against the Thirty Meter Telescope pit an international consortium of funders and their supporters against thousands of Native Hawaiian activists and their allies who believe the project would desecrate a sacred mountain.

Michael Aina leads a group of technicians at Keck Observatory. More than half of his team are locals born and raised in Hawaii, he says. Courtesy of Michael Aina

That also leaves people like Aina, who live and work on more than a dozen existing Mauna Kea observatories, caught in the middle.

Their evacuation means that many aren’t able to work or must busy themselves with data analysis instead of data collection. They’re the core of Hawaii’s astronomy industry that has been criticized by some as an extension of American colonization of the Hawaiian islands.

But many observatory workers are also part of Hawaii Island’s community. Some were born and raised in Hawaii or are Native Hawaiian. For them, the TMT controversy evokes complicated feelings. There’s the frustration about not being able to work, but also a sympathy and understanding about where the activists are coming from.

Rita Morris, who works as a night operator on Subaru Telescope, feels torn. The sacredness of Mauna Kea is valid, she says. She also loves astronomy and says when it comes to the TMT debate, she ends up somewhere in the middle. Like many observatory staffers, she’s optimistic the conflict will eventually resolve.

“It’s hard for me to imagine that there’s not a solution somewhere where we can both take care of the mountain. I don’t know what that is,” she says. “But it seems like we have a common goal and it should be possible.”

Mixed Feelings

Last week, supporters of the project held a pro-TMT rally at the Hawaii State Capitol to share why they believe the telescope belongs on Mauna Kea. The telescope is expected to allow astronomers to peer back some 13 billion years in time to shortly after the Big Bang, determine whether life exists on planets outside the solar system and better understand fundamental concepts like gravity.

Aaron Do, a graduate student in astronomy at the University of Hawaii Manoa, joined the pro-TMT protest with a sign that said, “It’s kind of complicated, let’s talk.”

Aaron Do is an a graduate student in astronomy who says the TMT issue is complicated. Courtesy of Aaron Do

Do was born and raised on Oahu and his family has been here for generations. So he understands the state has a bad track record of managing Mauna Kea and why so many people are upset about the TMT.

“It’s embarrassing. The state has done wrong. That’s just a fact,” Do says, referring to both the state’s management of the mountain prior to 1998 and what he sees as the state’s poor handling of the ongoing protests. “Whether we can do right by the Native Hawaiian population is the question.”

During the pro-TMT rally, Do crossed the street to talk to protesters who were holding a counter-protest. When he brought up how the state is decommissioning some telescopes, Do says some activists were skeptical whether that’s actually going to happen.

“I think one of the keys for negotiating between the different parties is the ability to trust the word of the other and that’s not really there right now,” he says.

He feels like something has shifted in Hawaii — both sides are extremely polarized and less willing to enter into dialogue with one another.

“It doesn’t feel very much like Hawaii when I was growing up here,” he says.

The interruption in data collection has practical consequences for Do; he might have to extend his graduate program depending on how long the road blockage lasts.

Supporters of the Thirty Meter Telescope, gather for a rally outside the Hawaii State Capitol in Honolulu on Thursday, July 25, 2019. Supporters said the giant telescope planned for Hawaii's tallest mountain will enhance humanity's knowledge of the universe and bring quality, high-paying jobs, as protesters blocked construction for a second week. (AP Photo/Audrey McAvoy)
Supporters of the Thirty Meter Telescope rallied outside the Hawaii State Capitol in Honolulu last week. They said the giant telescope will enhance humanity’s knowledge of the universe and bring quality, high-paying jobs. AP/Audrey McAvoy

Part of the reason he supports the TMT is because a Honolulu Star-Advertiser poll in 2018 found most Native Hawaiians support it. But he knows the survey included just 78 Hawaiians and wishes there were better metrics about who supports the TMT or not.

“If the polls indicated any other result, I would re-evaluate my stance,” Do says.

Small Island

While Do crossed the street in Honolulu to hear the concerns of TMT opponents, many observatory staffers don’t have to try to encounter alternative viewpoints. That’s just part of living on Hawaii Island. It’s nicknamed the Big Island, but with just about 180,000 people, it feels like a small town.

Mary Beth Young, who does administrative work for the UKRIT Observatory, sometimes talks about the conflict with Mauna Kea demonstrators who are on her paddling team.

She thinks the issue is nuanced and says claiming the protesters are anti-science is just as dangerous as claiming astronomers don’t care about malama aina, or taking care of the land.

“It’s layered,” she said of her feelings about the conflict. “I’m sad that it had to get this point to have this conversation about how to repair years and years of damage to Native Hawaiians.”

Circle of Supporters opposed to TMT form a large circle to chant and sing.
Opponents of the Thirty Meter Telescope have blocked the start of construction for more than two weeks. Meanwhile, work on the other telescopes at Mauna Kea has been shut down. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

Aina was visiting his auntie’s house in Puna recently when he saw four of his extended family members making signs in support of the protests on Mauna Kea.

“Hey grab a paintbrush!” one of them joked. They knew he works at the telescope and wouldn’t join them. But he also understands what they’re fighting for. “This means a lot to them,” he says.

At the same time, Aina wants the TMT to be built. His job on Mauna Kea allows him to make a good living and afford to live near his extended family. Keck even provides a subsidy that lets him send his kids to private schools. If it weren’t for his job, Aina thinks he’d be living on Oahu where there are more opportunities or be one of the thousands of Hawaiians who move to the mainland.

“Growing up here in the Big Island, career opportunities are hard to come by,” he says. “I’d like to see our keiki and next generation have that same opportunity.”

That’s similar to how Kanoa Withington feels. He’s an engineer at the Canada-France-Telescope on Mauna Kea who grew up in Waimea on Hawaii Island. He’s not native, but his family has been in Hawaii since the time of the Hawaiian Kingdom.

“I currently live five minutes from where I was born and am able to take care of my aging parents,” he said. “I never thought it would be possible.”

Like Aina, Withington thinks the activists’ position is legitimate even though he is personally supportive of astronomy on Mauna Kea. His family and friends are split among the activists and observatory staffers.

“Every day I’m exposed to and interact with both sides of that story line,” he says. “I’m very closely connected to the interests and the values of both the protesters and the observatories but I don’t think they are the opposite side of the conflict. I feel very emotional and supportive of both sides.”

Or as Young puts it: “We are all part of this community and that’s why it’s so layered for us.”

Material from The Associated Press was included in this article.

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