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Speaking Past Each Other on Mauna Kea
TMT supporters of all stripes seem almost clueless about the basic argument of the protectors of Mauna Kea that render supporters’ points irrelevant.

About the Author

  • Joel Fischer
    Fischer retired from the University of Hawaii-Manoa in 2009 after 40 years as a professor in the School of Social Work.

I have read virtually every article and letter to the editor published in the Star-Advertiser and elsewhere over the last several months about whether to construct the Thirty Meter Telescope at the summit of Mauna Kea (e.g., “With astronomy so important to Hawaii, respect is vital,” 4/28/2015, “Stopping TMT would be tragic for all Hawaii,” 8/2/15, “TMT debate unfortunately part of larger political drama,” 8/6/15, “Visiting astronomers should meet with TMT ‘protectors,’”8/6/15, etc. ). With only a few — very few — exceptions, commenters have told us some variation of the following:

  • How much respect we should have for the protectors as we build TMT?
  • We should have mediation with the protectors as we build TMT.
  • It would be “tragic” if we were not to build TMT.
  • Wondrous scientific advancements would result from constructing TMT.
  • Constructing TMT honors the great Polynesian explorers.
  • TMT would create many really cool jobs for Hawaii.
  • And bring really cool money, too.
  • Plus really cool educational opportunities, especially on the Big Island.

And so on, ad nauseum. And all of these are the “nice” comments. Many letter writers, sadly, were hostile and rude to the protectors and to the many indigenous and non-indigenous supporters of the protectors.

Mauna Kea Thirty Meter Telescope

An artist’s concept of the Thirty Meter Telescope observatory on Mauna Kea. Supporters promise jobs, money and educational support, but those enticements miss the point of the Mauna Kea Protectors’ argument against construction.

Courtesy TMT International Observatory

I actually agree with most of what the scientific and other supporters of the Thirty Meter Telescope say. Supporters typically present numerous, perfectly rational, virtually impeccable, often scientific arguments about the potential value of TMT. They are probably largely correct about those points.

The question about virtually all of the arguments made by supporters of TMT, however, is, “So what?” TMT supporters of all stripes seem almost clueless about the basic argument of the protectors of Mauna Kea that renders supporters’ points irrelevant.

Let’s start with history. How many supporters of TMT truly understand the deep, deep spiritual and cultural meaning of having their independent nation overthrown by the U.S. government and a handful of greedy businessmen? How many supporters really understand what it means to be survivors of genocide? How many supporters can understand the history of the survivors of the overthrow and the genocide where the language, dance and other cultural expressions of the indigenous people were forbidden by the new masters? How many supporters truly understand what it feels like to be a descendant of the indigenous people of Hawaii nei in which their land is occupied by a military that is completely insensitive to the needs and rights of the indigenous people, that owns some 25 percent of the land of these islands, that has brought great environmental disaster to the land and never completed promised fixes?

Claiming to understand the anguish and frustration of protectors and kanaka maoli and then supporting the construction of TMT is not understanding at all. It is false empathy! In other words, it is doubtful that supporters really feel the anguish, pain and frustration of the kanaka maoli over all these long-term and ongoing indignities. Because that is where the protectors’ most basic argument begins.

Given the lack of understanding by most supporters, it is no wonder that the opposing sides are speaking at cross-purposes.

To Westerners, the idea of “sacred land” may seem almost comical, a throwback. To indigenous peoples, though, it is part of the air they breathe, the traditions and practices they cherish most.

Perhaps even more important than the idea of false empathy is supporters’ basic lack of understanding of the protectors’ core argument about Mauna Kea. It is a simple argument, a very basic one, and it has absolutely nothing to do with any of the points put forward by the supporters. Perhaps the most basic misunderstanding is because the protectors’ argument is not framed in the typical Western way of thinking that underlies virtually everything that supporters usually argue. The argument is this: Mauna Kea is sacred to the indigenous people of Hawaii … period!

It probably comes as a surprise to most supporters, but the protectors’ argument is not completely unique. All over the world, indigenous people, subjected to many of the same abuses of land and soul as the kanaka maoli, are fighting back in well-documented struggles to protect sacred land from profit, development and, yes, sometimes even “science.”

To Westerners, the idea of “sacred land” may seem almost comical, a throwback to a bygone era. To indigenous peoples, though, it is a part of the air they breathe, the land upon which they live, the traditions and practices they cherish most.

So, we have two arguments at cross purposes, one that offers us rational benefits, and one that offers us faith and the hope for justice.

How can the rest of us respond to such strikingly different points of view?

Here is my response, as a haole settler whose 40 years of academic work at UH was focused always on using scientifically-derived evidence to advance my field: The world desperately needs a thirty meter telescope. It promises us incredible scientific advancements. But the world also needs to understand the long history of treatment of indigenous people by settlers and colonists. Here in Hawaii, it means the overthrow of the legitimate kanaka maoli government; the continuing military occupation; the untold number of desecrations committed by the occupiers and settlers, both culturally and environmentally; and the place of this struggle in the context of similar struggles all over the world.

Therefore, I believe that Hawaii and the world would benefit far more, particularly spiritually in magnificent and untold ways, if we understand and accept the passion and craving for justice of kanaka maoli, and give Mauna Kea back to the people.