What’s Peculiar About the Sacredness of Mauna Kea?

Prof. Leslie E. Sponsel

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Some observers, skeptics, and critics seem to think that the Native Hawaiian assertion that Mauna Kea is a sacred mountain is somehow peculiar. In fact, people from many different cultures throughout the world, indigenous and otherwise, consider certain mountains to be sacred, according to Edwin Bernbaum of the Mountain Institute in his classic book Sacred Mountains of the World. A prime example is Mount Kailash in Tibet which is sacred for people from at least four religions, including indigenous Bon, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism. As another example, in the United States of America, Mount Shasta in northern California has long been sacred for the Wintu and several other Native American cultures as well as for people of other backgrounds. The recent PBS television documentary film series, Standing on Sacred Ground, by Christopher McCleod of the Sacred Lands Film Project of the Earth Island Institute, records sacred sites and landscapes of several indigenous cultures in the world, among them the island of Kaho`olawe for Native Hawaiians. Furthermore, for over a century many visitors to Yosemite, Yellowstone, and other national parks have believed that they are sacred places, having had spiritual or mystical experiences during their visits. The PBS documentary films by Ken Burns on The National Parks: America’s Best Idea, throughout the series repeatedly mentions sacredness and spirituality. Therefore, there is nothing whatsoever peculiar about Native Hawaiians who consider Mauna Kea to be a sacred mountain. Actually, the only thing that is really peculiar is the ignorance, prejudice, insensitivity, and disrespect of those who would desecrate Mauna Kea and deny Native Hawaiians their indigenous religion in a nation where the Constitution is supposed to guarantee religious freedom for everyone. Obviously they are ethnocentric and racist, even though this is the 21st century when people should be more enlightened.