A battle for the heavens on Mauna Kea: native Hawaiians protest plans for a massive telescope

By SANDY TOLAN AUG. 15, 2019 3 AM

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Demonstrators opposed to the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea in Hawaii block Mauna Kea Access Road leading to the summit. (Bruce Asato / Honolulu Star-Advertiser )

MAUNA KEA ACCESS ROAD, Hawaii — For astronomers, the clear, dry air of Mauna Kea, the tallest peak in Hawaii, provides the best place in the Northern Hemisphere, and perhaps on Earth, for observing the heavens. It is here, at nearly 14,000 feet, that a consortium led by Caltech and the University of California want to place a massive telescope, 18 stories tall, that would serve as a celestial time machine.

The Thirty Meter Telescope, as it is known, would give astronomers the ability to “peer through space-time to the beginning of the universe 13 billion years ago, all the way back to nearly the hot big bang,” according to UC Santa Cruz astrophysicist and Thirty Meter Telescope board member Michael Bolte.

Native Hawaiians agree that Mauna Kea connects humanity to the universe — as an umbilical cord between Earth and space. The peak at Mauna Kea is the “highest point where land touches the sky — where the two deities, Sky Father and Earth Mother, meet,” said Noe Noe Wong-Wilson, 68 , a retired cultural studies professor and elder in the fight against the telescope. To Native Hawaiians, putting a giant telescope on their sacred mountain is a desecration.

Through years of legal battles and protests, Native Hawaiians and their supporters pledged to stop the telescope project at all cost. On July 15, five days after Gov. David Ige announced that construction on Mauna Kea was imminent, opponents mobilized. They occupied the Mauna Kea Access Road, blocking equipment trucks from ascending to the summit and drawing massive support via social media. Celebrities, including Dway ne “The Rock” Johnson, Jason (“Aquaman”) Momoa and presidential candidate Tulsi Gabbard, a Hawaii congresswoman, showed up at the mountain. Presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren tweeted her support. Large protests sprung up across the archipelago.

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Actor Jason Momoa, who has joined the demonstrations, carries an offering for Native Hawaiian elders.(Cindy Ellen Russell / Honolulu Star-Advertiser

At times the presence at the base of Mauna Kea reached 2,000 people — in essence, a small city, with medic and donations tents, a large kitchen, a volunteer “university,” and prayer ceremonies three times a day.

On July 17, state police arrested 38 Native Hawaiian elders (kupuna), including Wong-Wilson, for blocking the road. They were quickly released and have returned to their folding chairs on the highway, prepared for a long stay.

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Frontline kūpuna protectors July 17, 2019

For astronomers, the protests are distressing. “I’ve been working with the community in Hawaii for 15 years,” said Bolte, learning “what would make us better community members.” Through consultation, he said, the telescope officials agreed to place the scope lower on the mountain, invisible from the summit and from 84% of Hawaii’s Big Island. The Thirty Meter Telescope consortium established K-12 grant programs, college internships and plans for some 140 jobs, all in the hopes of using the extraordinary, thin atmosphere of Mauna Kea to peer through space and time, and “search for evidence of life in our galaxy.”

“I think this is the biggest jump since we went from the naked eye to the telescope,” Bolte added. “This is another Galileo moment.”

Thirteen much smaller telescopes, many built without Native Hawaiian input, already stand on Mauna Kea. Opponents argue that they are not anti-science, but that they don’t want a telescope with the footprint of a Costco on their sacred mountain.

“That is a challenge for most Western people to understand, because we don’t have buildings and churches,” said Wong-Wilson. As she spoke, younger Hawaiians began spreading straw mats on the pavement for the evening prayer. “We have a belief system that is based in nature and our environment.”

“It’s a connection between terra and the heavens — the gods,” added Ku Ching, 83, who holds degrees in chemistry and law and for decades has made pilgrimages from the Pacific Ocean to the summit at Mauna Kea. Ching scoffs at the argument that since there are already telescopes on Mauna Kea, one more, albeit a much bigger one, won’t hurt. “That’s akin to having a woman raped again and again, because subsequent rapes don’t count,” he said.

Like the protests at Standing Rock over the Dakota Access Pipeline, the battle over Mauna Kea is part of a larger struggle over indigenous rights and the legacy of colonialism. Astronomers feel caught in the middle.

Yet astronomers say they are caught up in a larger political issue of Hawaiian sovereignty and past injustices, astronomers Ed Stone and Christophe Dumas wrote in an Aug. 9 statement. “We think it’s fair to say that what is happening today in Hawaii isn’t just about the construction” of the Thirty Meter Telescope.
Opponents of the giant telescope say they will remain vigilant. “They really want to come here,” said Lanakila Mangauil, 33, a founder of the protest movement. “They want us to get complacent. But we’re not going anywhere. Every piece of machinery, you try to bring it up this mountain, we’re gonna fight you. We’re going to keep you off.”