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An Open Letter to Telescope Protesters in Hawaii

Why astronomy on Mauna Kea is not a desecration but a duty.

On July 15, 2019, after a court decision had cleared the way for astronomers to build a new mega-telescope, called the Thirty Meter…By Dana Mackenzie

On July 15, 2019, after a court decision had cleared the way for astronomers to build a new mega-telescope, called the Thirty Meter Telescope, on Hawaii’s Mauna Kea, a large group of protesters said, “No.” Pitching their camp directly on the access road to the top of Mauna Kea, the protesters, who called themselves kia’i mauna (protectors of the mountain), pledged to stop any construction vehicles from passing. The kia’i argue that the mountain is sacred to the native Hawaiian people, and that the construction of the TMT would desecrate it.

When I heard about the protest I was torn apart, because I felt forced to choose between my two favorite ohanas (families). Though I am not an astronomer, I have been a science writer for 23 years and a mathematician before that, so I am part of the larger science ohana. Likewise, I have been a hula dancer for 15 years. Hula is simply a way of telling a story, and men have been part of that folk tradition from the beginning. Dancing with my hula sisters (and occasionally brothers) has taught me to admire the Hawaiian culture, especially their reverence for their land.

The kia’i have always said that their complaint is not against science, and I take them at their word. Nevertheless, if you are protesting something it is important to know what you are protesting against. I believe that they have missed one crucial fact about the TMT within the context of Hawaiian culture. The astronomers, likewise, have failed to explain the telescope’s value to native Hawaiians in spiritual terms, rather than its value to science or the economy. I hope to bridge that communication gap. In this article I will speak for both of my families, using “we” to mean both astronomers and hula dancers, depending on the context.


Dear kia’i mauna,

I greet you in the name of Wakea, the sky god who created the Hawaiian islands and the mountain on which you stand. As you have said many times, Mauna Kea is only a contraction of its full name, Mauna a Wakea—or Wakea’s mountain.

For our readers on the mainland, who may not have followed the drama on Mauna Kea closely, I would like to begin by celebrating some of your accomplishments. First and foremost among these, you have introduced the world to the concept of kapu aloha. This is a code that requires the protesters to maintain proper (pono) and respectful behavior at all times, without anger. Your adherence to this code has prevented any violence aside from the first week, when the police arrested some of your leaders. Your movement follows in the exemplary lineage of Gandhi and Martin Luther King. I consider kapu aloha to be spiritually identical with Gandhi’s concept of satyagraha, which means “truth power.” Likewise, telling the truth is at the heart of kapu aloha.

You are much more like the astronomers than you realize. Both of you, native Hawaiians and astronomers, learn by careful observation.

You have also inspired and connected with indigenous people and their sympathizers around the world. As a student of hula, I could feel the joy in your tent when you chanted the oli and danced the hula in praise of the mountain, the waters, and the people who are defending their beliefs. When you came to my town of Santa Cruz, California, in November, you invited Valentin Lopez of the local Amah Mutsun tribe to speak, and he said, “We [indigenous people] are the only people with the moral authority to speak for this land.” These kinds of conflicts have arisen before. The Tohono O’odham Nation protested the VERITAS gamma ray detector on Kitt Peak in Arizona, and the San Carlos Apache opposed several telescopes on Mt. Graham, also in Arizona. Both tribes succeeded at delaying, preventing, or relocating these telescopes. Of course, the use of sacred lands is only one of the many challenges facing indigenous peoples. But I believe that protests related to sacred lands have been especially effective, precisely because they force American society to confront and acknowledge your deepest values as a people.

That brings me to your third accomplishment: You are changing the culture of astronomy. It is no accident that we always want to put telescopes on mountaintops, and these mountains are usually sacred to somebody. We are not entitled to build there. We need to ask permission, humbly. And asking permission means accepting that the answer might be “no.” This is where the TMT board failed. They thought that once they held a hearing and received a permit, their job was done. We need to learn that hearings are not the same as listening, and a permit is not the same as permission.

EYE OF THE STORM: The Thirty Meter Telescope, seen here in an artist rendering, would be the largest visible-light telescope in the world, allowing astronomers to explore exoplanets and the formation of stars and galaxies. Mauna Kea is an ideal site for capturing sharp images, scientists say, because Hawaii’s atmosphere is calm, cool, and often free of clouds and weather.TMT International Observatory

I now come to the more difficult part of this letter, in which I tell you that the kia’i, too, have overlooked something. You are much more like the astronomers than you realize. Both of you, native Hawaiians and astronomers, learn by careful observation (maka’ala). You are kia’i mauna, watchers of the mountain. They are kia’i o na hoku, watchers of the stars. Each of you needs the other. Separately, you are out of balance. The kia’i mauna focus on their responsibility to their land and are blind (alas) to the epochal changes going on in our knowledge of the stars. The kia’i o na hoku focus on their quest to understand the skies, and forget sometimes their responsibility to the earth and its inhabitants. The two of you need each other and always will, and for that reason this drama cannot end with the victory of one side over the other. The only end is reconciliation, which can only come through dialogue conducted in the spirit of aloha.

I mentioned above the new things we are learning about the stars. Let me explain what I mean. Beginning in the mid-1990s, astronomers found ways to indirectly detect exoplanets, or planets orbiting other stars. We recognize them either through the wobble they create in their parent stars’ orbits, or through the slight dimming of the star when the planet passes in front. We cannot yet see these exoplanets directly, because we do not have telescopes that are powerful enough. That is what the Thirty Meter Telescope is for. More than that, the TMT would give us the ability to probe those planets’ atmospheres and look for oxygen. If we find that, it will be a sign to us: “Here is life.”

According to Hawaiian legend, in the early days of creation, the gods spoke with man through the kahunas, and man spoke with the gods. The gods are still speaking to man, but in a different way than before. One thing we are learning from them is that our sky father, Wakea, was much busier than we thought. He created millions of other worlds. And on some of these planets, the most favored ones, he may have created other living beings.

We do not know what form they may have. They may be nothing more than one-celled organisms. We do not even have scientific proof that they exist, in part because we do not have the TMT yet. But I feel sure that there are some among you, dear kia’i, who know in your gut—in your na’au—that life does exist out there in the cosmos. If you know this, then you must know also that they are your family. They are your cousins just as surely as the taro plant, Wakea’s firstborn child, is your brother.

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When you propose to shut down the TMT, you are proposing that we should shut our eyes to our own family. Your own family. This has nothing to do with being for or against science. It is not pono. It violates what I have learned about Hawaiian culture, that ohana comes first.

As you know, the astronomers have a plan B, to build the telescope in the Canary Islands. Gordon Squires, vice president for external affairs of the TMT, tells me that the effect will be to make the science take twice as long, because there are about half as many nights with good seeing on the Canary Islands. Still, the universe can wait. The one-celled organisms will still be there even if we take twice as long to find them.

I’m not worried about that. I’m worried about you, native Hawaiians. What will be the effect on you when you abandon your kuleana, your responsibility to Wakea? He brought you to this island and made you stewards of this unique mountain, the mountain you named after him. Mauna Kea is the umbilical cord joining earth to the stars. It is a place that Wakea has designated for looking up as well as for looking down. He could not entrust this place to anyone else. He had to choose gatekeepers who could look in both directions: a caretaking people who valued their connection to the earth, and a voyaging people who valued their connection to the stars. He would not want you to succeed in only half of your mission.

When you propose to shut down the Thirty Mile Telescope, you are proposing that we should shut our eyes to our own family.

Suppose that, by the power of kapu aloha and the grace of the gods, you agree that my words are true. What then would I ask you to do? I would ask for only one change at first, small but profound. Over and over, the kia’i have referred to the TMT as a “desecration” of the sacred mountain. It is not, and the word should not be uttered again. Instead I ask you to acknowledge that the observatory will consecrate a small part of the mountain to a purpose intended by your own gods. Your mission is not to oppose this consecration, but to make sure that it is done right. Be pono, and make sure that the astronomers are pono too.

What do I mean by “doing it right”? A long list of things, some of which may not be easy. First, there should be native Hawaiian astronomers. Jessica Dempsey, deputy director of the East Asian Observatory, says that there are currently no native Hawaiian astronomers at any of the 13 telescopes on the mountain. This is a scandal. Though there are many native Hawaiian engineers doing outstanding work on the mountain, it is the astronomers who provide the vision, and they cannot fulfill their job without native Hawaiian eyes.

When I call for native Hawaiian astronomers, it is of course the responsibility of the astronomy community, but it is also your responsibility. Brialyn Onodera, a native Hawaiian engineer who works at one of the telescopes on Maui, wrote in the Honolulu Civil Beat that the protests have created a climate in which “telescope” has become a dirty word. (She is not the only one saying this; I have interviewed others.)

You, the kia’i, can reverse this message. You can teach native Hawaiian children that astronomy is a sacred responsibility (or kuleana) that has been given to your people. Teach your children that there are two types of astronomy, just as there are two types of hula. We have kahiko, done in the ancient style with no instruments except chanting and drums, and we have ‘auana, done in the modern style, with Western music and instruments. No one protests against hula ‘auana, or calls it a desecration. We all recognize that it is another valid expression of what it means to be Hawaiian. Likewise, you can encourage some of your children to become kahiko astronomers, practicing the ancient methods of navigation, while others become ‘auana astronomers, fulfilling their kuleana with the best instruments that Western science can devise. Both of these missions should be treated with equal respect.

Should you reverse your opposition to the TMT, a cause that some of you have given 10 years of your life to? I leave this choice to your own conscience. In any case, there is other work to be done. The Master Lease awarding management of the Mauna Kea Science Reserve to the University of Hawaii will expire in 2033. It seems to me that any decision about individual facilities should wait until the issue of who will manage the mountain next is resolved. The kia’i deserve a place at the table, and I hope you will take it. You have earned the power to say no, but you have also earned something greater: the power to say yes.

This voyage of discovery, this quest to reunite the family of Wakea, will not be a short one. It will not end when TMT is built, or not built. It will not end when the Master Lease is renewed, or not renewed. The quest will last for centuries. All that we are asking, all that the gods are asking, and all that your children are asking, is for you to join us. At the helm, where you have always been.

In the spirit of kapu aloha,

—Dana Mackenzie


Dana Mackenzie is a mathematician who went rogue and became a freelance writer. His first book, The Big Splat, was about the origin of the moon, and his most recent book, The Book of Why (co-written with Judea Pearl) explores the controversial subject of causation in science. He has also written for The New York Times about his experience as a male learning to dance hula.

Lead image: In 2019, demonstrators blocked a road at the base of Hawaii’s tallest mountain, Mauna Kea, to protest the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope. Credit: AP Photo/Caleb Jones

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