On the Big Island of Hawaii, Mauna Kea, a dormant volcano, rises nearly 14,000 feet above sea level. There are currently 13 telescopes on its slopes, on land managed by the University of Hawaii. Mauna Kea is ideal for astronomy: It is dry, has little turbulent air and a large fraction of clear viewing nights. But Native Hawaiians have long voiced concerns over the construction of telescopes on Mauna Kea. To them, the mountain is sacred.
For the last four years, construction on a 14th telescope, the $1.4 billion Thirty Meter Telescope, has been delayed by legal challenges. The Hawaiian Supreme Court upheld the construction permit in October 2018. Just before construction was scheduled to start in July, protesters blocked Mauna Kea’s main access road. Thirty-eight arrests followed. On Wednesday the Board of Regents of the University of Hawaii is scheduled to consider a resolution to settle the standoff.
The protests are a culmination of a long period of disregard of indigenous claims to the mountain. The dispute also underscores the disconnect between Western science and the remarkable achievements of Polynesian astronomy, which enabled navigation across the vast Pacific to connect with tiny islands — mere specks, really — thousands of miles away. Polynesian people had been navigating this way for centuries, well before Magellan circumnavigated the globe in the 1500s with the aid of a compass.
The Thirty Meter Telescope would provide a powerful new window into the universe and be the first of its size and capacity in the Northern Hemisphere, giving astronomers access to now-hidden reaches of the sky.
With the ability to image atmospheres on exoplanets, perhaps we’ll discover evidence of extraterrestrial life. The telescope would also be able to capture images of the formation of galaxies in the early universe.
But at what cost? The continued neglect of Native Hawaiian culture in favor of Western scientific supremacy is simply not worth it. That’s why the best plan forward — for both indigenous science and Western science — is to locate the Thirty Meter Telescope elsewhere.
Under the proposal before the Regents, construction on the Thirty Meter Telescope would go forward, but some telescope facilities already on Mauna Kea would be demolished. In attempt to rectify past wrongdoing, the University would “accommodate uses by Native Hawaiian cultural Practitioners” on Mauna Kea. Up until now, those uses have not been a priority. The Thirty Meter Telescope is just one step in a long line of injustices that cast aside indigenous science and spirituality as inferior to their Western counterparts.
In the eyes of many Hawaiians, Mauna Kea has been mismanaged for many decades. From the late 1970s until at least 2008, sewage and other hazardous materials associated with scientific operations on Mauna Kea spilled into the surrounding environment.
Kealoha Pisciotta, who was a physics major and then a telescope systems specialist on Mauna Kea for 12 years until 2003, has experienced the devaluation of her culture firsthand. She is the founder and president of Mauna Kea Anaina Hou (People Who Pray for the Mountain), one of the lead groups in the protests against the Thirty Meter Telescope. For the last 15 years, she has advocated indigenous celestial traditions by practicing and teaching them.
Members of the Royal Order of Kamehameha, representing Hawaii’s indigenous dynasty, asked Ms. Pisciotta to help build and align a lele, a ceremonial site, on the summit of Mauna Kea. This lele included a platform for equinox and solstice rituals.
In the past, similar structures and ceremonies may have been used to measure an astronomical effect called the precession of the equinoxes. This is the wobble of the earth’s axis that slowly changes the positions of stars. For example, 1,000 years ago, Polaris was not at true north, but five degrees away, equivalent to 300 miles on the earth’s surface. Tracking the effect of the precession on star positions is crucial to accurate navigation over long time scales. Native Hawaiians understood this and incorporated observations into their navigational practices.
As Ms. Pisciotta wrote in 2011 in court testimony against continued construction on Mauna Kea, her lele was continually destroyed. Each time this happened, she rebuilt it.
Kepā Maly, a Hawaiian historian, speculates that the top of Mauna Kea was at one time a traditional observation platform for celestial objects, intended as an observatory with raised stones to mark the positions of rising and setting stars. There is a temple, Koa Heiau Holomoana, on the Kohala coast of the Big Island, was most likely a site for the study of the stars for navigation.
Native Hawaiian astronomy is both ancient and new, and is deeply tied to Polynesian traditions of navigating long distances over the Pacific Ocean, using the stars as guides. By the time Captain Cook landed in Hawaii in 1778, long-distance navigation from Tahiti to Hawaii had ceased. Over the next 200 years, traditional astronomy and navigation, while preserved in oral histories, slowly faded from memory.
That began to change in the 1970s with the founding of the Polynesian Voyaging Society and the construction of the Hokulea, a voyaging canoe made to replicate long-distance seafaring canoes of the past. With this boat, indigenous astronomy went from an ancient memory to a modern-day practice.
Long-distance Polynesian voyaging was common from the year 1000 to 1400, including the 2,500-mile run between Tahiti and Hawaii. Stars were essential to these voyages, as they can be used to determine latitude. For example, a star that passes directly over an island (a zenith star) can be used to locate an island in the vast expanse of the Pacific.
In 1000, the Pleiades star cluster passed directly over the Big Island. Sailing directions from Tahiti to Hawaii for that era would be: sail north until the Pleiades passes directly overhead at some point during the night — then turn west until you reach the Big Island. In 2019, because of the precession, the Pleiades would no longer be a zenith star for the Big Island; now Arcturus takes its place.
The Polynesian Voyaging Society benefited from the expertise of Mau Piailug, a navigator from the island of Satawal in Micronesia who learned star-compass navigation from his grandfather. Mr. Piailug’s apprentice, Nainoa Thompson, a Native Hawaiian, is the current president. Under his leadership, a new generation of navigators steered the Hokulea on a circumnavigation of the globe that started in Hawaii in 2013 and ended there in 2017, having passed through 150 ports in 18 nations along the way.
Hawaiian traditions form a continuum: from the practicalities of navigation on the ocean to the tracking of the seasons — from the connection of the people with each other to the connection between the earth and the sky — and ultimately into the realm of spirituality.
The Thirty Meter Telescope does not have to be located on a sacred mountain. There is an alternate location under consideration in the Canary Islands, on the peak of La Palma that, while some argue it doesn’t offer the same advantages of low turbulence and cool temperatures, is more than sufficient to fulfill its scientific mission. La Palma does not come with the same cultural issues as Mauna Kea. While ultimately the decision is for Hawaiians to make, I support the Canary island site.
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