A sacred mountain, scarred by ambition
The Star-Advertiser's coverage of opposition to the Thirty Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea has recently focused on the opinions of Kānaka Maoli who support the project because it "has been done right," presumably in contrast to the 13 telescope projects preceding it. In addition to the TMT's commitment to "correct" behavior, we are told that our ancestors were scientists who would have certainly welcomed this project and the million-dollar-a-year lease it brings ("Some Native Hawaiian see project as important cultural link," April 16).
TMT's claim to a moral high ground in the name of science has been made loudly and consistently to an audience trained to think of "science" as an undeniable force of innovation and an institution that has produced nothing but good for human beings. Nuclear weapons aside, even if one were to concede the hallowed place of science in contemporary society, Mauna Kea reminds us that there are other knowledges and understandings developed, honed and cherished by human beings which native peoples globally have been striving to recover after the long wave of European ideas and beliefs inundated our societies and attempted to drown the observations and practices of thousands of years of experience.
At a moment in our history when we are more poised than ever to rediscover and resume the knowledge of our ancestors, it seems particularly cruel to destroy the resources that have survived the last two centuries of cultural upheaval. These natural pu‘u, viewplanes, and life forms, threatened and some already destroyed by astronomy development, are like our textbooks — poised to be burned just as we are approaching the library steps.
We use the word sacred to describe the mountain. Its name, Mauna a Wākea, describes the place that the mountain has in the imagination and experience of our people: first born of Wākea, the sky; magnificent in aspect; first to be sighted by ancestral visitors arriving from the southern islands. But the mountain is sacred to humans because of what it has meant to them over the millennia, a place where one treads carefully and reverently, because it is important for people to feel a reverence for something.
In the absence of that reverence, there is no meaning to our existence, and for Kānaka that meaningfulness is tied directly to our belief that we and the mountain share common ancestors. Even if not a single person had ascended that mountain in the last century to feel her quiet and yet powerful assurance, she would still have been waiting for us to remember.
The summit and the northern plateau of Mauna Kea are known as the wao akua, the realm of the gods. It is because of this reverence for this sacred mauna, this kapu aloha, that the Kū Kiaʻi Mauna, the protectors of Mauna Kea, continue to demonstrate that we have not forgotten who we are. People are streaming to Mauna Kea to protect her because in protecting her we are protecting another vestige, another ʻano of our collective selves. It is painful to have to explain and justify the sacred. It is a reminder that much of the world doesn't recognize the ways you identify yourself as valid.
The TMT supporters do not so much as engage with the reasons why we see the sacredness of this place, and merely insist that this is the best place on Earth for the best yet telescope devised. J.B. Zinker's book, "An Acre of Glass," details astronomy's insatiable desire for ever larger ground-based telescopes and clarifies that these giant building projects are not only bigger scientific instruments, they are also huge investments with serious money at stake.
And so we must address the question of whether we can share that sacredness with the telescope with a clear answer. No. We cannot because there is nothing careful or reverent about its development, construction or even its intent. The TMT itself is a symptom of a society that recognizes no limits. Why should 30 meters be sufficient when 3 or 12 were not? And if that gaze they have been afforded into the farthest reaches of this universe produces simply a hunger for more penetrating looks at the sky, at what point will the astronomy community possibly acknowledge the need for reverence articulated by Kanaka Maoli?
Stop the construction. Bring the machines off the mountain, let the leases to the university expire and the mountain heal.