An Astronomical Controversy: The Thirty Meter Telescope and the need for indigenous voices in science

January journal club review by Amanda Hurley, journal club led by Grant Hisao

On July 17th 2019, over thirty people, including Native Hawaiian elders, were arrested on Mauna Kea in Hawaii, an event that served as the pinnacle of a grueling campaign to halt the construction of a new telescope. The magnitude of the outrage was somewhat shocking to both the local government and the scientific community. There have been multiple telescopes built on Mauna Kea before – why was the negative response now so intense? Would the telescope desecrate sacred ground and take advantage of the natural resources rightfully belonging to an indigenous population? Was the conviction of a loud minority obstructing potential progress and scientific contribution of their state? CaSP met in January to take a hard look at the symbolism of the Thirty Meter Telescope and how we, as scientists, consciously or unconsciously impact our communities through our work.

The Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) is not thirty meters tall or long – the lens is thirty meters wide, and blows away the current record diameter of 10.4 meters. In 2003, a coalition of multiple institutions began a search party for the perfect spot for their incredible telescope, which has 12x the resolution of the Hubble Telescope. In the running were locations in Chile, Spain, Mexico, India, and, of course, Hawaii. Ultimately, the lack of light pollution and dry atmosphere convinced the committee in 2009 to select Mauna Kea. Mauna Kea is a dormant volcano (mauna = mountain) established as a land reserve in 1968; the reserve  is managed by the University of Hawaii. Unfortunately for the TMT, its presence crystallized a century of tension between Native Hawaiians and the state government, preventing its construction for over half a decade.

Ground broke for the TMT in 2014 and was followed abruptly by a powerful protest. Activists arrived on site to physically block construction with their bodies. In a multi-pronged attack, protesters also contested a process issue in court. The license issued for land use was invalidated because opponents of the TMT were not given fair opportunity to present their case. In 2017, a new permit was issued with important points of progress. Not only were previous telescopes on Mauna Kea to be removed, the Board of Land and Natural Resources (BLNR) declared the TMT would be the last telescope on Mauna Kea. 

I imagine the BLNR and TMT were proud of their compromise to replace outdated telescopes with a better one and ensure the mountain’s integrity for the future. So, when construction resumed in 2019 and the outcry was even larger than before, the disappointment and confusion must have been intense. Demonstrations and protests erupted throughout the state and were so intense at Mauna Kea that Governor Ige called in law enforcement to keep the peace and, as mentioned above, many protesters were arrested. This decision only worsened the situation and led to death threats for Gov. Ige. 

The passion and ire over Mauna Kea represent both contemporary and historical conflict. In Hawaiian creation stories, Mauna Kea is the literal first-born child of Father Sky (Wakea) and Mother Earth (Papahanaumoku), erupting from sea-level and reaching for the stars, a bridge between two parents. Additionally, while Westerners may be familiar with the concept of “ancestral land,” many indigenous cultures, including Native Hawaiians, regard land as ancestors, since familial generations become a part of the earth upon the act of burial. When the Hawaiian monarchy was overthrown in the late 19th century, much of the Native Hawaiian culture was oppressed or disregarded to make way for American assimilation and statehood in 1959. Thus, some Native Hawaiians have for many decades refused to recognize the state of Hawaii’s government, resulting in continual cultural conflict. This pain has most recently manifested with the construction of the TMT. As the first telescope on Mauna Kea built in the era of social media, the TMT protest has amplified to unprecedented numbers. 

Looking back, we wondered if this could have been avoided. As we slowly become a society that reckons with the severe mistakes of our past, the simple act of listening and bringing indigenous populations to the table as stakeholders can build relationships, possibly avoid disasters, and move towards solutions that everyone can live with. TMT can be considered a case study in what happens when disregarding activists calcifies their resolve and removes any option of compromise. This is unfortunate, as most citizens of Hawaii (64%) support construction of the telescope, including almost half of the Native Hawaiians polled. People who are pro-sovereignty and pro-telescope do exist but the polarization of factions have left little room for common ground. Even with environmental impact management plans and pledges to benefit the community, promises require trust and that trust has been eroded over time. With the two month truce potentially expiring later this month (February), the path forward is not clear. Hopefully, with some upfront buy-in (not just documents with promises) from the TMT coalition to demonstrate accountability and respect, trust can be re-established. Importantly, early action must actually be requested by the Native Hawaiian activists, not just what academics assume is good for indigenous populations. There is opportunity here for some creative solutions and a celebration of Native Hawaiian culture and ancestry. The late Senator Daniel Akaka, the first US Senator of Native Hawaiian ancestry and supporter of the TMT, explains best how focusing on astronomy as a state actually bridges ancestral navigators and modern Hawaiians; “Students of stars are who we are.”