This post was updated March 10 at 11:50 a.m.
Hawaii is often thought of as everyone’s getaway paradise for its beautiful sandy beaches, abundant rainforests and rich culture. Like the massive waves that meet the shoreline each day, a connection is always present between the beauty of the things we see before us and the underlying factors that aren’t always acknowledged.
Hawaii and the dark past forced upon its people continue to collide to this day.
Kānaka Maoli, the indigenous people of Hawaii, have been in combat with racial structures that insist on overshadowing issues relevant to the community. The United States has a history of violating cultural patrimony, and this time, it hit close to home. The University of California is spearheading the Thirty Meter Telescope project on Hawaii’s Mauna Kea, a sacred site to Kānaka Maoli. Construction of the telescope on the island was prompted by the mountain’s high elevation, convenient for space observation.
TMT scientists justify the construction of the telescope on indigenous land by promising to donate $1,000,000 a year for the education of “Hawaii Island students.” Not only does this term convolute the identity of Native Hawaiians, it also justifies the construction of the telescope under the guise that it’s for the betterment of the indigenous population.
Conflating Kānaka Maoli with others currently occupying indigenous land and saying that they’re all Hawaiian leads to the erasure of indigenous people. The board of TMT went a step further by establishing the Akamai Workforce Initiative internship program, purposed to increase involvement of Native Hawaiians in the STEM field.
The reality of the situation, however, is that only one-fourth of those participating in the internship are of Native Hawaiian descent. The board of TMT has made these, and many related efforts over the past five years leading to the approval of this final telescope, irrespective of how it is taking away one of the few cultural patrimonies passed down through generations of Kānaka Maoli.
The board of TMT has made these and other related efforts to distract from the fact that they are taking away from Kānaka Maoli one of the few cultural patrimonies they have passed down through generations.
Sacred sites like Mauna Kea embody cultural values much larger and more complex than any scientific endeavor can account for. For centuries, before the intervention of colonial forces, Kānaka Maoli have inhabited Hawaii, and now, they are an extension of it. At the core of Kānaka Maoli values is the notion of “malama ka aina,” a message which transcends from Hawaii to each of the Pacific Islands: “If you take care of the land, the land will take care of you.”
Indigenous landmarks like Mauna Kea are the birthplace of culture, and serve in native communities to connect past generations with future generations. Mauna Kea is a spiritual site. It is a home. Scientists, tourists and nonnatives alike are all visitors on that land.
These connections between Kānaka Maoli and their land have been continuously disrupted since Queen Liliʻuokalani was overthrown in the 1890s and the U.S. illegally annexed Hawaii. Scientists believe they can diminish thousands of years worth of indigeneity on this land because they can benefit from the convenience of its location.
But that land cannot simply be replaced.
All nine UC campuses with undergraduates are built on land from Native Americans, giving the UC the title of a “land-grant institution.” However, the grant to build the telescope on Mauna Kea was passed by the Hawaii Supreme Court, consisting of five justices who are not of native descent – Mauna Kea was not granted to the UC system by Native Hawaiians.
This exchange is just one example of the colonial structures that dismiss the concerns of indigenous folk and belittle their humanity. By removing indigenous voices from the narrative, we cannot hope to reconcile centuries of violence, forced assimilation and oppression. The intentions of TMT and the Akamai internship do not align with the issues currently pressing Kānaka Maoli. Kānaka Maoli make up only about 10 percent of Hawaii’s population, but more than 42 percent of Hawaii’s homeless population. These are the factors we must consider when asking the central question of TMT: At what cost?
The UC system is complicit in violating the rights of Native Hawaiians and must be held accountable. Let this be a stepping stone toward reconciliation. Let the power dynamic shift toward returning land rights to indigenous groups.
Science has always seemed to offer respite, in its discoveries of the galaxies beyond our own to the bonds we find in our own DNA. It is prided for attaining knowledge for the benefit of mankind.
Mauna Kea is not a protest of science; it is a fight against the legacy of colonialism that permeates Hawaii’s roots and the founding of the STEM field. The UC should recognize that and divest from TMT.
Satele is a first-year human biology and society student and a member of the Pacific Islands’ Student Association.