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Opinion: Thirty Meter Telescope research must consider sanctity of Native Hawaiian land

(Amber Lee/Daily Bruin)

By Tabitha Hiyane

May 19, 2023 11:10 a.m.

The notion of “Mālama i ka ʻāina” – to care for and respect the land – is fundamental to the values of the Kānaka Maoli.

This message lies at the heart of controversy concerning the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope on top of the sacred Maunakea, the tallest mountain in the world.

In 2009, Maunakea was identified as the preferred location for the telescope’s construction because of its access to high-tech industries, ideal weather conditions, airflow and elevation, according to physics and astronomy professor Andrea Ghez. Yet, to the Kānaka Maoli, Maunakea has been a sacred entity – a symbol of their ancestral tradition. Cultural and religious ceremonies are still performed on the land, and ancient burial sites inscribe the presence of Native Hawaiians on the mountain.

The TMT International Observatory LLC, established in 2003, is a modern astronomy project involving Japan, Canada, China, India, the University of California and the California Institute of Technology. It would be the largest optical-infrared telescope to cover the sky of the Northern Hemisphere.

While scientists and governments push for Maunakea’s use in exploring the galaxy, the bottom line of the Kānaka Maoli remains to preserve the sanctity of the land.

“There’s a lot of ways to think about this, and a lot of different perspectives,” Ghez said. “Even the opposition isn’t unified, which is why this conversation is hard – because there’s no organization that represents the oppositional view, and that makes it even harder to have the conversation about what is a constructive path forward.”

Despite the friction that remains between Native Hawaiians and the research community, the two groups share a respect for the natural world. According to research from the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa, the first Polynesians to arrive in Hawaii had journeyed the Pacific using their knowledge of the stars for navigation. In this way, both realms of science and tradition look to the sky in search of meaning.

“We have certain profound questions we want to answer: Is there life in the universe? What is the universe made of?” said Tommaso Treu, a physics and astronomy professor and deputy chair of the Science Advisory Committee of the TMT. “Answering those questions is what drives the construction of these big telescopes.”

Because of the size of its mirror, the TMT will have the capacity to produce images 12 times sharper than that of the Hubble Space Telescope and four times sharper than the James Webb Space Telescope, which is currently the largest optical telescope in space.

Despite its progressive potential, the TMT cannot exist solely within the vacuum of space research. It must consider the historical context of colonialism and its own epistemic privilege.

Land dispossession is a recurrent theme between the Kānaka Maoli and the Western world, dating back to the colonization of the islands. The illegal overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy in 1893 and the subsequent 1898 annexation to the U.S. is the historical fabric that encases the issue of the land.

In the fight for equity, we must reflect on what we owe to one another and the ways in which we go about conducting research.

These institutions must acknowledge the colonial history of violence – not perpetuate it. The government, TMT Corporation and its constituents must recognize the responsibility that comes with the territory of Maunakea: the protection and preservation of Native Hawaiian lives and culture.

“Integrity is an important piece of how the research gets done,” Ghez said. “And integrity has to do with really understanding the social implications of what you’re doing.”

As of now, the Hawaii Legislature has passed House Bill 2024, which looks to establish the Mauna Kea Stewardship and Oversight Authority. This new board would include Native Hawaiian voices, educators and the Hawaii County mayor. This new leadership, informed by the appropriate historical, cultural and social context, will bring perspective to the collective move forward.

On a larger scale, the lengthy uphill battle for even nominal representation of Hawaiian voices in the decision-making process is emblematic of the issues that Indigenous communities face.

At UCLA, the Pacific Islands Students Association has committed to urging the school to divest from its partnership with the TMT Corporation and invest more in the Indigenous community. A financial report from the UC Office of the President said that, as of May 2020, the UC had invested around $30 million into the TMT project.

UCLA did not immediately respond to the Daily Bruin’s request for comments regarding financial investment and relations with the Native Hawaiian community.

“Talking with other PISA members and other Native Hawaiian students, I think we’re all just very disappointed,” said Sydney Pike, a third-year political science transfer student. “It’s really disappointing to see an institution that we’re studying at – that we’re paying tuition to – invest in something that’s actively going against our beliefs, our rituals and our culture.”

As a land-grant public institution, it is UCLA’s responsibility to recognize the power and privilege that it holds and to listen to the voices of Indigenous students. Most importantly, it is its responsibility to act with humanity and not the violence of negligence. We must consider the costs of this epistemic pursuit and the discourse around the Indigenous narrative.

“We want to hold the UC system, in general, accountable for what they supposedly represent, which is ethical behavior, inclusiveness, accountability and transparency,” Pike said.

Representation is perhaps the first step in these reparations, but that alone is not enough. Without institutional action, there is no gravity to the school’s mission and values that purport mutual respect and an equitable campus environment.

The interests of scientific research and respecting Indigenous cultural practices need not be diametrically opposed. As we continue to move forward within the realm of modern astronomy, following our curiosities, we should act with ethical consideration and integrity – or not at all.

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