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Conceptualizing Hawaii's Dormant Volcano and Astronomical Telescope Conflict

Jonathan Kay Kamakawiwoole Osorio, Gordon Squires, and Samuel Wilder King II


  • The Thirty Meter Telescope, as planned, would tower 180 feet high on the slopes of a mountain that some consider Hawaii's most sacred place.
Conceptualizing Hawaii's Dormant Volcano and Astronomical Telescope Conflict
JTSorrell via iStock

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Maunakea, a dormant volcano on Hawai‘i’s “Big Island” (Hawai‘i Island), is the scene of the latest conflict between Indigenous and Western interests. The Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT), as planned, would tower 180 feet high—around the height of an 18-story building—on the slopes of a mountain that some consider Hawai‘i’s most sacred place. Maunakea is prime real estate for astronomical observation; 13 telescopes already sit there, though TMT would dwarf existing structures. As of this writing, protesters have successfully stalled the project for months despite it having legal approval to move forward, and the government has reportedly spent more than $10 million in its response. The following perspectives—from a Native Hawaiian elder, an attorney, and a TMT scientist—briefly illustrate the widely divergent viewpoints on even conceptualizing the issues at stake.

The Mountain Is Drawing Us Together

Native Hawaiian Elder’s Perspective

Anyone who has not come to see this for themselves will not understand it. It is like a huge fair, but there is nothing for sale. It could be a retreat but is too organic for that. None of these are really comparable to what the Kīa‘i Mauna (protectors of the mountain) have created here: a true pu‘uhonua, a place of safety for Hawaiians. Ironically, we are in great danger, occupying a road that powerful people intend to use to build the TMT on the northern plateau of Mauna a Wākea (mountain of Wākea, Sky Father).

There is no question that something real and significant is happening: for most of us, it is the mountain that is drawing us together. Young men and women spend whole weeks tending to others, making brilliant logistical decisions and managing all of the needs of an actual town. Meanwhile, a lāhui (group) flexes its administrative muscles, earning people’s confidence and trust. They have kept a billion-dollar operation off-balance, unsure of itself and unable to begin construction. They have won, not by dictating tactics, but by accommodating numerous Native initiatives under one malu, one shelter. They have instilled a discipline that in itself is good for our people, for our health and resilience. They have enunciated a political discourse that stands in stark contrast to the divisive, ugly, and violent national discourse of our time.

As an elder, I wonder how long this can last. It is reasonable to think that at some point people will stop giving, will want to make other plans for their free time, will grow weary of a long-term commitment. I am also a historian and know that from these kinds of gatherings, new nations, new governing forms, and new faiths emerge. While it may be impossible to predict what this will become, there is no question this shows something glorious and momentous to the world.

What is borning here is precious and significant in the life of our people. For what has been taken from us (government, land, language, and self-confidence), TMT has the power to help redeem. Leave us to our victory and let that spur this movement into something permanent and pono (righteous). Consider the alternative: what 10 years or more of struggle over this will do to the relationship between Hawaiians and the larger society, or even between Hawaiians themselves. If TMT and the State of Hawai‘i can show the same kind of generosity and graciousness that we Kānaka Maoli (Native Hawaiians) have always shown to you, then be willing to step away and give us the space to go where we must. Give this emerging leadership the time and space to develop agendas other than confrontation over the telescope, and I believe that what they produce will be of far greater value than anything a telescope on Maunakea could bring.

A Vision for Hawai‘i’s Future in Astronomy

TMT Vice President of External Relations’ Perspective

It is no coincidence that the ideal location to peer from Earth into the heavens is in Hawai‘i, a place where science and spirituality are woven into the fabric of everyday culture. What is happening here is not simply about the construction of TMT on Maunakea. Maunakea has become a flashpoint for other issues, including native Hawaiian self-determination and environmental stewardship. TMT, its supporters, and its protesters have become caught in a perfect storm wherein TMT is an icon.

When TMT first came to Hawai‘i more than a decade ago with a vision for Hawai‘i’s future in astronomy, we were aware of community concerns. In response, TMT has contributed more than $5.5 million to the local economy, provided more than 160 scholarships, and benefitted more than 20,000 students and 97 schools and nonprofit organizations through support of STEM education. The telescope was redesigned to prevent negative environmental or cultural impact and will be located on a site with no archaeological shrines or features, no endangered plants or insects, and no burials. TMT will not prevent traditional and customary native Hawaiian practices. TMT is the first telescope on Maunakea to pay substantial lease rent, up to $1 million a year when operational.

The exhaustive public process and legal review, including the Hawai‘i Supreme Court’s ruling in favor of TMT’s construction, was worth the entire 10-plus years it took. TMT brought together scientific minds and community hearts to create something of which Hawai‘i can be proud. TMT represents the pinnacle of human imagination and innovation, enabling an in-depth understanding of our universe’s origins while pushing the frontiers of human knowledge. Ten-plus years ago we came to Hawai‘i with a vision to become a key contributor to Hawai‘i’s future through astronomy, scientific discovery, economic impact, and education. We still believe in that dream.

No Customary and Traditional Rights Are Implicated

A Native Hawaiian Attorney’s Perspective

It is difficult to parse out precise objections to TMT. Opposition rationales range from “settler colonialism,” to the victimization of Native Hawaiians in history, to the failure of institutions with race-based mandates to serve Native Hawaiians. The primary objection outlined in actual legal proceedings is that some consider Maunakea “sacred” and that any structure built there is offensive.

While the US Constitution’s Establishment Clause requires separation of church and state, Article XII of Hawai‘i’s constitution has a unique provision that protects “customary and traditional” rights exercised for “subsistence, cultural and religious purposes” that Native Hawaiians practice. An analytical framework around this provision has developed in Hawai‘i’s legal system, ensuring that historical living activities—not religious activities—are protected (and ensuring the provision would survive an Establishment Clause challenge). Hawai‘i’s Supreme Court found that TMT implicated no “customary and traditional” rights:

There was no physical evidence that the TMT Observatory site was used for storing piko, iwi (bones of the dead), placenta or other artifacts. There was no evidence of ahu (shrine or altar), lele (sacrificial altar), or other historic properties therein. There was also no evidence of mele (song, anthem, or chant) or hula being performed in the area. After extensive surveying, no archaeological or historic sites or burials were found[.] (Matter of Conservation District Use Application HA-3568, 143 Hawai‘i 379, 431 P.3d 752 (2018).)

Ultimately, the practices claimed on Maunakea are contemporary practices. Some did not even begin until after the first hearing. The idea that Maunakea is too sacred to have any “foreign” material introduced upon it is a religious idea. The state should always respect those practices, but ultimately the state’s authority must triumph over religious authority for the separation to be meaningful.

In the case of TMT, the state has spoken through the Board of Land and Natural Resources and the Supreme Court’s decision approving TMT’s permit. TMT has the legal right to proceed. The protesters can have their civil disobedience (that is, if they are willing to pay the $10 million and rising costs of the protests), but only for long enough to make their opinion known. That has been accomplished, and the law must now be enforced. If the protesters will not move, they must be arrested, and TMT should be allowed to proceed.