Why It’s Really Hawaiian Science vs. Pro-TMT Culture

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Disclaimer: Of course the importance of Mauna Kea is “really” about so much more than this small slice of the issue. However, this tedious TMT PR trope of asking “can science and culture coexist on the mountain” is making me slightly insane. Here’s another angle–the way we should “really” be asking this question. But first, a public service announcement.

Today, October 5th, is the worldwide celebration of Aloha ʻĀina Unity Marches, with events taking place on most or all of the Hawaiian Islands and in other places besides. (Aloha ʻĀina means “love the land.”)


The controversy over the construction of a massive, ecologically destructive, 18-story building on stolen lands in a fragile “conservation district” zone–a district located on Mauna Kea, one of the most sacred mountains in the Pacific–is often presented as “Science” (white, western, mostly based on materialistic consumption) vs. “Culture” (native, oceanic, mostly based in spiritual traditions).

I am not anywhere near one of today’s marches. Instead, I will write. But in order to write about this particular aspect of the Mauna Kea struggle, I must acknowledge a mid-August phone conversation with Makana Cameron, musician and activist (hear his song, “See You on the Mauna,” featuring Lanakila). In that conversation, Makana spoke of the science community’s “weaponization of knowledge” and how the narrative of the TMT controversy was really about “Western Science dogma operating as Religion” vs. Native Science (which we understand to be informed by spiritual connection and a responsible understanding of how to get along with the natural world). I took a lot of notes during that convseration but unfortunately did not get verbatim quotes. E kala mai! (Sorry!) His eloquence exceeds my own and I hope I can do justice to the gist of the conversation while also adding further thoughts of my own. 

I’ve been letting the conversation with Makana root and grow, not sure if I was the right person to address this topic, collaboratively or otherwise. Meanwhile, just the other day, members of the astronomy community who support construction of the 18-story Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT), staged a pro-TMT panel discussion at the Hawai’i “state” capitol in Honolulu. Here’s the first sentence from the Oct. 4th Hawai’i News Now article: “Thirty Meter Telescope supporters gathered at the state Capitol Friday arguing that culture and science can coexist on Mauna Kea.”

Not that “coexistence” thing again! Frankly, my stomache churned, reading this. Fuggit, those folks are shameless. It’s past time for that question, and its underlying assumptions, to be flipped.

Let’s talk about what kind of culture and what kind of science would be most likely to productively and respectfully “co-exist” on the mountain.

And let’s be clear about two things:

(1) That mode of inquiry enshrined by the general term “science” is not a pure, unbiased endeavor. It never has been. It often serves the power elite at the expense of others. And science which originates from a (mostly white) western , intrinsically colonial mindset and which is privileged over the rights and wishes of native peoples IS NOT CULTURE-FREE! The pro-TMT camp is notoriously ignorant and/or duplicitous about the impact of Western Science Culture, what it embodies and represents. Since this ignorance is whopping Moore Foundation grants (if not exactly bliss), the pro-TMT camp grants itself “the right” to do whatever the heck it wants on the mountain, regardless of the wishes, beliefs, and legal rights of native Hawaiians. In fact, their insistent “manifest astronomical destiny” to build TMT takes precedence over all other concerns, almost bordering on dogmatic religious fervor. “To the stars!” they cry, aspiring to imagined scientific heroics without realizing that they are in fact the gullible representatives of an evil empire.

(2) Kanaka Maoli (native Hawaiians) are not and have never been “science free.” As a brilliant people with exceptional resource management skills (e.g. the ahupua’a system), they developed sophisticated capacities for observation, inquiry, and practical applications in navigation, aquaculture, agriculture, botany,  weather observation (just to name a few) and yes…even astronomy. I hesitate to name that last one because the pro-TMT camp has so often conflated its own star-gazing with that of the Hawaiians, as a justification for its own invasive and quite illegal claims on the mountain. This is a particularly noxious form of cultural appropriation.

As just one example of advanced observational abilities, I go to a book on my shelf, Hanau Ka Ua–Hawaiian Rain Names, by Collette Leimomi Akana with Kiele Gonzalez. There are hundreds of distinct names and descriptions of different rains, such as “Kiawe’ula… Rain that streams down gracefully with a faint streak of red, as of a rainbow” (p. 80) and the “Wa’ahila rain” which “brings life to the harbour of Kou” (p. 273). So the different rains are not just described, but in some cases their importance to ecosystems is also noted.

Or how about an example from literature, when the goddess Pele recites the names and describes all the winds of Kaua’i and Ni’ihau in a chant which takes up pages 13-25 of The Epic Tale of Hi’iakaikapoliopele, as told by Ho’oulumahiehie, translated by M. Puakea Nogelmeier?

Can you imagine San Francisco urbanites taking the time to closely watch the winds and rains that visit their city? Do they intimately observe the details, direction, and timing of the “Bus Interrupting Rain” or the “Branch Scattering Wind of Golden Gate Park?” Do we know their seasons, their times of arrival, how they may spur or inhibit the growth of plants or fisheries (not to mention their effect on mass transit)? The heart of science is observation. And practical use of such observations can bring plenty or hardship to a people. Kanaka Maoli (and other native peoples) were and are adept. They had to be.

I might also mention that what we might call “social sciences” are also key to survival. You can bet that native peoples have focused their finely tuned observational capacities on the people who colonize or occupy their lands, as a matter of survival. Without presuming to speak for the Mauna Kea protectors, I would venture to guess that many know the precise nature and character of their opponents far better than the opponents know themselves.

That said, let’s get back to the idea of a “culture” that could successfully and respectfully co-exist with the kind of science and common sense stewardship of natural resources that’s embedded in native Hawaiian traditions. What kind of culture does the TMT convey and represent?

Systemic racism and personal prejudice. Here is just one example, in a quote from a Hawai’i NPR story concerning an event which happened April, 2015:

“Professor Alexei Filippenko, of the University of California Berkeley, sent out a link to a petition in support of the TMT. It included a note from Professor Sandra Faber at UC Santa Cruz and it landed in the inboxes of all the astrophysics students and faculty.

Faber wrote in part of the email that “the Thirty-Meter Telescope is in trouble, attacked by a horde of native Hawaiians who are lying about the impact of the project on the mountain and who are threatening the safety of TMT personnel.”

I lived in the San Francisco East Bay at the time. As an ally, I attended the meeting at CAL Berkeley where astronomy students confronted faculty with their anger and concerns about this incident. That the meeting was “tense” is an understatement.

Here is an excellent commentary by Janet D. Stemwedel about the ethical challenges of the TMT and the (largely white) American scientific community as a whole.

Incidently, in July 2019, hundreds of astronomers and other scientists signed a petition supporting the protectors of Mauna Kea and opposing the construction of the TMT.

Predatory philanthropy. See Mauna Kea and the Moore Foundation’s Hypocrisy for a larger version of the funding charts below. The strategy of the Moore Foundation’s grants to TMT, University of Hawai’i, and the Nature Conservancy was and is designed to influence decision-making about Mauna Kea. All information taken from websites accessible to the public.

Corruption of public agencies and processes. See What Price Mauna Kea? for more details about the relationships between the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, the Nature Conservancy, University of Hawai’i, the Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) and Bureau of Land and Natural Resources (BLNR) and the possible skewing of the approval process in favor of the TMT. All information taken from websites accessible to the public.

You might also want to look at an interesting paper trail included in an article by Dr. Leonard G. Horowitz and Sherri Kane: Gov. Ige TMT Bribery Scandal. Ige’s office denied the allegation. I don’t know if there is any follow-up investigation.

Rev. Relationships GBMF:etc

Entitlement and duplicity. Gosh. Where to start? From the beginning of the theft of the Hawaiian Kingdom to the present moment, representatives of the occupying power have felt entitled to “dole” out (pun intended) duplicity to the Kanaka Maoli as a matter of course. All telescope development on Mauna Kea since 1968 is the result of entitled land grabs and lies. Today, TMT public relations communications routinely spin falsehoods and half-truths.

Violence. In 2015, at least one Mauna Kea activist was nearly run over by a car heading up the access road toward the telescopes. Sacred structures have been vandalized for years. In July 2019, police arrested 38 peaceful protectors of the mountain, most of them elderly people. A community classroom at Pu’uhonua o Pu’uhuluhulu was recently destroyed by authorities, who also ripped through and desecrated a Hawaiian flag. The protectors gathered at Pu’u Huluhulu have been harrassed with parking tickets as well as threatened with potentially lethal force in future police actions. Here is a video of some of the Kia’i making a statement about police harrassment and misconduct.

Paul Neves, a longtime Mauna Kea activist who is a renowned kumu hula (hula teacher) and a member of the Royal Order of Kamehameha, reported a recent encounter with a gun-wielding man on a street near his home in Hilo. Kumu Neves has asked for his post to be shared widely so I have copied and pasted his post here.


Please share this with everyone…

On the morning of Saturday September 28th between 6:30 and 7:00 AM, beachside across the street from Seaside Restaurant in Keaukaha, my life was threatened while walking my dog. A gun was aimed methodically and purposefully right at me, within 8 feet of my face. At that very moment, I thought I would be shot and killed. I remember his face, the barrel of the gun and his dead eyes. I will never forget.

Those of you who know me, know that I have been outspoken on political, cultural and spiritual issues all my life, and especially in Hawai’i. You also know that I am not afraid to die for what I believe in and that I will not be threatened or intimidated. I will continue to follow the call of Ke Akua and that is my refuge, purpose and mission in life.

The shooter left after my yelling and screaming back at him. After a long five seconds his car fled the scene. The police were timely and I am following up with them. I have shared this terrible incident with my ohana and close friends. I also am seeking professional help to deal with it.

I share it with you because it is healing for me and to make you aware of a danger that does exists in our community. I am asking you to pray (PULE) for me and other innocent people who have been traumatized or threatened in their lives.

Never leave your home or loved ones without saying to them, “I Love You”. I have learned that valuable lesson! I got this my friends.
God bless you…See You On The Mauna… Kumu Paul Neves


Cultural assumptions about Hawai’i and Hawaiians. From the above mentioned “angry hordes” of Sandy Farber’s imagination to the frequent characterization of Kanaka Maoli as somehow less rational and more superstitious (given their devotion to their own culture and the sacredness of their mountain), negative and insulting assumptions (often racialized) inform TMT-related policies and actions of duplicity and entitlement. To discredit Mauna Kea’s protectors, Governor Ige and other authority figures have portrayed the sacred “place of refuge” at Pu’uhuluhulu as unsafe, unsanitary, violent, drug-ridden, criminal, etc. However, there is no evidence of this at and far more evidence of a well-run, loving, safe community established to prevent desecration of Mauna Kea. Pu’uhuluhulu is informed by the principal of Kapu Aloha–a nonviolent and spirit-filled commitment to stand in dignity and peace, as appropriate to the cause and the sacredness of the place.

Superstition. By assuming (1) the mantle of a privileged intellectual elite (which must never be challenged) and (2) the values of short-sighted, profit-driven rampant consumerism (capitalism), Western Science Culture has helped to create an almost superstitious mindset among the general public. This is a mindset that looks to the Great Gods of Science to provide tech fixes to our most dire, life destroying predicaments: those of climate catastrophe, ubiquitous pollution, and rapid species extinction, a domino effect of almost total Earth ecosystem collapse. No matter that most of these predicaments are the result of science in the service of industry–creating nuclear bombs, toxic petrochemicals, plastic microbeads that fill the bellies of ocean animals, ad infinitum. Why we should expect the same mindset that created these problems to also provide solutions is beyond me. It seems to be a superstition of the most tragic and pernicious kind.

Therefore, when I “compare and contrast” the features of the TMT’s Imperial Western Science culture–and its lack of ethics and penchant for all manner of poor behavior–I do not believe that the TMT’s culture is at all compatible with the rational science and spiritual stewardship demonstrated by the Mauna Kea Kia’i, who are protecting a precious cultural and natural resource in a world imperiled by the same kind of entitlement and reckless disregard of natural balance and human rights that are at the heart of the efforts to build the TMT.

I conclude that the TMT and its proponents should not have any say at all in what happens on Mauna Kea.

Finally, here is a cogent statement from one of the leaders in the fight to preserve Mauna Kea, Kealoha Pisciotta’s discussion of a Mauna Kea “management plan” produced by the Kanaka Maoli lahui (community) some time ago. This sixteen-minute video is well worth watching, especially if you’ve been confused by this issue.

Ku Kia’i Mauna!

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