Inside the Fight Against a Massive Telescope Atop a Sacred Hawaiian Mountain
Stills via RISE.
Indigenous issues

Inside the Fight Against a Massive Telescope Atop a Sacred Hawaiian Mountain

Indigenous groups argue that Mauna Kea is already overdeveloped.
February 23, 2017, 4:30pm

Mauna Kea's summit is an unparalleled vantage point for astronomers eager to peer deep into the universe.

The mountain's prime stargazing location is no secret to Native Hawaiians, either. They deeply revere the dormant, skyscraping volcano: At the top of the 13,000-foot mountain, stone shrines, erected by their ancestors, align with constellations piercing the night sky.

"They're all interconnected and make a star grid. The alignment meant that families were able to connect with those star beings, those star nations," E. Kalani Flores, a professor of Hawaiian lifestyles at Hawaii Community College–Palamanui, told VICE. "It's a divine connection to other life forms on other star systems. Our ancestral knowledge is actually embedded in the sites up there—it's imprinted and can still be activated."


Some Native Hawaiians, like Flores, are perturbed by the "overdevelopment" of Mauna Kea. Its peak is peppered with telescopes—13 of them to date. And there could be an additional one in the future, an unrivaled, hulking piece of machinery called the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) that will be capable of gazing about 13 billion light years into space. According to Flores, the project will mar culturally important sites, like the star shrines, if it's built.

The $1.4 billion, 18-story telescope, spearheaded by the TMT International Observatory (TIO), has been in the works for roughly 14 years. In recent years, it's been mired by unwavering pushback from the indigenous Hawaiian community.

This issue, along with the revitalization of native sovereignty in the state, is the focus of this week's episode of RISE, our VICELAND series about indigenous peoples across the Americas.

Opposition to the project came to a head in 2015, when "protectors" halted a stream of construction crews and dignitaries from breaking ground. Nerves became frayed, and some Native Hawaiians were arrested.

Joshua Lanakila Mangauil, the director of the Hawaiian Cultural Center of Hamakua, helped launch the initial revolt.

"We wanted to get in their cameras and show that this action isn't all hunky dory. Mauna Kea is part of our creation story," he told VICE. "The pinnacle of Mauna Kea is that it is the crown of the aquifer. It jettisons up into the sky and gives us multiple climate zones that allows for many lifeforms to thrive."


The fight to protect the mountain has circulated through the court system. Currently, there are more than 60 people involved in a contested case hearing—Flores being one of the lead parties. The quasi-court process allows opponents to air grievances and will ultimately determine the legal grounds of the project.

This is the second hearing to date. The Hawaiian Supreme Court ordered the state's Board of Land and Natural Resources (BLNR) to host an additional one after it found the department unlawfully voted to issue a permit to streamline construction.

"The supreme court affirmed our position and ended up invalidating the permit because they didn't vote to have a hearing first," said Flores. "They didn't follow the process of law."

Kealoha Pisciotta, president of Mauna Kea Anaina Hou, a cultural group made up of Native Hawaiians, also delivered concerns to the supreme court after the incident and is likewise involved in the hearing. She is a former telescope systems specialist on Mauna Kea but now says development on the mountaintop has gone too far.

"It truly does not meet the legal requirements," she told VICE during a hearing recess. "They [the state] has actually exceeded the carrying capacity that was established years ago, which was 11 major and two minor telescopes. This project is so huge it can't even fit on the summit."

The bottom line is "opposing the desecration of the sacred," she said.


"When I worked up there, I didn't necessarily see it as a conflict, as I come from star people. However, where the conflict began is when the landscape began to be dominated by human [constructions] and it was removing the space for sanctity and reverence. Since 2001, our position has been no further development."

For the TMT to be built, it needs both a permit and a sublease since it's on conservation land. This is where the University of Hawaii fits in.

"What the university has done is sublease different parts to various international corporations and entities," said Flores. "As part of this, they wanted to give a sublease to the TMT."

The BLNR was also involved in approving a sublease issued by the university, which Flores and others appealed. A circuit court agreed that a revived contested case on the matter should be held, he said.

"Right now this project doesn't have a permit, and they don't have consent to a sublease. They're back to square one."

In an October news release, TIO announced it's searching for an alternate site, presumably because of prolonged delays. One location is on Spain's Canary Islands.

"Maunakea continues to be the preferred choice for the Thirty Meter Telescope, and the TIO Board will continue intensive efforts to gain approval for TMT in Hawaii," it says. "TIO is very grateful to all our supporters and friends throughout Hawaii, and we deeply appreciate their continued support."


The board did not respond to an email sent by VICE.

Paul Coleman, an astrophysicist at the university and a Native Hawaiian, conversely explained the telescope represents "a leap year of new technology and possibilities."

He told VICE that Mauna Kea isn't as sacred as some Native Hawaiians make it out to be. If it is, he added, he wants evidence.

"There are things worth fighting and arguing over," he said. "I just don't think this is one. Astronomy, no matter what form, fits quite nicely into the cultural aspects of Hawaii because I believe Hawaiians are astronomers. That defines us. This is a wonderful thing for the state, particularly Native Hawaiians who can benefit both economically and educationally."

To Mangauil, the fight to protect Mauna Kea is a microcosm of what is happening all around the world: corporate interests encroaching on delicate and sacred environments.

"We understand, as island people, you only take what you need and we live on a finite planet with finite resources," he said. "Continental people don't seem to understand that. What's happening on the summit is the same abuse the whole planet is seeing."

RISE airs Fridays at 9 PM on VICELAND.

Follow Julien Gignac on Twitter.