Editorial: Mauna Kea is shining against colonial science

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This week, we covered the events at Mauna Kea and the bravery of the Kia’i, the Kanaka Maoli (native Hawaiians) and their allies who are defending against additional intrusions upon the sacred mauna.

Protector Kaho’okahi Kanuha told CNN, “We are taking a stand not only to protect our mauna and aina, our land… We are fighting to protect it because we know if we cannot stop this, there is not very much we can fight for or protect… This is our last stand.”

The protector is right. This is very much a last stand.

While news media are focused on the activity of celebrities and their stated support of the protectors, the protests are the culmination of a process that has been unfolding for the last couple of centuries: the use of science as a tool for colonial oppression.

Although the current front is the conflict about the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) on Mauna Kea, there is a deeper issue found within the decision-making process. It is one that is repeated countless times upon indigenous populations the world over.

Yes, there is some complicated astronomical history in Hawai’i. King Kalakaua and members of the royal family did want an observatory in Hawai’i, and they invited British astronomers to view the 1874 Transit of Venus. But they were seeking to join a modern world while still remaining Hawaiian.

Today, the Thirty Meter Telescope is part of the Mauna Kea Observatories, colloquially called the “Astronomy precinct.” That precinct began in 1967 and spans 525 acres inside land protected by the U.S. National Historical Preservation Act of 1966.

Telescope on Mauna Kea [Photo Credit : Generic1139  CC BY 4.0]

The Mauna Kea Observatories project was spearheaded by no less than Prof. Gerard Peter Kuiper, one of the luminaries of astronomy, for whom the Kuiper Belt was named. (He was also, as an aside, the dissertation advisor to Dr. Carl Sagan.)

In the late 1960’s, Dr. Kuiper identified the site as ideal for astronomical research because of its ideal dark skies, high elevation, favorable weather, and low humidity. He convinced all the powerful stakeholders of the benefits of the project, enlisting the aid of the Hawai’i Governor’s Office, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the United State’s Air Force, as well as educational and research institutions such as University of Hawai’i and Lowell Observatory. France and Canada also agreed to build and observatory. There are now 13 observation facilities on Mauna Kea.

The problem is Mauna Kea is a sacred site to the Native Hawaiians.

In modern stakeholder theory, a cornerstone for the ethical conduct of business, and in federal policy for the protection of human subjects, the centrality of self-determination is expected to be inviolable.

Stakeholder theory argues that beyond legal arrangements, there are ethical responsibilities to bring together all parties – consumers, suppliers, financiers, government agencies, political groups, and community members – in an effort to discuss any endeavor. It is both time-consuming and costly.

It also presumes something that is not the case: that all members are interested in dialogue.

It is at that juncture that the Mauna Kea protests expose the basic hypocrisy of the powerful parties that have desecrated the mountain. It should be a theme that many Pagans, Heathens, and polytheists find familiar.

The unspoken bias of many in the sciences is that the beliefs of Indigenous peoples – and many people of faith, with particular targets being those who engage in ancestor veneration or animism – are primitive, unenlightened, and worthy of dismissal.

Indeed, there is a long history of it. In 2015, the TMT’s Hawaii Community Affairs representative, Sandra Dawson, said to New Scientist, “We chose a site that has no archaeological shrines, has not been the site of cultural practices, and isn’t visible from distance of holy sites.” This, despite Native Hawaiians underscoring that the entire mauna is sacred.

JCMT/East Asian Observatory on Mauna Kea [public domain]

Dawson would go on to note that Indigenous religious practitioners were involved in the TMT plans in addition to scientists and historians. She said, “We thought that by having all the meetings we had over last seven years, many of them in indigenous Hawaiian communities, the information would get out. We now know that that’s not the case. We’re going to work harder to make that happen.”

The point here is that neither the sacredness of the site nor the beliefs of Native Hawaiians are up for negotiation. The conversation about the site should be within the framework of a sacred site to an indigenous community, not about a search for concessions about which area of a mountain is “less sacred” and therefore more suitable for development.

Dr. Sandra Farber, herself a luminary astrophysicist and professor at the University of California – Berkeley, exposed the bias in 2015 email seeking support from the scientific community for the TMT.  In that message, she wrote “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.” (She would later apologize for her comments.)

There is another component to the ethical conduct of the research, specifically on human subjects, that is relevant here: consent may be declined at any time. A subject may begin participating and decline to go further. A subject could even conclude an experiment and request their data destroyed.

The TMT does not involve human subjects.  But the ethical point remains the same:  ownership – whether of data or resources – is retained. The ethical obligation is to respect the independence of the owners, who should make decisions free of coercion and retain the right to pull consent.

Indigenous populations have not been afforded this basic privilege. Instead, scientific colonizers have used the machine of legal process to undermine the permanent sovereignty of a people in determining what they consider sacred.

Native Hawaiians – any indigenous people – are not just one of several stakeholders in scientific projects; they are – or rather, should be – the primary deciders of the use of their lands.

If an indigenous people claim a species, an herb, or a mountain is sacred, it should not then instigate an act of negotiation. It should instigate an act of reverence, not a quest to supersede or undermine that belief.

Many of my colleagues in different branches of the sciences understand this challenge and approach solutions respectfully and honorably. Many seek guidance from indigenous elders about how to approach an area or even the bodies of deceased ancestors. Some, though few, even abandon their research if that consent is not offered, even if they have legal permits to continue their work.

There are others, though, who use the tools of the state to gain that access. They are aware of their legal permissions to intrude on indigenous lands, and it is the use of that legal mechanism which raises the long and overbearing shadow of colonial damage.

This only happens in the context of indigenous sites. It would be viewed as outrageous if a state used its power of eminent domain or archeological permitting to access the sepulchers of inner sanctums of major faiths.

Minority faiths, such as those indigenous people – as well as those of Pagans, Heathens and polytheists – are framed as primitive and obsolete because that statement conveniently subordinates their cultures to the colonial power, whether that power be political, religious, or corporate.

Mauna Kea is shining, illuminating an element of the scientific institution that will benefit from the wisdom of indigenous peoples and their rights. Science should be a tool for continued enlightenment, not one to belittle cultures or faiths.  It should be a tool that enhances our understanding of the world and ourselves. Science should be used as the ally of indigenous autonomy – not another instrument of colonial oppression.