Indigenous Culture vs. Science: Thirty-Meter Telescope Permit Vacated by Hawaiian Supreme Court

Image Source: Shauna Krystin

Image Source: Shauna Krystin

Seattle, Washington (TFC) – Following several years of research, discussion, and controversy, the Hawaiian Supreme court determined that the University of Hawaii’s permit to build the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) atop Mauna Kea was issued in error, thereby vacating the permit and effectively halting the entire project for years to come. Protestors made national news last year with their efforts to disrupt the groundbreaking and subsequent development attempts in the disputed area. The indigenous people’s claim to the mountain is based upon ancient cultural beliefs, and are mocked by the science community at large. Several observatories already exist atop Mauna Kea, but activist groups say that the proposed eighteen-and-a-half-story TMT is one too many. Mauna Kea, one of the best places on Earth for looking into space, is also considered home to many cultural deities, and is used in sacred ritual by Hawaiian people to this day.

According to an activist interviewed on Big Island Video News back in April, the entire state of Hawaii is illegal, having been under prolonged illegal occupation, having been seized from Hawaiian royalty in what is known to the Hawaiian people as the “Bayonet Constitution,” as in signed under threat of. The Native Hawaiian people, he claims, are beginning to stand up against this illegal occupation and demand the lands that were meant to be held in trust for them, beginning with their sacred claim to the mountaintop home of some of their most powerful deities. “We don’t see the reason to look further into space, when we can’t even malama [care for] what we have here,” he says. Legally speaking, the mountain top is considered a conservation area and the thirteen existing telescopes (some now defunct) were only allowed up there due to legal loopholes and court decisions.

The decision to vacate the University’s permit shocked many in the science community. However, the western ideal of progress is not universally accepted, as one indigenous astrophysicist, Dr. Chanda Hsu Prescod-Weinstein, pointed out in tweets supportive of the protests last April. While most agree the Thirty Meter Telescope, if built, would be a stunning feat of modern science, protestors urge the relocation of the project to a site that doesn’t desecrate sacred land and damage an environmentally sensitive area. While industry experts complain that the court’s halt of the $1.5 billion project sends a message to business developers to avoid Hawaii altogether, certain astronomers and investors are still holding onto hope that the project will be able to proceed, eventually. Activists promise to fight TMT developers at every turn and are on alert to respond if additional court action is taken to move the project forward.