Social Issues

Mauna Kea and Me: A Summary of Truth, Reconciliation, and a Telescope

Though Mount Everest claims the title of the highest mountain in the world, Mauna Kea, a dormant volcano in Hawai’i, is technically taller by a thousand meters when measured from the mountain’s base, deep beneath the ocean. Mauna Kea is home to a myriad of wildlife species and most importantly, holds deep cultural significance for the Indigenous populations residing in Hawai’i. Thus, when the Hawai’i Supreme Court approved the construction of a Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT), which will be the largest telescope in the world when built, local Indigenous populations were wary of the threat that this posed to their land and to their autonomy.

Mauna Kea holds particular religious significance for  Hawai’i’s indigenous population, the Kānaka Maoli, as the place where the creator (Akua) meets earth. It is also where several other deities related to stories of creationism (such as Earth Mother, known as Papa, and Sky Father, known as Wakea) are worshipped. On the mountain, there are different shrines and burial grounds frequented by locals. The mountain itself also provides great conditions for astronomical purposes. The dry air, clear skies and stable weather makes it the most ideal spot in the northern hemisphere, to observe space, which is why there are already twelve observatories on the mountain.

Due to Mauna Kea’s reputation as an astronomical gold mine, Canada is one of a handful of countries that has committed itself as a stakeholder in the project. Alongside India, China, Japan, and the United States, Canada will lend its resources to the TMT in the hope of benefitting from future discoveries at the observatory.

The Telescope

According to the telescope’s official website, the TMT will enable researchers to have a better grasp of the history of our universe. It promises a deeper understanding of dark matter, black holes and life beyond earth. Quite frankly, the capabilities of the telescope itself sound really, really cool. Building the telescope also holds economic promise for Hawai’i; according to its official site, the building of the telescope “will create about 300 local and specialized construction jobs” and 140 jobs within the observatory itself. The location of Mauna Kea is the key to a realm of new possibilities, a key that should ultimately belong to the residents whose history and identity is deeply entrenched in the mountain.

Telescope, Observatory, Astronomy, Sky, Outdoors

To their credit, the organizations developing the project (called the Thirty-Meter Telescope International Observatory LLC or the TIO) claim that the TMT will be built on a site “not used for traditional and customary native Hawaiian practices conducted elsewhere on Mauna Kea” and with “no endangered flora or fauna.” Due process has been followed regarding permits, public meetings and presentations for the TMT, but the TIO is not necessarily receiving criticism for its lack of consultation with locals. Aside from the glaring issue that the entire mountain is held sacred by the Kānaka Maoli and to build on it is to desecrate their land, much criticism stems from the lack of consent from those to whom this mountain matters the most. This difference between consultation and consent has driven protests that have been going on for weeks at the mountain’s base. These protests have led to a halt in the construction of the observatory, initially scheduled to begin on July 15th.

How is Canada Involved?

The National Research Council of Canada is in a partnership with a handful of other organizations from China, India, Japan and the United States to help fund and develop the giant telescope. The Canadian government has agreed to contribute over 240 million dollars to the project, and members of the Association of Canadian Universities for Research in Astronomy (ACURA) will be granted access to the observatory as part of their involvement, according to section 1.7 of a report submitted to the National Research Council of Canada by ACURA in 2013. See if your university is a member of ACURA by clicking here.

Low-Angle Photo of Canadian Flag Near Tall Buildings 

However, with Canada’s recent focus on truth and reconciliation (to acknowledge the experiences of the country’s Indigenous population), there has been great public outcry by Canadian students against the building of the telescope, especially considering that a secondary location in La Palma, Spain has been considered for the observatory instead. My own university, the University of Waterloo (UW), recently held a protest on campus against the university’s involvement in the project. As Indigenous student Sydney Hannusch, who participated in the protests, penned in an article for the University of Waterloo’s newspaper, the construction of the TMT is an act of colonization that “violate[s] a number of articles in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).” 

Though UNDRIP is not a legally binding agreement between Indigenous groups and the participating countries, it does provide a clear framework for  the ways in which the TMT infringes on Indigenous rights. For instance, Article 8 of UNDRIP states that “Indigenous  peoples  and  individuals  have  the  right not to be subjected to forced assimilation or destruction of their culture,” while Article 12 reads “Indigenous peoples have the right to manifest, practise, develop and teach their spiritual and religious  traditions, customs  and  ceremonies; [and] the right to maintain, protect, and have access in  privacy  to  their religious and cultural  sites.” Though the eighteen-story telescope may not be built on a highly visible area of the mountain that would directly encroach upon specifically sensitive places of worship, it nonetheless re-purposes old and sacred land, and its construction process may not grant privacy and protection to the religious and cultural sites of Mauna Kea.

Hawaii, Big Iland, Mauna Kea, Sunset

Canada was one of the very few countries to initially reject UNDRIP, but finally acknowledged the declaration nearly 10 years after it was adopted by the UN. Before its disbandment, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission called on Canadian institutions (medical, legal, religious and governmental) in its 94 calls to action, to implement UNDRIP as a framework for reconciliation. Though the federal government has taken some steps to reflect their commitment to the declaration and to reconciliation in Canada, its participation in the construction of the telescope in Hawai’i calls us to question whether the Government of Canada has a responsibility for the wellbeing of Indigenous groups beyond our borders.

What Now?

Peaceful protests continue to take place on the main access road to Mauna Kea’s ascent. Many perceive the telescope on Mauna Kea to be yet another instance of theft and desecration of Indigenous land for the benefit of hegemonic institutions. Much of North America’s colonial history has taken place in the name of “progress,” in exchange for the regression of Indigenous cultures and identities. Truthfully, this issue is much more complex than the brief summary offered in this article, with a great deal of pain stemming from the United States’ historical treatment of the land rightfully belonging to the Kānaka Maoli. Any facts or statistics given by the TIO regarding the low environmental impact of the building site, the cultural training that will take place after the telescope is built or the percentage of Hawai’ians who support the TMT do not negate the lack of consent from those who have been fighting for their land and identity long before the telescope was even conceived.

Consent matters. Without it, the Telescope International Observatory LLC and all of its affiliates are complicit in a modern act of neo-colonialism.