Mauna Kea, the contested site for the Thirty Meter Telescope.
Photo: AP

All week, opponents to the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) have been putting their bodies on the line to prevent construction from starting on top of Hawaii’s Mauna Kea. Now these opponents, who are largely Native Hawaiian, are finding allies among an unlikely group: astronomers, including those whose research would benefit from the giant new telescope.

The TMT is a $1.4 billion project that’d allow astronomers to gaze billions of years into the past. The project has faced stiff opposition from Native Hawaiians due to its planned construction site atop the sacred mountain of Mauna Kea, a decision that raises issues of Native Hawaiian sovereignty and who gets to decide what happens on historically indigenous lands. Construction was slated to start this week, but opponents aren’t planning to let that happen. The first arrests of protestors blocking work crews on the mountain occurred Wednesday.

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That was the big moment for Sal Wanying Fu, especially when she found out law enforcement officers were arresting Native Hawaiian elders. The 22-year-old is a budding astrophysicist, but that doesn’t mean she’s down for the telescope to be built by any means necessary. And more than 200 other astronomers feel similarly, signing an open letter Fu published Wednesday with Mia de los Reyes, another graduate student of astronomy. Both students are at institutions that comprise the TMT International Observatory, the coalition behind the telescope—Fu at the University of California at Berkeley and de los Reyes at Caltech.

Fu and de los Reyes urged the astronomy community to speak out against the criminalization of TMT opponents protesting on Mauna Kea. The letter doesn’t denounce the project outright, but it does question the methods the coalition and Hawaiian government are using to make it happen.

“We certainly hoped that regardless of astronomers’ opinions on the construction of TMT, we could agree that involving the military and the police in these deliberations was bad,” both students said in an emailed statement to Earther. “And we think the outpouring of support speaks, at least, to the fact that people recognize the importance of that message.”

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And their message is clear: “We ask that the community pause and consider what it means that, armed or not, the military and the police have become involved in the project’s deliberations with the protectors of Maunakea,” the letter reads.

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Most importantly, the letter highlights the complicated and troubling history the scientific community has had with people of color, especially indigenous peoples who’ve lost countless lands (and lives) to white colonizers’ obsession with conquest and trying to “civilize” Native peoples historically (and incorrectly) viewed as less-than.

“These histories progressed in lock-step with the development of western ‘sciences’ of personhood: of who and/or what is human, and therefore who must be subhuman, and thus must be subject to control via mechanisms of policing, incarceration, and military violence,” the letter goes on.

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Indigenous and Native Hawaiian sovereignty is ultimately at the heart of this whole issue. It’s not that opponents don’t believe in the science or don’t want the telescope built at all—it’s that this is their sacred, ancestral land. The way they see it, it’s not up for grabs for scientists to use however they see fit. And yet that’s what many in the field have done, argues Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, an astrophysicist at the University of New Hampshire who signed the letter, in an email to Earther.

“What’s facilitated [scientific] access [to Mauna Kea] is American colonialism on kānaka ‘ōiwi (Native Hawaiian) land in what we call the state of Hawaii,” she wrote. “It is the American state apparatus that continues to play a role in enforcing astronomer access to the Mauna, for example, with the police forces this week arresting the kūpuna, the elders, who took great physical risk to protect their family.”

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Many scientists agree that it shouldn’t be that way, as this letter’s list of signatories made clear. For Hilding Neilson, an assistant professor of astronomy at the University of Toronto who also signed the letter, much of it comes down to ethics and human rights.

“I think we have a duty to stand up for people and their rights, and in Canada and the U.S., I think that means listening and learning from Indigenous peoples,” Neilson told Earther in an email. “We have an ethical duty to put the rights of people ahead of our science. Otherwise, our science is unethical.”

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As a man from the Mi’kmaq First Nation in eastern Canada, Neilson felt horrified when he saw elders facing arrest Wednesday. If that were happening on his turf, these individuals could’ve been his friends and family. That’s, in part, why he signed the letter.

Protestors have risked arrest in their efforts to stop construction of the controversial telescope.
Photo: AP

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“My work includes integrating Indigenous knowledge into astronomy,” he said. “How could I do that on one hand and stay quiet on the other?”

Some signatories don’t believe the project should go on as planned. Lucianne Walkowicz, an astronomer at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago, can’t support the TMT until the project operates in partnership with the Native Hawaiian community. The TMT International Observatory argues that it has, of course, by creating workforce pipeline programs for Native Hawaiians and an education fund for Native Hawaiian youth interested in pursuing astronomy. At this point, though, it’s tough to imagine a future where opponents are happy seeing the telescope atop Mauna Kea.

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And Walkowicz doesn’t imagine that happening without her colleagues coming to terms with “their role in not only historical but continued colonial violence against marginalized people,” which feels like a long shot.

“What I currently see from colleagues who support TMT construction is a failure to take the central objections of the Kānaka Maoli protectors seriously,” Walkowicz said. “I see many colleagues regurgitating poll numbers about majority support for TMT construction without reckoning with the fact that diminishing the objections of indigenous communities in the name of ‘progress’ is literally the definition of marginalizing people.”

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The histories of these people and the social issues surrounding the research are just as important as the science itself, said Sara Kahanamoku, a Native Hawaiian biologist at Berkeley who’s been inspired by the actions of her people on Mauna Kea, as well as by the support from the astronomy community.

“Just as we have a responsibility to learn the state-of-the-art in of our respective fields of science, we also have a responsibility to learn the history of our discipline,” she wrote to Earther in an email. “Begin by asking: who has historically benefitted from my field’s practice of science? How is the legacy of inequality manifested in the structure of modern academic institutions?” 

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This isn’t a moment for scientists to stay silent, said Aurora Kagawa-Viviani, a Native Hawaiian Ph.D. candidate at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa’s Department of Geography and Environment who’s been following the stand-off closely. That would make scientists complicit in oppressing indigenous worldviews, she told Earther via email.

Here’s the kicker, though. This state-of-the-art machine doesn’t have to exist on Mauna Kea. Spain’s Canary Islands offer a prime location for the telescope, too. While not as perfect as Mauna Kea, the site is pretty damn good. However, the researchers aren’t necessarily suggesting this is what needs to be done. What they want to make clear is that arresting elders to construct a telescope where it’s not wanted by some is not the right way to make it happen.

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