What are the implications of the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) project that is at the center of the growing protest in Hawaii for indigenous Hawaiians, and for science? We discuss the issue with Katie Kamelamela, who is informing the conversation in Hawaii
JACQUELINE LUQMAN This is Jacqueline Luqman with The Real News Network.
Much like Standing Rock was the flash point for Indigenous-centered and led protests against the destruction of natural environments, the growing protests at Mauna Kea are galvanizing the Indigenous community in Hawaii. Today we’re going to talk about what the Thirty Meter Telescope project at the center of this growing protest is and what some of the implications for Indigenous Hawaiian culture, history, tradition, and for science are.
Joining me in this discussion is Katie Kamelamela. Katie is a Native Hawaiian ethnoecologist, which means she studies the relationship between people and their environment, who is currently earning a doctorate from the University of Hawaii at Manoa in the Botany Department, which she defends next week. She’s also part of a consortium of native Hawaiian scientists and allies that are informing the conversation surrounding the TMT, the Thirty Meter Telescope, narrative of Hawaiians versus science through the hashtags #Hawaiianscientist and #Hawaiianscientists on social media. Welcome, Katie, and thank you for joining me today.
KATIE KAMELAMELA Thank you for having me.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN So for people who are outside of Hawaii and who don’t know what is going on and do not understand what this issue is, what is the Thirty Meter Telescope project? And why is it a flashpoint right now in Hawaii?
KATIE KAMELAMELA The Thirty Meter Telescope project is, at the time it was originally proposed, was one of the largest telescopes to be built. Currently there is a larger telescope in Chile. And in the last ten years, there has been a legal process that they have gone through with the state, with the Supreme Court. There have been hearings, contested case hearings. And it was only recently that the governor granted that groundbreaking was going to happen and that was just a little bit – two weeks ago, just a little bit less than two weeks ago, and protectors have been at the base. There was also major protests in I believe it was—The groundbreaking was supposed to be in 2014, but that didn’t happen. There was also protests in 2015 and that stayed off the construction until 2019, which is where we’re at right now.
And the Thirty Meter Telescope is an international endeavor by multiple countries that includes, you know, America, the UC schools, Canada, India, Japan, and a couple of others, so it’s a really large endeavor. And the location of Mauna Kea where the telescope would be put is above the cloud line, so that would mean that there’d be a lot more clarity. There’s a lot less vapor, which means that there’s less distortion of images into the universe, and that’s why the astronomy community is very steadfast in their wanting to have the telescope there. And Hawaiians and white allies have been coming out for years saying that the mountain is sacred. And there are other telescopes up there, but there were also protests during those construction periods.
And I think due to the footprint of this project, which will be over five football fields and built to eighteen stories. And in Hilo, the county that I live in, the highest building that you can build is only six stories by law, by county law. So there’s just a lot of — there’s a lot that’s been going on for a really long time and I think for my generation and, you know, people younger than me now. In the 70s— this is super relevant— but in the 1970s, there’s a renaissance of Hawaiian culture and traditions and a lot of the people at the frontlines right now are products of that. They’re first language Native Hawaiian speakers. They’re culturally involved. And a lot of us really do — we’re environmentalists to protect the land, what we call is “Aina,” which means “that which feeds” physically, spiritually, mentally, all of those things. So there’s a lot of big investment on the telescope side. And historically, Hawaiians— myself included— can track our genealogies to the mountain through our cosmogonic chants.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN Wow.
KATIE KAMELAMELA So there’s a lot going on.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN So what a lot of people don’t realize is that protests against this particular telescope project have been going on since 2014, you said?
KATIE KAMELAMELA Even before that, but we protested in 2014. Yes.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN Even before that. And there are also other telescopes on the mountain that have also been protested. So this is not a new phenomenon in the Native or Indigenous community in Hawaii in this region?
KATIE KAMELAMELA No, it’s not. And I just saw a report from commissions of telescopes and recommendations from the state. I forget what year it was in the 1960s, but the state recommendation was not to build any more telescopes. And since that recommendation, they have not up and taken their own comments and suggestions from within. So I think that on the science side, sometimes the battle cry is like, well there’s already telescopes up there so it shouldn’t matter. Yes, there are telescopes up there. Yes, there were protests before. And none of those telescopes are to the magnitude of what the TMT will be. And when it was originally proposed, it was cutting edge technology and—Not to say that a thirty-meter telescope itself is not cutting-edge technology, but there’s other scopes that are now past that.
And they did have other sites set up. One of them is in La Palma in the Canary Islands and there have been no protests there. And in 2014, I believe either the chairman or the director of TMT had said we’ll go to the Canary Islands if, you know, if it doesn’t work out in Hawaii. But the TMT Board just sent a press release out a few days ago and in that press release they clearly state that they have no plans of going to the Canary Islands. So there’s conflict within what’s been told to the public, and what’s being shared with the public now.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN So I want to go back to what you said about you and other activists. This generation of activists who are protecting the land can trace their lineage back several generations to and through the history of Hawaii. What is the significance, the historical significance, the cultural and traditional significance of Mauna Kea as it relates to Native Hawaiian culture? And explain why that’s important to people.
KATIE KAMELAMELA So let’s just do some really basic logistics. Mauna Kea is the tallest mountain in the Pacific basin. It’s also the tallest mountain in the world from the base to the top. And it’s one of our greatest protectors on this island from hurricanes and storms. It breaks up those disturbances in the atmosphere. And so with that, it’s also a big part of our watershed in collecting our water and we connect to that genealogy through Wakea, who’s known as Sky Father, and Ho’ohokukalani, who’s the progenitor of the stars. And together they make Haloanaka, which is a taro plant, becomes into a taro plant. It was a baby that was stillborn that was planted into the ground and became the first taro plant. And if anybody’s ever come to Hawaii and eaten poi, poi is one of the staples of Hawaiian diets— a traditional Hawaiian diet.
And so, Wakea was the creator of what was able to sustain us, literally. And after that taro was born, a man was born, Haloa. So it’s really integrated into the social fabric of how we engage with each other, how we relate to each other. The taro plant is “oha” and offshoots of it are kind of what we are. We’re the offshoots of that genealogy and that generation and our job as younger siblings is to take care of our elder brother, is to take care of our taro, and to take care of our mountain, and to take care of our stars. It’s really within our genealogy. So there’s been a narrative for many, many years I want to say where it’s been pinned as Hawaiians versus science, and that’s just not true.
There’s been utilization of our historical astronomy traditions, which include wave finding navigation, which Hokule’a did around the world in four years with the Malama Honua journey. They didn’t use any instruments to go around the world. They did it by hand and sight. So I think there’s a differentiation in how we engage with stars, how we engage with our ancestors, how we engage with our family, and the stars just aren’t something out there. Like, I literally go outside and I’m like, that’s my family. I’m part of them. We’re each other. And that might be hard for some people to understand, but I think that it’s very easy for not just Indigenous people, but anybody that spends time outside, anybody that recreates outdoors, hunters even. You know, you have a relationship with things that feed you, again, physically, mentally and spiritually.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN So there is that connection between the science and the tradition that you embody yourself being a scientist who is defending your doctorate next week. But you know, for some who are unfamiliar with the issue who have framed the protests as Indigenous Hawaiians protecting their sacred lands, so they’re protecting the spiritual aspect of the mountain, and non-Indigenous Hawaiian residents disrespecting the spiritual importance of Mauna Kea in favor of science and progress. Clearly, you said that’s not an accurate view of the issue, but going back to what you said about what the TMT Board issued in a press release saying that they have no intention of leaving or abandoning this project and relocating it somewhere else. Is this also an issue as we saw in Standing Rock of greed, of capitalism and greed bulldozing— quite literally bulldozing— over Indigenous and Native traditions and the will of the people who will be impacted? Is that an accurate view of this conflict also?
KATIE KAMELAMELA I think there is no break in the explorations with Western science and the impacts that it’s had on Indigenous peoples. There’s no break in where that’s going on. It’s still going on. We’re in it right now. It’s in our face and it’s just really interesting to see the amount of our elected officials come out on the county, state and federal level. We also have other scientists chiming in with the hashtag #scientistsforMaunakea and we’re really just trying to debunk this thought that science has to be like this. I was raised in academia that we have ethics. And we hold ourselves as scientists to an ethical standard and that is what validates our observations. And how we conduct those observations influences the data that we collect. And that means how we engage with people, how we record things. And although astronomy does have ethics related to publishing and data management and even they have a section on sentient beings, when I did a review, I didn’t see any engagement with people. And as an ethnoecologist, which is a little bit different because I deal directly with relations with people and their environment, I need to get their consent in order to conduct my, you know, inquiry. And so, there’s this—It’s really complicated to parse this out, but TMT is a corporation and corporations are treated differently than scientists. But also, scientists have our own ethical standards and so there’s a letter of over a thousand astronomers who have signed on about the ethical issues and displacement of Indigenous peoples due to science and asking for science to improve and be better. We’re not saying no to science and no to progress. We want science to progress in an amenable manner with partnerships that want us there because that’s only when true science can happen. It’s when the parties are able to amenably communicate and listen.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN Right. When all parties are able to receive and provide informed consent.
KATIE KAMELAMELA Yes, yes. And there have been things that have been said, but no action has been had. The decommissioning of telescopes was part of that conversation. There’s some decommissioning happening, but there’s been a call from some parts of the community of good faith: you need to take down telescopes before you put up another telescope. The biggest issue with not just science and not just astronomy, but also military operations in Hawaii— which take up 25% of our land— is that the remedy to bombs and the remedy to a building that’ll be eighteen stories tall at the highest point of the Pacific basin, is that you need to take care of that place. You cannot restore a place after you’ve degraded it five stories. It’s really hard to come back from that. And I’m also part of a part of science and it’s called biocultural restoration. And through this conflict I’m like, why are we pushing for biocultural restoration right now? We should be pushing for biocultural preservation. And biocultural anything is connecting — is creating linkages between the environment and people and languages in order to resonate and create a sustainable life.
And there are a lot of scientific studies showing that Indigenous peoples hold these knowledges. And I think it’s very interesting that you have astronomy saying that we’re against progress and Hawaiians are against progress, but then you have all these people from international places coming around, coming for Hawaii knowledge to restore their lands, to restore their practices, to restore their relationships to their ancestors that they may have been cut off from. And you don’t have to be Indigenous to have those relationships. We’re all human. We all have families. We all need to live and we’re all here on this planet. And what I hear and what I feel as a Hawaiian is that we should take care of this planet. And there’s been a lot of — even on NPR I think I heard a little bit ago, the next generation they’re projecting will be living on Mars. But we should — if we can’t take care of Earth, how can we take care of Mars? How can we take care of something else if we can’t even take care of our backyard here?
JACQUELINE LUQMAN Yeah.
KATIE KAMELAMELA And that’s a common saying in Hawaii. If you can’t take care of your backyard, you need to go home and do that before you take care of somebody else’s yard.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN And it certainly sounds like that conclusion, that your backyard and our larger backyard needs to be taken care of, can’t be reached because there is not communication between the entities in this process in pursuing this telescope. In fact, in a Twitter thread that you recently posted on your Twitter account— and it’s an excellent Twitter thread by the way— you commented that the protests are not so much against as you have said here, against science. They’re not against science. They’re not against progress, but they’re really against the process. And you say that the state has violated its own laws, its own processes, and its own commitments. Aside from the misinformation that has been given out by the TMT Board or the lack of information that they have shared with the community, what other ways has the state of Hawaii not honored their commitments or not followed their laws that has caused this conflict?
KATIE KAMELAMELA Within our Constitution, we have an “Aloha Spirit” clause saying that any official needs to conduct themselves with the Aloha Spirit at any point in time. And in my perception, just the recent events of the arresting of our kupuna, our elders, that’s a—I wouldn’t really call that Aloha per se. It was nice of them to not manhandle them, I guess. But the use of Hawaiian words and Hawaiian values is something that the state has really, really taken on. Our state motto is “Ua Mau ke Ea o ka ‘Aina i ka Pono,” which means that “The life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness.” And that quote was from our—Hawaii was a kingdom in 1843. King Kauikeaouli said that when there was a short occupation by England and he said, you know, the sovereignty of their land is with Hawaiians, it’s with Hawaii. And so it’s funny that our state motto is that.
But even through the process of the Board of Land and Natural Resources, the judgments that have been done in the Supreme Court, those judgments were based on within the Supreme Court’s previous decisions to allow telescopes to go up with the mentality of, oh it’s already degraded so it doesn’t matter, when they had the clear opportunity to uphold Native Hawaiian tenant rights, Native Hawaiian religious laws, and do better. And that decision wasn’t made in that matter. And there’s a very clear dissent by one of the judges that outlines the impacts that that Supreme Court decision will have on Native Hawaiian rights moving forward. And just to clarify for people who may not be aware, Native Hawaiians, Alaska Natives, and Native Americans have some legal canons to support their subsistence lifestyles.
And in Hawaii, the state recognizes that within the constitution, within case law, and within administrative rules. And so, this project is an affront to those rights that were advocated and inserted and supported by the people of Hawaii during the 1978 Constitutional Convention. And I think that a lot of people that are new here, which a lot of people are new to Hawaii, don’t understand that everybody in Hawaii as a citizen is bound by these laws to uphold Native Hawaiian access rights, which are actually — that law is a continuation from the Hawaiian Kingdom. That’s where that law came from. During the transition of public lands— which all lands are public prior to 1848— and then there was the privatization of land so that the sugar companies could acquire large tracts for low amounts of money. This is very historical and relevant as a backstory of what’s been going on in Hawaii since a really long time.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN We do see these similar strains throughout the history of Native and Indigenous people everywhere, almost everywhere, whether it’s in the United States, whether it’s in the Midwest on the reservations, whether it’s in Hawaii, whether it’s in Brazil, whether it’s in the Caribbean, whether it’s in Cuba. It does not matter where it is. When we see Indigenous people who are fighting against oversized governments and corporations that are hand-in-hand working to take land and rights from Indigenous people, it’s the same strain of colonialism and the capitalist exploitation that is woven throughout the history of almost all people. Another very consistent strain throughout the history of Indigenous or Native people in fighting the repression of the government is the government’s willingness to use military-like force to thwart protest, peaceful protests, but any kind of protest by the people and that certainly is going on here. What has gone on in the recent weeks in regard to the police, law enforcement, and the Governor of Hawaii?
KATIE KAMELAMELA About a couple of weeks ago, the governor mentioned that or stated that, you know, construction was going to happen. Protectors, as they like to be called, went to the base of the mountain at Pu’u Huluhulu, which is a kupuna outcropping within a lava landscape. And the governor had the National Guard come in. He also—The police from Oahu, Honolulu PD came in, which is from another island. Maui PD came in from another island. And honestly, they had to go back because of a court injunction that each county’s police department, their powers only reside in that county, so they we’re stepping over those boundaries. Since then, the police force from not on Hawaii Island has left. That was on Tuesday. They’re saying that the National Guard is not going to be coming in, but currently there are still officers from the Department of Land and Natural Resources as well as Hawaii County that are there.
I even talked to one of the officers. He wished that he was on our side. That’s why he was hanging out by the line so close. And he said that he’d never seen something so organized and so well put together. And it was beautiful for him to see Hawaiians coming together for a single purpose, which is to protect Mauna Kea. So you have family members on each side, people that are cops. I saw one thread where a father was asking his son how he was doing, and the son was asking the father, and the son was the protester and the father was the cop. So it’s, you know, I think for the officials here, the TMT issues really tell you about the social fabric of Hawaii. And we’re islands. We’re interdependent upon each other regardless of our opinions of what’s going on, TMT or anything, especially during disasters, which clearly happen here with the lava flow or hurricanes and huge floods that just happened last year in Hawaii.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN So you know, this is all continuing to develop. The developments are unfolding and we will continue to watch as they unfold, but the last thing I want to ask you, Katie, how do you see this resolving? Do you see a resolution that might be beneficial in some way to most parties involved? Or do you see an outcome that is going to be more like Standing Rock? How do you see this resolving?
KATIE KAMELAMELA Everybody that is with the protectors is under a kapu, or under an edict of Aloha. It’s called Kapu Aloha. And so, there is nonviolence protesting going on. The request from the protectors is that TMT not be built. TMT would like to be built there. There’s clearly not going to be much resolution there. I would like to see everybody just stay safe. And that’s really my main goal right now is that we’re stay mentally and physically and spiritually safe. I understand the big business behind it. Not just the big business, but big government having TMT within American borders allows for more oversight by the government. It allows for money from international areas to stay within the nation. I understand that. I understand that a lot of our people will be crushed.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN Yeah.
KATIE KAMELAMELA And it’s going to take a long time to recover. We’ve had a lot of really good articles written locally and I think that’s really what’s pushing the government right now. Not the governor obviously, but pushing other people is keeping our family safe. A lot of people are sleep-deprived and they’re not even at the mountain protesting. We’re worried about our friends, our family on both sides. And we’re really just trying to come with Aloha— real Aloha— from the depths of our souls. And there’s ceremony going on every day. At least three times a day as well as solidarity from all around the Pacific, New Zealand, Tonga, Samoa, Japan has come. And Ihumatao I believe was a standoff that was going on just until yesterday. The [New Zealand] Prime Minister called it off and said that there is no construction until there can be an amenable conversation between the two sides.
And being within the academy, I am learning more that words mean things to different people and they construe them differently. And I think it’s just really important for people to be aware about language because that language is the gateway to the future and how we have our engagements moving forward. So I don’t really have an answer to how I think it will go forward. I think it would be amazing if we can hold our soil and decommission telescopes. And I think people should be held to their word before they can move forward. I think for me that’s where it’s at.
For me it’s also a process-driven issue, fully. I’ve worked in government, I’ve worked in DC, I’ve worked in non-profits, private sector, and it’s all about the process. And if we are not ethical watchdogs about that process, that process will be manipulated. Not just now, but the worst part is it creates precedent for the same behavior to continue on and proliferate, which is in my point of view not ideal— not an ideal way to do science and to create relationships with communities that astronomers actually learn from. [laughs] And one of those tactics is to utilize Hawaiian language in naming planets and naming asteroids to identify that as consent by Hawaiians. You know, that’s one part of the community for sure.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN Yeah.
KATIE KAMELAMELA But there’s a very large part of the committee that is taking leave from their job and going to take care of the mountain and taking care of it—Like really, taking care of ourselves and the land is really what’s going on. It’s beautiful. I just went up there yesterday to go see one of my professors that’s going to be at my defense. But, yeah. And if people are interested in that on the front lines, just do this phonetically. It’s called Pu’u Huluhulu and they’re on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. And you’ll get updates from them directly if you want to know what’s going on in the front lines.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN Well, we certainly do want to continue to get information from the front lines because we will, as I said, continue to watch these developments. And we send the spirit of Aloha to you and to all of your and our relatives. And I thank you so much, Katie, for being with me today and for shedding some light on this situation and I appreciate your time.
KATIE KAMELAMELA Thank you so much for having me. Thank you so much for sharing the story of Mauna Kea and the efforts of so many people. And so many people are contributing and have passed that have contributed, so you’re really just honoring that story. So I thank you for your time, as well.
JACQUELINE LUQMAN And I want to thank all of you for watching. This is Jacqueline Luqman with The Real News Network in Baltimore.