To Gain the World: The Fight for Mauna Kea

“What good will it do a man if he gains the whole world, but loses his soul?”

Mauna Kea Summit in Winter. 8/9/2001. USGS
Mauna Kea Summit in Winter. 8/9/2001. USGS

It’s a Biblical passage — and yet, it’s the phrase that kept repeating in my mind again and again as I listened to the first episode of the new season of the Offshore Podcast (a show exploring cultural and social justice issues in Hawaii). The voices of astronomers and native Hawaiians, park rangers and environmental activists each spoke in turn about the complicated conflict over Mauna Kea, the tallest and most sacred mountain in Hawaii…. Amidst the jostle of opinions and perspectives, that one phrase rose to the surface like something shaken loose from the depths of childhood memory: “What good will it do a man if he gains the whole world, but loses his soul?”

Yet the question didn’t mean what it used to mean to me — in fact, somehow, now it meant the exact opposite.

That’s the thing about life. Contexts change. Cultures and societies evolve through a give-and-take of perseverance and preservation. Spiritual traditions thrive in the here-and-now even as they carry echoes of the deep past. The conflict about this sacred mountain in Hawaii is quintessentially about how the deep past continues to shape us to this day, and how we grapple with the interconnected web of being that weaves us into that past even as we strive towards a shared future.

Telescopes of the Mauna Kea Observatory,
Telescopes of the Mauna Kea Observatory,

Mauna Kea, which first formed one million years ago, is a shield volcano (now dormant) that reaches 33,500 feet high from its base on the ocean floor — not just the tallest mountain on the planet, but the second largest in the solar system. For native Hawaiians, the mountain connects them to a unique cultural history and shared spiritual relationship with the living earth beneath their feet. It is not just the physical embodiment of an ancient god (the son of the sky father and earth mother), but also a living elder, like a curmudgeonly but warm-hearted grandparent who reveals its face to those who approach with respect and love. Dozens of heiau, or shrines, are scattered along its slopes, and a journey to its summit is considered a kind of sacred pilgrimage.

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  • Veronica Ohara

    The author ignored the fact that many Hawaiians & Hawaii residents support the TMT project. Also ignored was the fact that there are no historic properties in Area E of the Astronomy Precinct. TMT meets all 8 criteria for a Conservation Use District Permit.
    One more important thing the author is confused about is the nature of our universe. The universe isn’t always “waiting for us” because it’s expanding. Therefore to see the light of the earliest stars we must begin now. Even I know this though I am not an astronomer. Seeing first light of the universe will be like looking at kupuna. I’m Hawaiian and I support TMT.

  • LRT

    I am a Hawaiian and always believed in the “truth.” First the illegal occupation needs to be settled, there is no Treaty of Annexation. Second the supreme court did right to deny the permit for the University of Hawai’i was not up front and honest on the process to have the proper permit to build the TMT on Mauna Kea, they tried to pull a fast one. Third we are in distrust because of to many lies and theft the USA has done wrong to steal Hawai’i. We cannot live on dishonesty for the truth is surfacing and until we have our day in a neutral international court of law to correct the wrong we will protect what we have left from the thieves.

    Good clean life is based on being truthful and everything else is secondary. Arguments are based on seeking the truth. Mauna Kea, Quite Title, Pearl Harbor, 1.8 million acres of crown land leased to the US Military by the fake state of Hawai’i government for $1.00 a year, the erosion of our shore lines from illegal building structures on the shore lines without the proper set back, homeless now by the thousands because of the cost of living. our prisons are overcrowded required to deploy the local inmates to other states prisons, crime everyday, our reef fish are depleted, limu is at $5.00/lb and it gets worst. So how will TMT prevent help correct the wrong?

    Science is seeking knowledge for many reasons! How does science help to protect the desecration of natives lands, protest against having war games on good soil and prevent contaminating our natural water aquifer and natural food source from urainum. How does looking out of space prevent crime, homeless, over development, over population, rezoning perfect natural ag land to build more buildings increasing the cost to eat , depending on 92% of import to live, antiquated infrastructure, building a larger prisons, natives from relocating to survive away from their native home lands and prevent stealing our land. We need to take care ourselves first on earth before we search deeper into out of space. Science needs to teach the need to stop cheating to gain profits for self worth. I know this the first light is truth and until we make life pono on earth then our na kupuna will guide us to seek more knowledge out of space. Right now our ancestors uhane and our true Kanaka Maoli are seeking the truth.

  • Susan Rosier

    If that is truth, Veronica, where were these supporters during the public hearings in Hilo for 44 days? I saw a LOT of Hawaiians showing up to support and feed those who put their lives on hold every day to protect Mauna Kea. Yet on the support side only a couple of Hawaiians came from time to time, and only a handful of supporters came on a regular basis.

    You talk of no historic properties “Area E”, yet UH witness archeologists under questioning stated : yes, there are two identified historic sites within 200 feet of the proposed site and yes, we will not know what we will find until the bulldozers rip up the earth in this CONSERVATION District.

    As for the 8 criteria, there were numerous witnesses presenting evidence that some of those 8 are not being met. Personally I testified as to numbers 4 and 8 that will be violated should the project move forward. And most importantly the threat the the aquifer that is the main source of water to Waimea (also a fact stated by a UH witness). Oh, they were very careful talking of no streams and no wells. But within the evidence itself is a book published by DLNR in 1970 that clearly shows SPRINGS originating at the 12,800 ft. level. And we learned that there has already been spills and contamination from the other telescopes, one of which is under the concrete itself and was caused during the construction!

    Attending the hearings day after day, week after week, month after month was very enlightening. Researching the volumes of 1000 page exhibits was even more enlightening; there are ‘inconsistencies’ within the CDUP (Conservation District Use Permit) itself; oh ya, they call those ‘alternative facts’ these days. Well, you would think those alternative facts would match from page to page, yet they do not!

    Perhaps you should review the testimony of the Hawaiian Practitioners that stepped forward to testify. It is on NaLeoTV. While you are there compare with the so called practitioners testimony; the ‘token Hawaiian’ on the Cultural Environmental Impact Statement didn’t even know who Hina was … really? Well, go check it out; spend some time watching and learning about your own culture. It will be like the experiencing the first light and looking at your living kupuna!

  • Andrew Cooper

    I too watched much of those 44 days… Hours upon hour of exaggerations, lies, and even outright perjury by the petitioners. Hawaiians who came to testify in support were insulted and disrespected to an appaling degree. Even you refer to one as a “token” above, showing your disrespect for someone who came to testify. It was a rather disturbing spectacle at times.

  • Alison Leigh Lilly

    Hi Veronica, Thanks for your comment!

    I didn’t mean to ignore any side of this complex issue, but only to briefly summarize the basic conflict. Hopefully readers who are interested in learning more will tune in to the rest of Season 2 of Offshore Podcast (which *does* say, even in the very first episode, that not all Hawaiians are on the same side of this conflict). This post was a review and personal reaction. 🙂

    (Also, thanks for reminding me the universe is expanding! I thought it was just all that chocolate I eat to cope with obnoxious assholes on the internet. 😉

  • Martin Livingston

    Susan, i am one of MANY Hawaiians who support the TMT but could not attend the Hearings daily in Hilo because we live in Honolulu. However, we did religiously follow (often live) on NaLeoTV when we had time, and also followed summaries when we did not have time.

    We were at home watching so-called “real” (vs. “token,” by your judgement) Hawaiians conduct racist interrogations of non-Hawaiian scientists and engineers who were following the contested case hearing rules. If someone is applying for a land permit, why should he or she be asked “Are you born in Hawaii? Are you native Hawaiian?” in order to construct things? This isn’t a shopping center or a hotel (or an oil pipeline, for that matter)…it’s an astronomy tool poised to help the entire world, Hawaiian and non-Hawaiian. We were at home watching these other Hawaiians turn a land use hearing into an altar-call for sovereignty. Highlighting injustice from the past is good, but throwing in reverse racism doesnt help.

    I hope that while you testify against the (imaginary) environmental threats that the TMT might create with the (really deep down) aquifer for Waimea, that you are very very busy protecting the aquifers that source Hilo and all the aquifers used to send water to other hotels and development in Kona.

    I’m glad that you were able to be a part of history. I did learn a lot.

  • Andrew Cooper

    You put down a lot of problems, but no solutions. Astronomy adds about $100 million to the island economy, and hundreds of good paying jobs with decent benefits. About half of those jobs are held by local folks, including quite a few Hawaiians. That is a lot of jobs that you can build a family around. And that does not even count the hundreds more for companies that depend on the observatories as customers, that supply services and contracts for all of the many things it takes to operate an observatory, from power, to cryogenic liquids, to office supplies. Half of Hilo depends on the observatories to keep them in business. The county gets their share as well in taxes, enough to fix a lot of roads.

    You describe a lot of problems, without astronomy in Hawaii the problem would be vastly worse. The observatories are clean and non-polluting (despite the many lies saying otherwise), do not restrict access to traditional resources, do not deny beach access, or raise property values in old neighborhoods. They hire locals first, they pay well, they give local kids a dream that keeps them on island that does not involve cleaning hotel rooms.

  • Astronomy is not a strip mall. The idea that these telescopes desecrate anything is preposterous. This is about knowledge and is hardly about “gaining the world”. Scientific knowledge feeds the soul, it does not cause the “loss” of anything.

  • LRT

    I respect your response and appreciate the positive attitude. Is it because we have been lied to too many times and we have lost trust on the many illegal acts especially the illegal overthrow of the Hawaiian Sovereign Nation. I know there are Hawaiians who support TMT and they are my friends and relatives. My argument is we need educate on the truth first to come to an honest agreement before any thing else. Why is it so difficult to seek the truth and settle? What are the priorities in life to be truthful or cheat? Teaching our future haumana it is okay to accept a lie then the education system is at fault and misleading. Do we allow illegal occupation and continued theft and breaking laws to gain $100 million a good process? There is no Treaty of Annexation between Hawai’i and USA. It is difficult to understand the word truth for it seems truth can be dismissed as long as money is to be gained. The solution is to surface the truth first then we go from there. I learned the truth is number one before a deal is agreed upon. This is why we have too many arguments, too many law suits, too many lawyers and the courts are full throughout the work week all year round because too many dishonest untruthful activities. I learned when you clean inside and out respect opens many doors. By the way majority of the hotel room cleaners are immigrants from Asia, Micronesia, Philippians , Marshall Islands and still arriving.

  • Alison Leigh Lilly

    Hi, Nick!

    I think the point is that the mountain is a sacred site, and so some
    people do feel that building on it would be a desecration — in the same
    way that building a chemistry lab in a Christian church despite the
    objections of the church-goers would be a desecration. Not
    because science is bad or harmful, but because the voices of those who
    worship in that space are being ignored.

    This issue is complex. I
    actually wholeheartedly agree with you that scientific knowledge feeds
    the soul! But my larger point is that when we insist on a particular
    ideology or worldview (even a worldview like “scientific knowledge is
    good”) at the expense of the real people being impacted and their diverse perspectives, we run
    into trouble.

    I hope Mauna Kea and the TMT become a catalyst for conversation and greater interconnection between these various communities, a dialogue that empowers marginalized voices and advances not only our understanding of the universe, but our understanding and appreciation for each other, too. THAT would be real progress! 🙂

  • Susan Rosier

    First of all let me explain token as I saw it .. it is not against the person, it was about the blatant use of this person who was put up as a witness being a practitioner, which he was not .. the agency that used him as a pawn is at fault.

    Have you reviewed the Written Direct Testimony and the exhibits that validate those testimonies? For without that review you cannot say ‘blatant lies” for you have not reviewed the evidence and therefor it is only your opinion without basis of fact. I watched as individuals from all islands came forth to participate; they didn’t even know each other and their views were very diverse!. In the end we all knew each other a lot better and understood viewpoints a lot clearer; a respect for each other emerged that many had not thought possible.

    As for the Waimea aquifer, a UH witness stated the main aquifer goes all the way up the center of Mauna Kea and feeds other aquifers all the way down. In my many exhibits is evidence from both USGS and DLNR that 5 springs have their source above the 11,500′ elevation. One of them has its source at the 12,800’ level . you can review it on the “Map of Springs” contained in evidence marked S18b1 titled “An Inventory of Basic Water Resources Data: Island of Hawaii DLNR Report R34″

    As for the ‘racist’ remark, I witnessed no such thing! In fact one of the more jovial cross exams came from questioning of UH witness ‘Fritz” from Germany. Just because someone is asked where they were born does not a racist remark make!

    As for me and my stance as a water protector, well that has been long standing battle since the early 80’s on Maui. Here on Hawai’i Island, there is West Hawai;i development by DR Horton that has my attention. But this hearing has taught me a lot not only through the testimonies, but also through my own extensive research brought on by the testimonies. Our fresh water supplies in these islands depend on water contained within dikes and that which is perched on lava flows within our mountains .. it is finite! We have bottlers of our water who distribute it around the world. No can this kind! So once again we must step up to the plate and protect these resources for the keiki of the future!

    Hope I have given you more understanding TMT/TIO came up to me outside and gave me a hug! We all changed greatly; we all came together for we are all one after all is said and done! I surely will miss his smile and all those daily hugs (physically and mentally) we gave each other every day!

  • Andrew Cooper

    I would disagree with your basic reasoning here. This has never really been about science versus culture. It is about a vehement reaction to change in the islands, increasing visitation, development, and globalization.

    So many Hawaiians see the old way of life disappearing, housing and property costs spiraling out of reach, few places left to live the old way. In many ways the island is a microcosm of the same issues that are wracking many other nations and the current nationalistic movements that have seized power in so many places.

    Those who worship on the mauna have never been ignored. The observatories have listened from the beginning. The first small site test telescope decades ago was built atop the lower peak of Pu’u Poli’ahu. When the practitioners objected the instrument was removed and this peak has never been touched since. When the current road was built the route was relocated away from the original trail and road route at Lake Waiau as this is a particularly sensitive spot, even though the new route was steeper and more expensive. You can now stand beside the lake and see no sign of the telescopes or traffic going by. Practitioners have always been welcome upon the mauna, for decades few objected and many continued to worship as they would at the old shrines. Likewise the true summit has never been used, despite the fact it would be a perfect telescope site.

    It is not the “Hawaiians” that object to the telescope, it is a small subset of the community that have chosen to use the issue as a venue to push their various causes, as a vehicle to address past injustice. Only a small handful of those opposed are truly practitioners on the mauna. During the hearings we heard from other practitioners who continue to practice with no problems.

    Polls show the native Hawaiian community split on the issue, with at 40-40 something split. Living in the community I would express that differently, about a third support, a third oppose, and about a third do not care. In the island population as a whole it is about 70-30 support-oppose.

    I work on the mauna, I work alongside a crew that is majority island born and raised. We have many proud Hawaiians who strongly support the TMT project. While we need to insure a place in the community for the old ways, traditional ways of life, we also need to provide good jobs in a non-polluting endeavor. The telescopes do this, they offer a path for those who do not live in the traditional ways, who want to see the future, who want to live a dream without leaving for the mainland, who see the telescopes as a continuation of the ancient navigator’s legacy.

  • Walter

    The double hulled traditional canoe the Hokule’a is finishing its two-year around the world voyage, using traditional methods. This relies heavily on the stars. The name Hokule’a is the name of the star that is at the same latitude as Hawai’i and is called the ‘Star of Gladness’ — just follow the latitude and you get home.

    It is sad to me that this deep connection between the islands and astronomy has not been explained or appreciated.

    This telescope can see far into the sacred heavens, only from this sacred spot. I wish both sides could see this.