The Sciences

Astronomers May Not Like It but Astronomy and Colonialism Have a Shared History

Casting Native Hawai'ians' opposition to the Thirty Meter Telescope atop Mauna Kea as a contest between science and religion is a red herring that distracts from a deeper problem with modern science.

Mauna Kea, an extinct volcano in Hawai’i, has been the site of a long-running conflict. Native Hawaiians who consider Mauna Kea sacred have been at odds with the international consortium of astronomers behind the $1.4-billion Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT), meant to be “the largest ground-based observatory in the world” (source). Now, a white paper by Native Hawaiian scientists calls for an immediate halt to the TMT’s construction and for restarting dialogue. An associated paper by five US and Canadian astronomers situates the TMT controversy in the long history of how astronomy has benefited from “settler colonial white supremacist patriarchy” and calls on the astronomy community to reject these benefits.

This may seem an unlikely combination of charges against fellow astronomers who simply wish to “reach back 13 billion years to answer fundamental questions about the advent of the universe” (source) – until one takes a closer look at the conflict, moving beyond its unhelpful framing as science versus religion and situating it in its historical context.

“At its core, [the conflict over] Mauna a Wākea is about power,” writes Iokepa Casumbal-Salazar, who studied the TMT controversy for his doctoral thesis at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa in 2017. “How are we to understand the controversy over Mauna a Wākea and the TMT if we fail to identify or accept the context in which this battle is being waged; if we fail to critically analyse settler-colonisation under US occupation?” Casumbal-Salazar is now an assistant professor at the Center for the Study of Culture, Race and Ethnicity at Ithaca College, New York.

The story of TMT in Hawai’i began in 2009, when the collaboration of scientists building the observatory selected Mauna Kea as the location. The summit, at about 4,200 m above sea level, is particularly conducive for astronomy, with stable, dry air that allows observations throughout the year. As a result, it is already host to 13 observatories that have been built since the 1960s.

Preparations for TMT’s construction began in 2014 but were paused following opposition from Native Hawaiians – “protestors” to the state and the astronomers, “protectors” for the activists. In December 2015, the Supreme Court of Hawai’i invalidated the TMT’s 2011 construction permit because it had been granted before the opposition’s petitions had been addressed – putting, as the verdict observed, “the cart before the horse”.

In October 2018, the Supreme Court gave the go-ahead and construction was to resume in July 2019. But Native Hawaiians have continued opposing the TMT by blocking access to the mountain and courting arrest. In December 2019, the Governor of Hawai’i announced that “the state will reduce its law enforcement personnel on Maunakea”, an admission that the project cannot be forced through. (India, a partner and full member of the TMT consortium, prefers moving the telescope to an alternate location in the Canary Islands, Spain.)

That’s the legal summary. For a historically informed understanding of the conflict, we have to go back much further, to Hawaii’s annexation by the US in 1898, following which land was ceded to the US government.

In 1959, these lands – including Mauna Kea – were in turn ceded by the US government to the State of Hawai’i, which held them “in trust” for native Hawaiians. The next year, a tsunami laid waste to the city of Hilo in Hawai’i, prompting its chamber of commerce to write to universities in the US and Japan suggesting that Mauna Kea might be useful for astronomical observatories. This event coincided with US astronomers’ interest in Hawai’i as well.

And so the conflict between native Hawaiians and the American astronomy community began in the 1960s, when the first of the 13 observatories was constructed on the mountain that the former consider to be “a place revered as a house of worship, an ancestor, and an elder sibling in the mo’okū’auhau (or genealogical succession) of all Hawaiians.”

At the time, writes Casumbal-Salazar, “there was no public consultation, no clear management process and little governmental oversight.” Environmentalists soon began opposing further construction on the mountain, arguing that the existing telescopes had contaminated local aquifers and destroyed the habitat of a rare bug found only on the mountain’s summit.

Native Hawaiians joined forces with environmentalists, arguing that any construction on the summit is desecration of a sacred mountain that is the site of spiritual and cultural practices. “Indeed,” Casumbal-Salazar, whose ancestry is partly native Hawaiian, writes, “Mauna a Wākea is more than just a list of physical attributes; it is our kin. As our kupuna [ancestors] are buried in the soil, our ancestors become the land that grows our food and the dust we breathe.” Soon, native Hawaiians were required to seek permission from the state for spiritual practice on the mountain.

The view from the summit of Mauna Kea. Photo: Daniel Gregoire/Unsplash

Contrary to the narrative that native Hawaiians did not oppose the first telescopes on Mauna Kea in the 1960s and 1970s, Casumbal-Salazar shows how they did indeed express their dissent “in the few public forums available, by writing newspaper editorials, publishing opinion pieces and speaking out at public events” while also fighting other battles, such as those to reclaim their rights to land, resources, cultural practices – even the right to teach their children in the Hawaiian language.

They were also fighting evictions and resettlements in the name of tourism development and decades of the US Navy’s use of an island as target practice for its bombs. At the same time, the state’s dependence on tourism and militarism resulted in income inequalities and emigration.

Mauna Kea is not the only mountain in the US where native communities and astronomers have clashed. Two telescopes on mountaintops in Arizona became controversial for parallel reasons, beginning from the mid-1970s, as Leandra Swanner examines in her doctoral thesis at Harvard University. Environmental groups opposed the Mt Graham International Observatory in Arizona fearing ecological damage and further threat to the endemic Mt Graham red squirrel, joined later by a community of native Americans for whom the summit had spiritual significance as a prayer site.

Similarly, native communities and environmentalists opposed the Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona, concerned about the ecology and “spiritual integrity” of the mountain. At the time the new observatory was proposed, Kitt Peak was already host to two dozen telescopes.

Strikingly, Swanner tracks how native groups at these three different sites have “independently framed the observatories as colonialist projects”. She finds that astronomers, native communities and environmental groups “deployed competing cultural constructions of the mountains – as an ideal observing site, a ‘pristine’ ecosystem or a spiritual temple,” and that “the timing and form of anti-observatory narratives was historically tethered to the legal and political strength of environmental and indigenous rights movements.” In the case of the conflict at Mauna Kea, this is the nationalist movement known as the Hawaiian Renaissance.

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Sustained opposition to construction on Mauna Kea led in 1998 to a state legislative audit that indicted the University of Hawai’i for its management of the mountain, citing inadequate measures to protect its natural resources and lack of recognition of its cultural value. In 2000, the University of Hawai’i drafted a ‘master plan’ for activities on the mountain, which empowered native Hawaiians to voice their objections to the observatories formally, eventually leading to the current impasse.

Swanner finds that for native Hawaiians, “science has effectively become an agent of colonisation”, “fundamentally indistinguishable from earlier colonisation activities”. This puts astronomers in a difficult position. They see the economic benefits astronomy brings to Hawai’i – over a thousand jobs, business for local firms and services and, once the TMT comes online, a promise to pay $1 million in annual lease rent – and their own work as a noble pursuit of knowledge. However, they encounter opposition that has charged them with environmental and cultural destruction.

“Unfortunately for the astronomers involved in the TMT debate,” writes Swanner, “whether they identify as indigenous allies or neocolonialists ultimately matters less than whether they are perceived as practicing neocolonialist science” (emphasis in the original).

Astronomers have attempted a counter-narrative, linking the contemporary practice of astronomy to ancient Polynesian explorers and astronomers who navigated using the stars. A concrete outcome and centrepiece of this effort was a science education centre and planetarium that “links to early Polynesian navigation history and knowledge of the night skies, and today’s renaissance of Hawaiian culture and wayfinding with parallel growth of astronomy and scientific developments on Hawaii island.”

Swanner notes the unequal relationship – the centre “merely grafts Native Hawaiian culture onto the dominant culture of Western science … Astronomers do not look to traditional knowledge to carry out their observing runs, after all, but the observatories studding the summit physically deny access to sites of sacred importance.”

A view of Mauna Kea from the Mauna Loa Observatory. Photo: Nula666/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0

For Casumbal-Salazar, this strategy of linking telescopes on the mountain to ancient Hawaiian culture reinterprets colonial conquest as inheritance while consigning indigeneity to history. This is not hard to spot from a glance at the TMT website, for example. The homepage displays the results of a “statewide scientific public opinion poll” which asked, among others, the following question: “Do you agree or disagree that there should be a way for science and Hawaiian culture to co-exist on Maunakea?” The way the question has been framed is revealing: science and Hawaiian culture are seen as distinct entities.

The conflict at Mauna Kea, as Swanner and Casumbal-Salazar learn from native Hawaiians, is not just over the construction of the TMT. The problem is that anything is being built on top of a sacred summit. Nevertheless, it is not incidental that the conflict involves science, particularly astronomy. Science did not merely happen to accompany colonialism: they are deeply linked in ways that are still being unraveled by historians who are tracing “the roots of contemporary science in the projects and practices of colonialism,” filling in the elisions from standard histories of science.

In their white paper, Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, an American-Barbadian cosmologist at the University of New Hampshire, and her co-authors give examples of how colonial conquests have historically enabled, facilitated or benefited astronomy. James Cook, the British explorer who was the first European to establish contact with Hawai’i, was tasked with leading an expedition to Tahiti to observe the 1769 transit of Venus (to help determine the Earth-Sun distance). But he had also been given sealed orders to search for Australia, indicating “that astronomy and colonisation have been entwined in the Pacific since first contact.”

Colonial conquests helped develop astronomy and cartography, not least through the establishment of overseas observatories. Other sciences “co-constituted” with colonialism include botany and medicine. And, as one author reviewing the existing scholarship put it: “One cannot imagine Charles Darwin’s work being possible without his access to plant and animal specimens derived from several European empires.” Science and medicine “functioned not merely as a ‘tool’ for a project already imagined, but as a means of conceptualising and bringing into being the colonial project itself.”

This history has consequences – not because the TMT is “a pawn in a long, losing game” for the Hawaiians (as one condescending New York Times article phrased it) nor is the issue confined to questions of representation of colonised peoples in astronomy (although only one Native Hawaiian holds a PhD in astronomy, with none in tenure-track positions at major institutions). For Casumbal-Salazar, it is about how “Western law, science and the state together control the ways humanity is imagined in the first place” and about “the techniques of governance by which Kanaka ‘Ōiwi [native Hawaiian] claims to land, sovereignty and independence remain in perpetual deferral.”

This settler colonialism, he argues, is the product of a sustained process with territorial ambitions. As Swanner notes, dismissing this neocolonialist image of science has only resulted in native communities continuing to “report feeling victimised while scientists’ efforts to expand their research programs suffer social, legal and economic setbacks.”

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In response, astronomy practice is changing. In her thesis, Swanner tracks how the opposition to mountaintop observatories and the rigours of preparing an environmental impact statement have forced astronomers to directly engage with the public and acknowledge their concerns.

Prescod-Weinstein and her coauthors go further, advancing a number of recommendations for a more ethical astronomy. For example, they call on the astronomy community to stop weaponising disagreements within native communities, which they have a history of doing. At Kitt Peak, for example, leaders of a native community signed a lease agreement in 1958 after they were invited to view the sky through one of the telescopes of the University of Arizona, even as others in the community remained unconvinced. Such tactics led the community to feel their interests weren’t fairly represented. They filed a lawsuit against the National Science Foundation fifty years later.

Prescod-Weinstein and her colleagues also recommend that “astronomers reject the use of state power to get what they want”, “consider what is globally healing for the communities rooted in the land” and “engage in dialogue and negotiations in good faith, understanding that a deal may not be reachable, with a mandate to respect a ‘no deal’ outcome.” The paper by Native Hawaiian scientists also recommends the same things, and asks: “Do indigenous people have the power to decide what happens to their own homelands?”

At Mauna Kea, this means understanding that Native Hawaiians, from the beginning of the opposition to telescopes on the mountain, “were not fighting against something,” as Casumbal-Salazar notes, “so much as they were fighting for something: the protection of the mountain from further development… Perhaps we should be asking what constitutes progress. Who determines that? And what are the costs of its production?”

Nithyanand Rao is a freelance science writer.