Hawaiian Natives Lose Mauna Kea Telescope Battle

Residents of the mainland United States have been riveted by the battle over the Dakota Access Pipeline and the native people  fighting to keep the massive construction project off sacred land. Thousands of miles away, Hawaiians have been engaged in a similar fight for their heritage, and they just lost: Construction on a massive telescope atop Mauna Kea will be allowed to move forward after years of litigation.

The Thirty Meter Telescope is an extremely ambitious project that could revolutionize astronomy, allowing researchers to make more detailed observations than ever before. Scientists selected Mauna Kea as a construction site after a competitive process, seeking a location that would allow for the greatest visibility. The state initially approved construction, and it should be noted that there are already several telescopes on the mountain.

But some Hawaiians were opposed to the project, arguing that Mauna Kea is sacred land for their community.

The mountain, along with the rest of Hawaii, was annexed by the United States in 1898 during a period of imperial expansion. Hawaiians maintain that this land doesn’t belong to the United States, and the Hawaiian sovereignty movement has picked up steam in recent years. Those existing research facilities, in other words, were built during a different time.

In the years between initial approval in 2011 and the present, protesters have disrupted events at the site, filed suit and fought to oppose construction of the telescope. Proponents, meanwhile, claim they’ve offered a variety of concessions – including contributing funds to the local economy, removing older telescopes and modifying the design to make it less obtrusive. They argue that permitting construction will benefit the surrounding community, in addition to contributing to science.

While Hawaii’s Supreme Court may have ruled 4-1 against opponents, the battle isn’t over. There’s still time for more legal remedies — including a possible escalation to the Supreme Court. Advocates can also explore other forms of resistance, like the nonviolent protests they’ve already employed to fight construction and draw attention to the cause.

This ruling is a blow to advocates, but it’s more complicated than that. It would be misleading to say that the construction project is universally opposed by Hawaiians — because it’s not. Some are among supporters of the telescope, although they may not necessarily be very vocal about it.

This conflict within the community highlights the fact that tensions over the use of indigenous land are rarely simple. Advocates can turn to Hawaiian supporters to make their case, while opponents can do just the opposite.

Researchers like Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein have explored the need to decolonize science, examining the history of scientific research, abuse and exploitation. There’s a clear record of excluding certain individuals from participating in science and only valuing some communities in conversations about research.

As Hawaiians celebrate and mourn this court decision, it’s not the end of the road for the Mauna Kea telescope — and it’s definitely not the last word in disputes over unceded lands and indigenous autonomy.

Having these conversations can be difficult and sometimes uncomfortable, but that doesn’t mean the topic should be avoided. Many people and industries in the United States benefit directly from the use of unceded territories, whether those lands were colonized centuries ago or overtaken more recently.

Advocacy work at Mauna Kea illustrates that indigenous people are still alive and thriving with their own culture, communities and sites of important historic and cultural value that they want to protect. The discussion about appropriate uses of the land at Mauna Kea should be led by Hawaiians and inclusive of diverse perspectives within their community.

Photo credit: Occupy Hilo/Creative Commons


Peggy B
Peggy B2 hours ago


Emma L
Emma L3 days ago

thank you for sharing

Leo C
Leo C3 days ago

Thank you for sharing!

Rose B
Rose Becke4 days ago

Thanks for this

Shae L
Shae Lee5 days ago

Thank You for Sharing This !!!

ANA MARIJA R5 days ago

Indigenous rights toward "science" sounds like fairytale... Indigenous people seems to be "bad guys" again... :((Why I'm not surprised anymore with that kind of scenario?!

Leo C
Leo C5 days ago

Thank you for sharing!

Leo Custer
Leo C6 days ago

Thank you for posting!

Janis K
Janis K7 days ago

Thanks for sharing.

Elisabeth T
Elisabeth T7 days ago

Thanks for this information