Mauna Kea

Mauna Kea with snow and observatories

The Big Island of Hawaii is an island of many striking natural features, from the powerful blue Pacific to the uniquely beautiful tropical dry forests, but perhaps the boldest feature is the great Mauna Kea.  Mauna Kea is a volcano that stands 13,796 feet above sea level, claiming the highest point in the state of Hawaii, and in fact, when measured from the ocean base, is over 33,000 feet and is taller than the ever-famous Mount Everest. In my years growing up on the Big Island, Mauna Kea has held a strong presence.   Often I would make the three hour drive with my family and friends up to the summit to watch sunset and gaze at the stars as they emerged from the dark sky with incredible clarity and brightness.  While up on the summit, there among the cinder cones and red dirt, one notices two types of structures:  looming tall and white are the observatories and telescopes, and in contrast, are the wood and stone Hawaiian altars.  This strange dichotomy serves as a visual representation of the current dispute regarding Mauna Kea as a sacred site and an incredible location for astronomical developments.   The Native Hawaiian people, specifically the organization Mauna Kea Anaina Hou are at odds with the University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy in association with the Board of Land and Natural Resources over the further development of telescopes on the summit of Mauna Kea.



Mauna Kea is sacred to the Native Hawaiians and is the zenith of their ancestral ties to creation.   The upper regions, Wao Akua, are the realms of the Akua (creator) and the summit is a temple of the Supreme Being in not only Hawaiian culture but also in many histories throughout Polynesia.  It is the home of Na Akua (divine deities) and Na’Aumakua (divine ancestors) as well as the meeting place of Papa (Earth Mother) and Wakea (Sky Father) who are progenitors of the Hawaiian people.  It is also both a burial ground and the embodiment of ancestors that include Na Alii and Kahuna (high ranking chiefs and priests.)  Modern Native Hawaiians continue to regard Mauna Kea with reverence and many cultural and religious practices are still performed there.  In addition to sacred importance the summit is also home to near a hundred archaeological sites and many traditional cultural properties eligible to be listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

Though Mauna Kea is of definite religious relevance to the Hawaiian People, a history of complex land titles has led to movement of the land use away from Hawaiian traditions toward that of scientific astronomical advancement.   The summit is part of Hawaii’s ceded land trust.  These ceded lands were ceded by the Republic of Hawaii to the United States government after the overthrow of the Hawaiian government by Europeans and Americans in 1893.  When Hawaii was annexed into the United States in 1959 the federal government transferred the title of the ceded lands back to the state to hold in a public trust.  Since the 1960’s the University of Hawaii has leased the summit of Mauna Kea from the State of Hawaii, Board of Land and Natural Resource (BLNR).  The University subleases portions of the summit to thirteen observatory facilities for the small fee of $1 per year though requiring each facility to provide a percentage of its observatory time to the University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy (UHIFA).   The observatories sell viewing time for whatever price they choose, and in the past have rented viewing time at $1 per second, a night worth $30,000. UHIFA is now one of the most prominent astronomy programs in the world.  Though impressive in the realms of astronomy, the UHIFA’s focus on telescope construction was at the expense of neglecting the cultural and religious importance of such sites.  The university gains largely economically and scientifically, while the Office of Hawaiian Affairs and the Hawaiian people receive no monetary recompense and lose their sacred lands.

As of now there are thirteen telescopes as well as support facilities crowding the sacred land and a consortium of institutions led by the University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy continue to propose new telescope construction.  The most recent proposal is that of a new Thirty- Meter Telescope (TMT.)  In February 2011, BLNR approved the TMT proposal, while opponents of the decision were granted a contested case hearing.  After the conclusion of the hearings the hearings officer will issue a recommendation to the BLNR which will then vote again on whether to grant the construction permit for the TMT, then the losing side has the option to appeal to the 3rd Circuit Court.

TMT proposal


The decision to locate the TMT on Mauna Kea is based on the mountain’s conditions.  Mauna Kea is the “best place on Earth for astronomical telescopes.”  The atmosphere is extremely dry, which is important for infrared and sub millimeter radiation measurements from celestial sources.  The sky is cloud free and is among the highest proportion of clear nights in the world.  It is also far from urban lights, reasonably easy to access, and has generally good weather.  The TMT is a large and powerful addition to the slew of telescopes on the summit.  It is 34,000 square feet, 18 stories tall, and ten times more powerful than any existing telescope.  It is estimated to be able to see with greater clarity than the Hubble Space Telescope.  It will also have an economic impact as it will create additional 120-140 jobs and more revenue for the University.  The scientific and economic benefits are apparent to the University and to organizations like the Moore foundation, Caltech, and the University of California who have invested in the proposal.

Despite the astronomical and economical benefits of TMT, the construction of the telescope is a major concern for the Native Hawaiian people.  There are a number of archaeological sites in the vicinity where the TMT Observatory would be constructed and the associated Access Way for the observatory would be located.  The three main historic shrines are only 225 feet, 1,300 feet, and 1,600 feet away from the observatory respectively.   The site proposed is 0.5 miles North-West of Kukahau’ula (the highest peak) and the Access Way would intersect this for about 800 feet.  The proximity of TMT to specific sacred spots is clearly quite close, also it can not be dismissed that the entire summit is of sacred value. Kukahau’ula, in particular, is the manifestation of the deity Ku and is associated with Native Hawaiian legends and oral histories.  This site plays an important role in ongoing traditional and religious practices carried out by modern-day Native Hawaiians.  The view of the Native Hawaiians, that opposes the construction of TMT, is based on the belief that any use, development, or disturbance of Mauna Kea by someone other than a Native Hawaiian is significant and immitigable.  Specifically, the area occupied by TMT would not be available for continued worship practices like the construction of shrines and leaving of offerings, umbilical cord deposition, scattering of cremation remains, calendric rites, pilgrimage, prayer, and burial blessings.  All of these practices are intrinsic to the Native Hawaiian culture and religion.

As the proposal for TMT continues to go through court sessions and review it can be seen in the writing of the Conservation District Use Permit Application that cultural sensitivities would be accounted for in the following way,

“ For those who believe that Native Hawaiian cultural practices can co-exist with astronomy through                   … implementation of the identified mitigation measures and management procedures, the                   Project’s potentially harmful effects on Mauna Kea’s historic properties and associated Native                   Hawaiian cultural practices will be significantly reduced.”

These “management procedures” enforce that traditional practices may not be restricted except where safety, resource management, cultural appropriateness, and legal compliance considerations may require.  While the proposal views itself as a sort of compromise and that development will have a minimal effect, this is not a mutual outlook.  Kealoha Pisciotta, President of Mauna Kea Anaina Hou, states in regards to the Hawaiian people, “If we say yes to more development, we are saying yes to the desecration of our temple and our ancestors, yes to the destruction of our waters, and yes to the possible extinction of life itself.”  Any desecration, including the existing development and most definitely any future development is destructive to Native Hawaiian spirituality.

For the native Hawaiians the base of the problem lies within the construct of the United States judicial system.  This problem can be illustrated in one of the early hearings in which there was a proposal to have a Hawaiian spirit associated with Mauna Kea represented in the case.  To the dismay of the Mauna Kea Anaina Hou organization, the proposal was refuted on the basis that a sprit is not human and could not be represented.  This occurrence illustrates the underlying problem with the construct of the court system in dealing with indigenous issues in a westernized culture.  The judicial system and westernized motives are rooted in the ideals of the American colonizers who had restricted views on religion and supported vast economic expanse.  The language and understanding of the westernized American system simply cannot understand the indigenous people.  Indigenous people must translate their deep connection with spirituality and the land into a language of a culture that was created on a history of intolerance.  It is a system built against the ideals that are carried by the indigenous people.   If the judicial system was more in tune with the cultural ways of the Hawaiian people, perhaps a more encompassing decision making process would be in play.

"Too many telescopes"

Another hindrance to the resolution of the issue is that the parties involved in the conflict are both of extreme opinions and offer relatively little compromise.  It would be to the advantage of both parties if there were a heightened community awareness on the issue.  Perspectives from individuals and organizations outside of the two dominant parties could offer a solution to such a stalwart of an issue.  Unfortunately the general public of Hawaii is simply unaware of the issue, as is the situation with many sacred land cases.  If there were greater education on the problem and the opposing sides, perhaps a middle ground opinion could emerge and appealing solutions could be generated.

The dispute is modern and continual; the large white observatories versus the smaller, yet beautiful and evocative altars; the University and associated groups against the organizations representing the Hawaiian people.  Based on the amount of development that has already occurred the outlook looks grim for the Hawaiians.  In a country where the procedures, motives, and laws all serve a history of conquest, the beliefs of the indigenous struggle to find ground.  However, the organizations like Kea Anina Hou and the Committee representing the Native Hawaiians have put up a tough fight and the process regarding the development of TMT will continue with controversy for a significant amount of time.

Mauna Kea Anaina Hou

University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy

- Dominique Saks


Works Cited

Hervey, Tiffany. “Mauna Kea- Sacred Summit or Cash Cow.” Honolulu Weekly September 14, 2011. n.

pag. Web. 5 Nov. 2011. <>.

Mauna Kea Management Board. Minutes Regular Meeting. 27 April 2011.

Mauna Kea Management Board. Minutes Regular Meeting. 28 June 2011.

“Mauna Kea.” Sacred Land Film Project. N.p., 2011. Web. 5 Nov 2011.


Townsend, Marti. “Defend the Sacred Summit of Mauna Kea.” Blog. Kahea, 18 Feb

2009. Web. 5 Nov. 2011.

University of Hawaii. State of Hawaii. Department of Land and Natural Resources. Conservation

District Use Permit Application: TMT Observatory. 2011. Print.

8 Responses to Mauna Kea

  1. n_appleweis says:

    Dom! how did you get the page to go here? HELP

  2. Don says:

    I was born in Hilo and grew up there, including graduating from Hilo High in 1960. So I’m not some outsider in this matter. My family were hunters and I knew Mauna Kea well from the time I was a boy. I climbed to the summit from Hale Pokahu more times than I can count — this long before any roads and any telescopes were there.

    I can assure you that there was no altar at the summit. There was an ahu, a pile of stones, and in it a mayonnaise jar with a pencil and notebook. You could write your name and the date of your ascent.

    The current altar went into place sometime in the 1990s. And, interestingly enough, the last time I was at the summit — 2012 — it was in a state of disrepair.

    I never saw a Native Hawaiian on Mauna Kea. Certainly, absolutely, there was no one climbing to the summit to perform rituals. In the past? I don’t know. Of course Native Hawaiians had an important presence at Keanakakoi, the Cave of the Adzes, where adze-making basalt was quarried. But that site fell into disuse even as far back as the 18th century.

    As for shrines — I never saw one. Not surprisingly, they’ve been popping up all over of late. For example, there never was a shrine at Hale Pokahu when that place was, indeed, nothing but a “Stone House.” This was long before it was the visitor center, and long before any paved road led there.

    The altar that can be seen near the silverswords was put in place somewhere around 2009 or 2010. Hardly traditional. In the same way, near the Saddle Road at Pu’u Huluhulu an altar appeared in 2010 or 2011. Never there before.

    There’s no doubt that Mauna Kea is culturally important. But at the same time, there’s little or no evidence that Native Hawaiians used it ritually in anything resembling recent times.

  3. Meg Amor says:


    I can ‘t comment on the other altars, but the one that’s at Pu’u Huluhulu, up a slight rise, on the right hand side, as you’re going over to Hilo has been there since at least 2004. I was living at home then.

    I knew one of the guys Kimo who helped build up. He was a native Hawaiian who got involved in various things up on Mauna Kea and the silverswords they were growing up there. He and some fellow Hawaiian’s decided to build that altar at Pu’u Huluhulu as an altar for the mountain and wind spirits. Or just the mountain spirits. I can’t quite remember, but I always stop when I go through, leave an offering. And I’m not the only person to do it.

    Aloha Meg Amor

  4. kila says:

    Our land dat iz da argument respect it and our culture… Memba Hawaii was stoled by corrupted greedy close minded people.

  5. Rev. Joed says:

    Truth have it the Hawaiian People were probably the most astronomically advanced culture in human history. Even today the voyages of their sailing ships are guided by the stars. I know of only three reasons that Summit areas were cultural in any manner. 1) Lake Waiau (Peles sisters watch was used as a way to safely rid the piko so its mana could not be stolen due to the lake being bottomless). However at its deepest ever it is only 12 feet or so. 2) The one solid vein of pressurized volcanic rock aged under millions of years and tons of ice making it a great place to quarry out some rock for longer lasting kitchen implements. 3) a location that the Kahuna and the brave early navigators sat to memorize the movements of the stars and the heavens. They constantly looked to the Mountain as being their closest possible connection to their legendary homes of their Gods in the “Far away lands of THE SHINING HEAVEN,
    Ao`Mele`Mele came from the “shining Heavens.
    Hawaiians are the first/only “TRUE CELESTRIAL CULTURE….” using the most advanced boats of their times, navigation methods of their times, studying the sea in their times just so they could find Hawaii.
    SO always keeping in mind that recorded in chant & story and hula was
    based on the need to save space on vessels not due to a lack of ability to form a written word (they were canoe navigators, the HEAVENS their guide the closer to them the clearer their journey.
    Who is it exactly that has decided to “end…” the dreams of thousands of years of astronomical study by every Hawaiian (until recently) to find Kuai`He`Lani…. the trail by canoe ended, now it is the time of another kind of ship but just like the canoe it can only be dreamt of with a much deeper study of the heavens, to build a NEW TEMPLE to THE SHINING HEAVEN,
    THE WHITE LAND OF KAHIKI !!! Yes preserve ancient temples need to be restored and honored, but perhaps the early Kanaka Maoli purposefully left that summit with no real edifaces or heeiaus or burials leaving it readied to build the next great Hawaiian Heeiau with the best of these times tools to continue the journey the only direction left to find
    “The Hawaiians Shining Heavens…..”.

  6. Marta Walker says:

    As of today, so much pilikia on the Mauna Kea Summit as construction has moved forward. I do remember when when the initial plans of the TMT hit the Big Island newspapers & through my readings lately, the opposition was there from the start. Thru the ignorance of the State of Hawaii & BLNR, a lot of the problems may have been avoided if the parties granting Leases would have realized/concluded that more time & patience given to this project, could have avoided errors on decisions made by the said Parties.
    Today, the Generation of Hawaiians spearheading the Protests are gaining more noteriety than the Parties expected, I’m sure! And with that, there has been unusual “support” not only in the Hawaiian Community, but the population of Hawaii itself.
    Personally, I feel it’s enough development on Mauna Kea, enough development on our Shorelines. I hope all parties involved in any Land Use issues from here forward, take heed in this Issue that is before us today! Aloha Nui & Mahalo to anyone who reads this.


    May 2, 2015
    The Thirty Meter Telescope will clearly see the stars from the top of the mountain.
    Spend lots of money researching the environment, plants and animals.
    Complete wonderful, thoughtful preparations, construction and restoration.
    Create books, education seminars and workshops and movies all about
    the historical and cultural activities of Hawaiian astronomy.
    Get the United States of America to limitlessly support the entire project.
    Run the entire enterprise with marvelous transparency.
    Make certain that those who run stuff have great levels of character and honor.
    Be very generous in every aspect of planning, building and using the telescope.
    Invite local Hawaiian citizens and school children to participate in 100s of thoughtful ways.
    See that Hawaians are honored for their participation for decades in the future.
    Accomplish all the wonderful things you can think of with the new telescope.
    Do no harm or injury to the human being people or the mountain.
    Everything will work out fine.

  8. Red Slider says:

    As we witness the sides on the Mauna Kea telescope matter squaring off and taking more entrenched positions every day, we can only think about a world that becomes so divided against itself that, no matter who thinks they win, the human project is bound to loses something important in the process. This is not a contest of ‘right position’. There are valid arguments on every side. Nor do we think it an issue that has no solution-set, or requires so much compromise that the result excludes everyone’s satisfaction. Rather, we think it most a failure of the imagination if those engaged cannot reach and find what Gregory Bateson once observed about resolving paradoxes. He wrote, “A paradox is something in which you have to choose sides — both sides.”

    The following editorial, which we will be printing in our next edition of the Sacramento Z Newspaper is not going to hand anyone that both-sided solution. That’s not our intention. But we do take a strong position that such a resolution does exist if the people involved are willing to look for it. If not, the world is poorer, no matter who gets their way.

    The Mountain and the God’s Eye

    An outsider can have little to say about the details of the struggle by the community over inclusion and honor in the matter of the new Mauna Kea observatory. However, as news of the issue becomes world news, all of us share some concerns for the basic, universal human values that are at stake in the matter.

    Had this been seven or even five years ago, the intention to put a new observatory on Mauna Kea might have been challenged and considered with less heat. Now, any reversal of that decision appears to be moot. The project may be too far along to propose another location or even ask if the world needs another observatory. Though it could happen that the challenge gains strength and might thwart the project. No matter the case, it is always timely to insist that any project preserve the earth, respect the traditions and communities surrounding it and provide for the dignity and equitable sharing of benefits such projects imagine for themselves. Above all, there is no statute of limitations regarding the sacramental meanings of land that may go back thousands of years, or the reverence due them in any and every aspect of our undertakings. Those are always matters we need to accommodate and mitigate at any stage.

    In considering just those universals which cross the boundaries of time as well as space, there are concerns which sometimes go unnoticed in the heat of confrontation. It is those, in particular, which have caused The Z Newspaper to be of mixed opinion about the project and its proper realization. Matters to be considered often seem to be at odds in coming to any reconciled conclusion.

    One opinion holds firmly to the idea that the sacred is to be respected. Plunking housing developments down on native burial grounds, putting ski resorts on sacred mounds, showing a general disrespect for the stories of our human project, or destroying the gathering places where those stories were first told are not ok. Nor is trolling for tourists to tramp all over our most revered landscapes (Everest, for example) a very good idea . We should resent such desecration of the sacred places of the world, there are few enough of them left as is.

    Another opinion, however, recognizes the path to the sacred is not always clear and certain. There is also a growing tendency for high-jacking environmental and sacramental sentiments to the purpose and agenda of empowerment. The case of the Mauna Kea observatory doesn’t necessarily reflect those kinds of agenda. That remains to be seen. But it is legitimate to ask if the Haole names on the list of supporters and organizers really represent an indigenous regard for a cherished site, or an outside view with other, if well-intended, interests mixed in? One also needs to consider if the benefits provided in exchange for the use of local, native resources and land for the advancement of science is equitable for all concerned and in all of its particulars.

    Equally, does the observatory complex, located within a science reserve for observatories, lend some weight as a buffer for future preservation of the mountain and its surroundings? Astronomical observatories have very stringent requirements for minimizing the human footprint and forbidding untoward disturbances in the areas surrounding their location (light, noise, etc.). Without such projects to stand guard against future encroachment, one might ask if mounting pressures to develop those lands in other ways might provoke the replacement of real values with market values?

    There is also something to be said about matters of sacrament itself. Sacred sites around the world have been under assault for a very long time and the number and kinds of them has dwindled steadily, with more everyday giving way to surveyor’s stakes, shopping malls, tourist litter and other desecration. Even so, one might wonder differently about the sacramental value of an observatory. Are sacraments truly and completely unable to accommodate an extended, perhaps equally sacramental, use? Is observing the wonders of the universe through a telescope truly out of keeping with our respecting and revering places of sacramental value? There is no simple answer to that question. But if we thought of the planned astronomical observatory as a species of “God’s Eye”, might that put a different perspective on matters?

    Gregory Bateson once wrote that “a sacrament is an exterior visible sign of an interior state of grace.” Could it be, in contrast to all the disrespectful things we do, that this largest of all earth telescopes would qualify as a species of an “exterior visible sign of an interior state of grace” as well? Might a new observatory on Mauna Kea be rendered, even architecturally modified and art enhanced, as another jewel of reverence on the crown of a sacred mountain? What would it take to align those two differing sources of the sacred? Does it reside in the architecture? The content and applications of the observatory’s and its programs? Perhaps relations between the community and the project?

    As said, an outsider can have little to say about the details to be negotiated: what carbon footprint the project will leave or how impacts on a natural resource are to be mitigated, or what equitable benefits might be due the people immediately impacted. We might even consider what community-observatory educational programs and outreach might transfer, in terms of a reverence for nature and the sacred, to the children of the future? These musings only ask whether it is possible to imagine a success which is a shared success between the mountain, the project and the people—Is there a manner in which scientific achievement and human values can be made to more closely coincide? No firm or absolute answer can be given. But perhaps just asking the questions is enough.

    Red Slider, editor
    The Sacramento Z

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