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.

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