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On Hawaii’s Mauna Kea volcano, hundreds of Native Hawaiian activists, scholars and scientists are resisting the construction of a new, massive telescope that may soon become the 14th built on the cultural and religious site — a stand that has received nationwide support, including endorsements by New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren.

Blocking off access to the mountain for over a week, the activists have so far prevented construction of the 18-story Thirty Meter Telescope, or TMT, and its 5-acre facility.

The TMT project is spearheaded by the California Institute of Technology and the University of California system, among others. Yale, unlike these institutions, is not a financier or policymaker of the TMT: Professors said the University decided to not pay for department observation time on the TMT due to the multimillion dollar price tag.

Still, the University is affiliated with the project as a member institution of the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, or AURA, which has provided scientific guidance to the main TMT financiers and policymakers. In addition, Yale’s Astronomy Department has relied on two Mauna Kea telescopes — Keck I and Keck II — for over a decade. 

Native Hawaiians have sharply opposed construction of any kind on Mauna Kea for over 50 years, and their movement draws into question the ethics of conducting research with telescopes built on the mountain. Activists say that construction on Mauna Kea violates indigenous rights, harms the fragile Mauna Kea ecosystem and ignores the mountain’s significance to Native Hawaiian culture and religion. Scientists, however, contend that the roughly 14,000-foot summit is prime telescope real estate — one of the best viewing sites in the world due to its high altitude, minimal light pollution and clear weather conditions. 

In the wake of recent high-profile activism on Mauna Kea mirroring that of 2015 — as well as condemnation from University students and groups like the Association of Native Americans at Yale — the Astronomy Department issued a response Friday stating it is “concerned over the situation at Mauna Kea” and hopes it “will be resolved locally and peacefully.” 

Still, about half of professors in the astronomy department has conducted research with Mauna Kea’s Keck I and Keck II telescopes for years, according to an astronomy professor who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Astronomy Department Chair Sarbani Basu said that the University buys between 24 and 25 observation nights on the telescopes, and has invested at least $12 million into the facility’s operation through a 2009 deal made with the California Institute of Technology.

Two Yale astronomy professors — Meg Urry and the anonymous professor — told the News this week that the department never held a formal meeting to discuss the ethics of using Mauna Kea telescopes for their own research. The anonymous professor said many in the department had thoughts on the practice, but discussing Yale’s hand in the situation never rose to more than “people talking to each other over coffee.” 

When asked why the ethical considerations of using the Keck telescopes on Mauna Kea were never formally discussed, department chair Sarbani Basu responded in a Thursday email, “I am not sure what you mean. There was never anything remotely iffy about Keck!” 

“The Keck telescope had been operating for years before we decided to buy nights, so no, there was nothing to discuss,” Basu wrote. 

When it comes to discontinuing their use of Mauna Kea telescopes, several astronomy professors told the News that their hands are tied: Without access to the cutting-edge telescopes — an astronomer’s lab space — the department would slip in rank. Urry said some still hope a deal can be made with Caltech to gain access to TMT at a lower cost. 

“We have wanted access to one of the 30 meter-type telescopes, either TMT or GMT [in Chile],” Basu wrote in an email to the News. “We were told by the Provost’s office that the money required is too much. Without such access in the future, we are in danger of again becoming a second-tier department.”

Yale students have taken to social media to voice their condemnation of the University’s use of telescopes on Mauna Kea as well as the University’s affiliation to AURA, the body providing scientific guidance on the TMT project to the telescope’s main partners.  

Native American Cultural Center staff member and Native Hawaiian student Micah Clemens Kulanakilaikekai’ale’ale Young ’21 wrote an open letter to the Astronomy Department on Wednesday asking its professors to speak out against the TMT.

“I understand that this is a long, bureaucratic process,” he wrote, “but I also understand that Yale is committed to Light and Truth.” 

Young told the News that the letter — shared widely on social media — has been successful in changing perspectives of some professors in the astronomy department. Still, he said that he does “not need nor deserve the limelight granted to me through the letter. I do not have the wisdom of a kupuna.”

When asked by the News how he felt about Yale’s use of the Keck telescopes and the lack of conversations within the department, Young said that overall he is looking forward to what he called a much needed discussion. He hopes it will dispel misinformation circulating in the press. 

“I do recognize that a meeting of this nature must be done as an entire department and in person,” he said. “These two factors are incredibly difficult during the summer.” 

NACC Director Matthew Makomenaw did not respond to a request for comment.

The Association of Native Americans at Yale has organized a virtual letter writing event that urges the Yale community to pressure the Astronomy Department to withdraw support for construction of the TMT and hold Yale “accountable for its part in the colonial violence against Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiians) and their environment.” 

The Astronomy Department operates the Leiner Observatory, a facility on Yale’s campus.

Marisa Peryer | marisa.peryer@yale.edu

  • Susan Rosier

    The 2 Keck observatories were constructed on THE Summit of Mauna Kea! They proudly state their facilities are on a pu’u yet they reserve the whole Truth that it was Pu’u Wakea, the actual summit that was dynamited, sacrificed for their monetary venture. In the process the endangered wekiu bug habitat was demolished! Being as the mountain top was no longer as high as it used to be, a new summit was named. The name they chose? Pu’u Wekiu! Astronomy has a very bad reputation here on Hawai’i Island! Although we realize the real criminal is University of Hawai’i for their mismanagement over 50 years, astronomy is seems to be the Patsy!

    • CarlHarmonica

      SO in your mind, Monetary venture = astronomy?

    • Sol G

      Ah, yes, those “monetary venture” telescopes. We all know how much money they bring to the crooks who build them and give them misleading names they don’t deserve! You have these greedy astronomers pinned to the wall.

      And then there’s the compromised wekiu bug habitat! Criminals! The poor sacred and beloved wekiu bugs!! Yes, these bugs are sacred and beloved notwithstanding their being first discovered in 1980 by biologists searching for insects under stones on Pu`u Wekiu.

      Native Hawaiians have loved and revered them implicitly for centuries, despite not being aware of their existence! Of course, every wekiu bug lover knows that after construction of observatories at the summit of Mauna Kea raised concerns that the wekiu bug might be in jeopardy of losing its only known habitat a search was made to find more bugs on Mauna Kea and the slopes of Mauna Loa. Individuals have now been observed on cinder cones nearly three miles from the Mauna Kea summit, while a previously unknown and different species was discovered on Mauna Loa.

      These activists especially revere the wekiu bugs because the bugs have evolved from seed suckers to insect-sucking predators, sucking the guts out of insects that find their way to the top of Mona Kea, just as these activists have evolved from believers in the mountain top gods to operators skilled in manipulating media and political mechanisms to suck money out of these astronomers!

      Still, these astronomers are just greedy criminals, as you say! They just make their foul observations from these so-called telescopes to write and publish papers in order to get research grants! It’s all about money. And they shortened the summit! Shame!! Hold them accountable!!

      And make payments by certified checks or confirmed wire transfers.

    • Joey

      Um, no, astronomy doesn’t have a bad reputation on Hawai’i.

    • Joey

      Except 72% of native Hawaiians support the telescope to 15% that oppose it. Who are you to tell them that they don’t know what’s best for their own culture?

  • CarlHarmonica

    Big whoop. Environmental racism my uss.

    • http://www.artspace.com/magazine/interviews_features/lists/the-10-worst-ways-to-die-in-a-hieronymous-bosch-painting-53872 Hieronymus Machine

      Big… “whoop?” I believe you are culturally appropriating from the wrong group of Native Americans…

  • Nancy Morris

    These protestors want money. It’s really that simple. Leave it to the YDN to miss the whole point.

    • ShadrachSmith

      Exactly. A yearly protest/fundraiser for otherwise unemployed grievance merchants…costumes optional.

    • MichaelDalyArtist

      Aloha. Please provide back-up evidence, or your hearsay, even, for speculation.

      The Kanaka (native Hawaiian), the non-Kanaka supporters and Kapuna leadership (elders) camped out at the crossroads of Mauna Kea are land, Kingdom and cultural protectors.

      These ‘protestors’ numbered 3k on-site over the weekend, plus more rallies on neighbour islands. Kapuna numbering 33, were arrested days before by local enforcement made up of many distraught and conflicted ohana (family) direct cousins, community loved ones and such.

      The protectors, leaders and donors are made up of common people, struggling day to day and who put their lives, work, study on hold for the causes of Mauna Kea, and some for a decade.

      If you want to identify “the whole point” of the movement, read the very last quote in the YDN article containing the word “colonial”.

      How dare you bring up $$$s accusing any entity on this side of the desire to profit. The shoe of course is on da other foot. Even Yale can’t afford TMT.

      If anything the point that’s not spelled out is RECOGNITION: Hawaiian Kingdom sovereignty / Kingdom self-determination / the growing Hawaiian Kingdom independence movement / a century-long harmful US military occupation of the region.

      Refer to US Public Resolution 103-150 “Apology Law”, President Clinton 1993 – – for starters.

    • MichaelDalyArtist

      The protectors (protestors) are economically struggling and put family things, work study on hold to sacrifice for da cause here. Colonialism, mentioned in last par of YDN does not provide locals here with economic security – of course they want fair money – but still, they are not willing to sell of the mountian. They also want Hawaiian independence for 126 years of occupation. Search it.

      • Nancy Morris

        Yes, they want money.

        And they don’t own the mountain top and never have.

  • Joey

    72% of native Hawaiians support the Thirty Meter Telescope vs. 15% who oppose it. (https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/10/science/hawaii-telescope-tmt-mauna-kea.html)

    Why are all these outsiders trying to tell native Hawaiians what their culture should actually believe? You’re all hypocrites. You pretend to care about the Hawaiian people, but don’t care that you’re pushing to end the TMT, which the vast majority of native Hawaiians want. This is some serious white savior complex/imperial paternalism. Quit pretending that know you what’s best for native Hawaiians when 72% of them disagree with you.

  • Betterwould

    Thoughtful column, and great letter by Micah Clemens Kulanakilaikekai’ale’ale Young ’21; thanks. Suppose Mt. Sinai, or better yet, the Temple Mount, were great locations for telescopes. Does anyone really believe their role as sacred sites would have been overridden for modern research? Don’t know how this can be resolved but truth is not always a quantitative proposition so the relatively few native Hawaiians shouldn’t be steamrolled on that basis. A more respectful accommodation between culture and science seems to be in order.

  • Awal

    There is a pretty legitimate argument that it was never ever considered a holy site. There were no protests against dozens of other telescopes at the site until people decided to make a political (not religious) point in the 80s and 90s. The site was operated as a rock quarry by the natives in the 18th and 19th centuries. They are tearing down 3 telescopes plus additional outbuildings on the site to offset the area taken up by TMT. If you look at the protesters, a solid plurality, if not a majority, aren’t even native Hawaiians.

    You are a reporter. You can do a tiny bit of your own research rather than regurgitating the specious arguments of interested parties.

  • Joey

    72% of native Hawaiians support the Thirty Meter Telescope vs. 15% against according to a scientific poll that’s been reported by the New York Times. It seems crazy that a bunch of non-indigenous folk around the world are trying to save the native Hawaiians from themselves.

    Why don’t you just listen to native Hawaiians when they tell you that they support the telescope?

    • Keoni Rodriguez

      Sampling bias – that poll only surveyed 78 Native Hawaiian registered voters, which has its own set of biases. Also, a newer poll that found that 48% of Native Hawaiians oppose the TMT, while 44% support it. Not only that, but more Native Hawaiians live outside of the Hawaiians Islands, making the 72% poll subject to deep sampling bias. Many Native Hawaiians groups including the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, the state department in charge of leveraging Native Hawaiians rights and beliefs. Don’t speak for us. Thousands of Hawaiians have rallied behind opposing the telescope from Moku O Keawe to California to Washington.