Marisa Peryer

The town Kailua-Kona on Hawaii’s Big Island was home to King Kamehameha I, who united the Hawaiian Islands under one kingdom in 1810. Just off the white-sanded, turquoise waters of Kamakahonu Beach, his residence included places of worship, housing for chiefs and eventually his burial site. 

Now, it’s a Marriott.  

Kailua-Kona feels like a tourist town. Parts of its coast are swallowed by a bustling strip of restaurants and luxury resorts. Small stands sell acai bowls and cones of shaved ice with “aloha” painted on the frozen heap in dyed syrup. Gift shops peddle wares to tourists like coconuts and plastic leis. One resident lamented that the houses in Kailua-Kona’s cul-de-sac neighborhoods largely cater to travelers looking for an Airbnb stay. 

“People don’t really understand how much our people had to give up,” Native Hawaiian activist Kamahaʻo Kawelu told the Columbia Journalism Review in July. “We gave up our beaches to resorts. Our heiau (temples) were taken from us and destroyed. Everything we had was taken from us and exploited for profit and geared towards tourism.” 

For centuries, Native Hawaiians have resisted unsanctioned development of their land. This July, Hawaii Governor David Ige announced that construction of a massive telescope would commence on the Mauna Kea summit, a cultural and religious site not far from Kailua-Kona. Slated to become one of the largest astronomy telescopes in existence, the instruments would roughly equal the height of Harkness Tower and with a footprint spanning four football fields. 

In response, thousands of Native Hawaiian activists, scholars and scientists are trying to prevent the construction of the 18-story Thirty Meter Telescope, or TMT, and its 5-acre facility. Activists have staved off the massive project by blocking access to the construction site for over a month,forming a self-sustaining encampment at the base of the mountain with free food, health care and education.

The ideals fueling opposition to the TMT are not new: Native Hawaiians have resisted construction of any kind on the mountain for more than 50 years. But while activists argue that development of Mauna Kea violates indigenous rights, harms the summit’s environment and ignores its significance to Native Hawaiian culture and religion, scientists 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 favorable weather conditions.

The massive project is spearheaded by the California Institute of Technology and the University of California system, among other international consortiums. Over the summer, activists have called on universities to answer for the ethics of supporting TMT construction on the landmark. 

Unlike these institutions, Yale is not a financier or policymaker of the TMT. Still, the University is among dozens of universities affiliated with the project as a member institution of the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, or AURA, a body providing scientific guidance to the main TMT financiers and policymakers.

But Yale has a more direct stake elsewhere on the mountain. About half of its professors have conducted research with Mauna Kea’s Keck I and Keck II telescopes, resources the University has devoted at least $12 million to obtain since a 2009 deal with Caltech. 

The department responded to the movement on the mountain in July, stating it was “concerned over the situation at Mauna Kea” and hoped it “will be resolved locally and peacefully.” But as Native Hawaiians continue to take a stand for their ancestral land, it is unclear how — or if — research powerhouses like Yale will respond to the changing climate atop Mauna Kea. 

Nothing “iffy” about Keck

Until this week, Yale’s Astronomy Department had for years failed to hold formal discussions regarding Mauna Kea. On Tuesday, the department held a meeting in Sloane Physics Laboratory to discuss the construction of the TMT with members of the Yale community. 

Still, the department has not publicly discussed the ethics of using the Keck facilities on Mauna Kea. The two moderators — which included astronomy professor and Keck researcher Marla Geha — mandated prior to the meeting that discussions remained limited to the TMT project.  

At the meeting, the News inquired into the timing of Tuesday’s discussion, since Native Hawaiians have argued against development of Mauna Kea for years. In response to the question, Geha reiterated that the discussion was limited to the TMT project. 

When asked in July why the department has not discussed the ethics of using Keck telescopes, astronomy chair Sarbani Basu responded in an email, “I am not sure what you mean. There was never anything remotely iffy about Keck!”

A professor who spoke on the condition of anonymity echoed the same sentiment as Basu during an interview with the News in July. 

Such responses from astronomy professors are “concerning,” according to Sara Kahanamoku ’16, an integrative biology PhD candidate at UC Berkeley and a Native Hawaiian activist who has spoken publicly against construction of the TMT. The dismissal of Keck’s ethical implications demonstrates the urgent need to develop ethical boundaries for all STEM fields, according to Kahanamoku. 

“I am unconvinced by the professors’ reasoning with respect to why they do not need to discuss these ethical issues,” Kahanamoku wrote in a July email to the News. “It is clear that they have no knowledge of the long (>50 year), direct opposition of Native Hawaiians to construction of any sort on the summit of the Mauna. The resistance has always been over building anything on Mauna Kea.”

“Violates norms of environmental law.” 

Native Hawaiian activists push back on the label “protester.” They instead refer to themselves as Kū Kia’i Mauna, or “protectors of the mountain.”  

“I think that cognitive shift actually really beautifully demonstrates what this is about,” said Aanchal Saraf GRD ’23, a graduate student in American Studies who attended Tuesday’s discussion. “It’s not about stopping the TMT. It’s about protecting the mountain.” 

In 2018, the Hawaii Supreme Court affirmed the State Board of Land and Natural Resources’ decision to permit TMT construction on protected Mauna Kea land. The board successfully argued to the court that the 13 other telescopes on the summit had caused such substantial environmental harm that TMT’s operation would have relatively no adverse effects in comparison.

The dissenting opinion stated that the ruling “violates norms of environmental law.” 

In explaining the stand on Mauna Kea, activists reference the success of past movements on the islands. Saraf pointed to the Native Hawaiian movement regarding Kaho’olawe, “the most bombed island in the Pacific,” as an example. 

As part of military training during the Vietnam War, U.S. warplanes dropped 2,500 tons of bombs on targets positioned on Kaho’olawe. Undetonated explosives made traveling on the island dangerous, and nearby waters hazardous. The U.S. military’s use of Kaho’olawe as a military target also came with environmental consequences — ground erosion, widespread vegetation eradication and coral reef destruction.     

The destruction of the island spurred Native Hawaiians to call for an end to U.S. bombings on Kaho’olawe through a grassroots organization called Protect Kahoʻolawe ʻOhana. As part of the movement, some activists travelled to the island, despite the dangers.  

“They put their bodies on the line,” said Iokepa Salazar, assistant professor within Ithaca College’s Center for the Study of Culture, Race, and Ethnicity. “They forced the U.S. Navy’s hand.”  

Micah Clemens Kulanakilaikekai’ale’ale Young ’21 — a Native American Cultural Center staff member and Native Hawaiian student who penned a widely circulated an open letter to the Astronomy Department in July — said that the resistance at Kaho’olawe is personal. He said activists used his grandmother’s house on Maui as a base before taking the trip to Kaho’olawe on ships. 

“It’s very recent history — it’s what started the Hawiian Renaissance — but it is also a dark history,” he said. 

Now, the island is the subject of remediation efforts.

“PKO was about ending U.S. military bombing of Kaho’olawe. Ku Kia’i Mauna is about stopping the construction of the TMT on a sacred mountain,” Saraf said. “But both ultimately are about Hawaiian sovereignty.” 

 “The Impossible Telescope”

A 6 a.m. bus out of Kailua-Kona departs from the parking lot of a vacant movie theater. The chain stores disappear, and the houses grow further apart. The sun, just risen, casts large pastures and low-hanging clouds in golden light. 

The bus arrives in Waimea roughly an hour later. 

Unlike Kailua-Kona, Waimea is quieter, more serene. Towering, grassy hills overlook the town from every point on the main road. W.M. Keck Observatory headquarters — nestled in one of the hills — is just a few minutes’ walk from the bus stop. 

For a multimillion dollar telescope that is considered one of the most advanced instruments available to date, Keck headquarters seems remarkably ordinary. The modest space appears no different than a typical office. 

When scientists conduct research at the Waimea headquarters, they sit in large, open rooms containing a few computer monitors. 

“Nobody using Keck observes at the summit,” said Keck Chief Scientist John O’Meara. 

At headquarters, researchers and support staff remotely calibrate instruments on Keck telescopes thousands of miles away for a night of viewing. This offsite setup curbs the health risks of the high altitudes and potentially treacherous conditions on the 14,000-foot mountain.

Once dubbed “The Impossible Telescope,” O’Meara described Keck as a feat of engineering — the twin telescopes were the largest at construction in the 1990s. The observatory, he said, is the most scientifically productive in the world. Researchers using the Keck telescopes have discovered hundreds of planets orbiting around stars, and they played a critical role in uncovering the universe’s accelerating expansion, for which three researchers won the Nobel Prize for in 2011. 

“It’s the combination of the astronomical site … Plus the engineering marvel that is Keck. Plus its instruments that has really turned science on its head for astronomy,” O’Meara said. 

According to O’Meara, Keck-affiliated astronomers often give public lectures to the local community. The observatory, he said, also makes a concerted effort to offer cutting-edge internships and chances for high school students to compete for observation time on the Keck telescopes.

“The observatory’s stance is to give back and participate with the community in every possible way,” he said. “We hire as many people from the island as we can, and we try to give back as much as we can. And I think we’re recognized in the community as being a good community partner.”  

Like the Keck Observatory, the TMT has also promised to invest back into Hawaii’s STEM community. 

But for opponents, the gesture is not enough. 

Salazar, the professor within Ithaca College’s Center for the Study of Culture, Race, and Ethnicity, said that the investments by the observatories into STEM education in Hawaii is “akin to manipulating the relationships and the stakes involved by suggesting a payout would suffice. It’s not enough and it comes too late.”

“If you really want to give back to the community,” he said, “you give unconditionally.”

“Solidarity is all you have left” 

Astronomy professor Meg Urry said in July that some faculty members still hope the University can obtain access to the TMT. But cost is a limiting factor. 

“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.”

At the meeting on Tuesday, students called upon astronomy faculty members to consider speaking out against TMT construction on Mauna Kea. They argued that a critical statement from a university like Yale could carry considerable weight in the astronomy community. 

“I’m not Kanaka Maoli, I’m a member of the Cree Nation,” said Gabriella Blatt ’21, president of the Association of Native Americans at Yale. “But I stand in solidarity with the  Kānaka Maoli because I know that when you survive genocide and have your land illegally taken, solidarity is all you have left, that’s why I’m asking you all today to stand in solidarity with the Native Hawaiians.”

Students who attended the meeting told the News that they were glad conversations have begun to take place within the astronomy department.

“I’m glad that talks are taking place now,” Blatt wrote to the News. “It shows how important student power is in bringing topics like this to the forefront and at least, making the Yale Astro department cognizant that even things like telescopes can have huge ethical issues.”

When it comes to pulling out from Mauna Kea, several astronomy professors told the News in July that their hands are tied: Without access to state-of-the-art telescopes — an astronomer’s lab space — the department would slip in rank.

Few astronomy professors spoke at Tuesday’s meeting. Those that did speak expressed empathy for the activists on Mauna Kea, but questioned the value of taking public sides on the issue since Yale is physically removed from Hawaii by thousands of miles.

Several students expressed dismay that more faculty members did not actively express their perspectives at the meeting.  

“I was a little bit disappointed that a lot of them showed up but not too many participated,” said Young, the Native Hawaiian student who penned the open letter to the department. “It felt like the department was there passively engaging,” 

At the meeting’s outset, faculty members encouraged sustained feedback from the community. But students were left wondering: “Will Yale listen?” 

Marisa Peryer | marisa.peryer@yale.edu