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Native Hawaiians discuss spiritual, cultural connections to Maunakea

Updated: 
November 13, 2017 - 12:57pm

HILO — Before it became known as the world’s premier place for astronomy, Maunakea had long inspired reverence.

For Native Hawaiians, the top of the mountain traditionally has been seen as a piko kapu, or sacred center, where sky and earth meet.

“Maunakea is where heaven, earth and stars find union,” the Edith Kanaka’ole Foundation writes in the Maunakea Comprehensive Management Plan. “Not just any heaven, but Wakea, not just any earth, but Papahanaumoku, and not just any constellation of twinkling lights, but Ho’ohokukalani, whose children descend and return to the stars.”

As construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope — one of the largest planned anywhere in the world — continues to face legal challenges, an issue that looms over Maunakea is how this place should be used within its scientific and cultural contexts.

With the University of Hawaii planning to renew its general lease for at least part of the Maunakea Science Reserve, the mountain’s future beyond 2033, when the 65-year agreement expires, also could be shaped by that quandary and efforts — successful or not — to bridge the gap between the different perspectives.

Still, three years after protests halted TMT’s groundbreaking, common ground can appear elusive as to what Maunakea is or should be: Is it a temple to divine beings and creation; a window to the universe; a monument to world peace, as Mayor Harry Kim is advocating; or all of the above?

The evolution of astronomy on the mountain in the coming decades — and how residents connect with Hawaii’s tallest peak — might depend on how those differences are reconciled.

Realm of the gods

Cultural practitioners who visit Maunakea for spiritual purposes see the higher elevations as wao akua, or realm of the gods. It’s a place to enter with purpose or ritual.

“The 9,000-foot level is pretty much the entrance into that sacred realm,” said Kealoha Pisciotta, one of the leading TMT opponents. “… We’re not allowed to speak of politics or problems. We don’t have anything to say; we need to be listening to what the akua, the heavens are offering us.”

Pisciotta has led legal fights to stop new development in this area, including challenges to TMT, which would be built below the summit on the northern plateau.

In addition to environmental concerns, Pisciotta, of Ola’a, said the 13 telescopes currently on the mountain have imposed too much on cultural and religious practices that are entwined with the landscape.

“Getting along is not the problem,” she said. “We’re coexisting, but one at the expense of the other.”

Kalepa Baybayan, a master navigator, approaches the issue from a different perspective. For him, astronomy is key to Hawaii Island’s future as well as scientific and cultural education.

“I always claim that ancient mariners left the safety of the coastline and explored the oceans, and by doing so, discovered the stars,” he said. “And that’s what I want and hope they can provide: a source of inspiration for young people.”

Baybayan is a captain with the Polynesian sailing canoe Hokule’a that completed its historic around-the-world voyage last summer, and the resident navigator at ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center. He recently joined the board of Perpetuating Unique Educational Opportunities, formed by TMT supporters in the Hawaiian community.

PUEO members say they support the next-generation telescope because of the $1 million its international partners are committing to educational programs on the island each year, and opportunities for jobs in science. They want the observatories to continue to build on those efforts.

Baybayan said he joined to give supporters of astronomy on the mountain another voice.

“I think the next journey for humanity and mankind is the continued exploration of the universe,” he said. “It’s the best place for that. It is by far the best place in the world.”

TMT opponents say Maunakea already is overdeveloped. Regarding cultural resources, the project’s environmental impact statement says cumulative impacts on the mountain have been substantial and adverse. As conditions of TMT’s construction permit, UH would be required to remove several telescopes plus follow other mitigation efforts, though opponents say the project adds to the impact.

The Office of Hawaiian Affairs has recently been more vocal about management of the mountain. In a lawsuit filed last week, OHA alleges UH and the state Department of Land and Natural Resources have failed to protect ceded lands on Maunakea.

Asked about the future of the mountain, Pisciotta referred to a report her group, Maunakea Anaina Hou, completed in 2001.

She said it calls for no expansion of astronomy’s footprint, management being done independent of UH and substantial lease rent from the observatories. Funds would be distributed to schools and kupuna care, Pisciotta said.

“We’ve said here’s the way to restore balance: give back, take care and don’t ask for more,” she said.

Lease renewal

In 2013, UH first approached DLNR about approving a new master lease to cover the observatories and the Hale Pohaku midlevel facilities, though that process was paused to allow for an EIS.

Two years later, at the request of Gov. David Ige, UH agreed to again restart that process, which still remains largely on hold, and commit to seek greater financial commitments from the telescopes. Existing observatories pay $1 a year or less for rent but provide UH viewing time and cover infrastructure costs as part of their subleases. TMT would be the first to pay more than the nominal fee.

In an effort to help resolve the conflict, Kim proposed a Maunakea peace park that would highlight Hawaiian culture and be a symbol of global harmony. Ige supports that idea and asked Kim to lead a committee into its formation. But TMT opponents say they won’t support it if it allows for that project.

For UH, getting a new general lease for the existing observatories could ultimately prove easier than building a new telescope. But the university still faces an uphill battle if it wants to win over its harshest critics.

William Freitas, who was involved in the TMT protests and the project’s second contested case hearing, said he remembers the mountain looking “pristine” and “untouched” before the first telescopes were built. Before it pursues a new lease, he said UH should “take a more deeper assessment or study of the history of Maunakea, particularly to Native Hawaiians.”

“After 2033, if we don’t start acting for the health of Maunakea, we will suffer in the end,” said Freitas of Kailua-Kona. “That’s all I can say, because it protects, it gives life. Science only gives knowledge. It doesn’t give life.”

Asked if he thinks a new lease should be granted, he said, “As of today, I can say no.” If that meant closure of the access road, Freitas said that would be OK because he wouldn’t need to return unless he felt called up there.

Cindy Freitas, his wife, said UH should first address existing concerns about management before seeking a new lease and not add new telescopes. She said their problem is not science, but where it’s done.

“There are ways of doing astronomy without desecrating the land,” Cindy Freitas said.

Mehana Kihoi, another contested case participant and protester from Kailua-Kona, said she doesn’t think there is room for compromise and added that “enough is enough.”

“I don’t think so,” she said, when asked if a new lease should be granted. “For me, personally, they haven’t shown respect to the mountain, to the community, to the concerns of the people.”

Those who oppose TMT call themselves protectors rather than protesters.

Baybayan said removing the telescopes would be a tremendous loss for the island and beyond.

“We’ve come so far in the short period of time humans have inhabited this earth and we need to keep marching forward with curiosity and a desire to explore,” he said. “It’s through exploration that’s going to derive answers to questions we haven’t even thought of yet.”

Following the stars

As a traditional navigator, Baybayan of Hilo said he sees astronomy as befitting the mountain and Hawaiian culture.

He recalled spotting Maunakea while sailing with Hokule’a on one of its voyages, much in the same way the first Polynesians to discover these islands would have done more than 1,000 years ago.

“And just that little snapshot of being on the canoe, and seeing the peace of Maunakea, and the heavens above, came to me this realization that Maunakea is really the portal for viewing the universe,” Baybayan said. “What a unique opportunity we have and a unique privilege we have to contribute to that study.”

For its part, PUEO proposed additional educational programs as a condition for TMT’s construction permit, as well as a cultural and educational center on the mountain.

Some of the group’s ideas were adopted, but not the center.

PUEO President Keahi Warfield of Keaukaha said he saw the facility, perhaps a mauka version of ‘Imiloa, as a catalyst for the other programs that would benefit Hawaiian and other Hawaii Island youth, while connecting them with the science on the mountain.

“We are looking for the best possible situation for everybody,” he said. “Not just for Native Hawaiians, but everybody, and to have a solid basis and foundation in Hawaiian culture.

“I strongly believe if ‘Imiloa uka was implemented there would be a place for all of the antis against TMT. They would be able to share their knowledge, their religious practices.”

‘Quite close’

Pisciotta agrees there is overlap between astronomy and Hawaiian viewpoints. She described the mountain as a zenith, or connection to creation, and also a temple made for “man so that man can learn the ways of the heavens.”

In their views of the universe, she said she doesn’t think astronomers and cultural practitioners are that far apart, even if they look at it from different perspectives. “I think we’re actually quite close,” Pisciotta, a former telescope technician, acknowledged. For example, she compared concepts expressed by the Kumulipo and Po to the Big Bang and “quark soup.”

Does that mean common ground can be found with TMT? Pisciotta said no because the telescope can be built elsewhere.

In a statement many might find controversial, she also seemed to question the value of looking deeper into the cosmos.

Pisciotta said astronomy “doesn’t really have modern relevancy” because “you’re really looking back in time.” She also referred to it as kind of a “privileged science” that societies do when they’re affluent.

“That doesn’t mean it’s not deserving,” Pisciotta said, after noting she’s been criticized for such comments in the past. “It means it needs to be placed in its modern context. We’re probably not going to get to Mars, and even if we did, how would we live there? We know life exists here. We don’t know about everywhere else.”

Regarding PUEO, she said she doesn’t think the group should have been a party to the contested case because its members aren’t impacted in the same way as those who follow religious practices on the mountain.

Mailani Neal, a PUEO board member and student from Hawaii Island who is studying astronomy on the mainland, said she isn’t a traditional religious practitioner. But she sees practicing astronomy on Maunakea as a way to connect with her wayfinding ancestors, calling it her hula.

“We may not be practitioners on the mountain, but we are, we as PUEO, all have our special practices that involve the mountain,” she said. “I think there are different practices nowadays. I believe all of these practices can coexist on the mountain.”

Leilehua Yuen, who is not connected to PUEO or the opposing groups, is a cultural practitioner who walks in both worlds. She said she likes the research but not the impact of the observatories.

“I love the astronomy we’re doing. I love what we’re learning from the telescopes, but we need to keep working so hard on mitigating any of the damage they can do,” Yuen said when asked about her views during a recent tour of the observatories as part of the Kama’aina Observatory Experience.

She provides cultural education to visitors through the program.

Yuen said she appreciates the “mind change” in the astronomy community toward Hawaiian culture during the past few decades, and was confident that relationship will continue to improve.

“That is why I’m up here,” she said. “If you’re not part of it, you cannot make those changes.”

Asked about PUEO’s role going forward, Neal said she’d like the group to be a bridge between astronomy and the Hawaiian community.

“Our kuleana is to prepare this place to be better off than how we received it,” she said.

That’s something all sides can support, even if they don’t agree on what it looks like.

“When we talk lahui, we’re talking about the future of our children,” William Freitas said. “We’re not talking about our lahui that exists today. We’re talking about the future.”

Email Tom Callis at tcallis@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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