Using the Sacred

Much of the controversy that surrounds our mountain revolves around a few simple questions… Who defines what sacred means? What sacred means to me and what sacred means to you is often very different. Even within a group of adherents to a single faith the answer will often vary greatly. What can you and can you not do on a sacred site? Some believe that a sacred site should not be touched, or even entered. Others build great temples or shines over the site to which thousands or millions of people make a pilgrimage to visit.

Ancient and Modern
A radio telescope of the Very Long Baseline Array stands in the background of an ancient ahu atop Mauna Kea
In this controversy many have insisted that the mountain is sacred, thus any use is desecration. Yet the ancient Hawaiians did use this place. They built ahu, they mined for the hard stone prized for making adzes, tools that built the great ocean going waʻa. Is the top five hundred feet of the mountain sacred, or all of it? Are all of the homes and farms that dot the flanks of Mauna Kea a desecration? There is no simple answer here. Anyone who claims otherwise is not being truthful.

The Temple of Mauna Kea differs from other temples because it was not created by man. Akua built it for man, to bring the heavens to man. – Kealoha Pisciotta

“To bring the heavens to man”, is this not what the great telescopes do? Are these great instruments of science an appropriate use for this place? This would not be a question if there were other places where the view of the universe as clear as Mauna Kea. But such places are rare, and none quite so good as this mountain. This one place is unique, particularly suited for studying the heavens. Thus the clash of culture and science has been defined upon this mountain.

Yes, Mauna Kea is sacred. It is sacred for the honor and opportunity it provides us. Yes, Mauna Kea warrants the highest level of cultural sensitivity, but it should be a cultural sensitivity that respects and celebrates exploration of the universe and that is totally consistent with the historical record of Hawaiians and their search for knowledge. – Peter Apo

The clash continues, playing out in court rooms, classrooms and street corners. Arguments rage in website comment sections, on Twitter and in Facebook posts. The conversation has been quite heated, hard words exchanged, a community fractured. How are these questions to be answered?

To this end society has developed tools for answering hard questions such as this. These tools are embodied in the law. One does not build haphazardly in a place such as Mauna Kea. The process is long and arduous. This process is nearly done, years of meetings, paperwork and court cases have decided that the TMT is to be built. Telescope opponents are placing faith in one last court case. A case before the Hawaiian Supreme Court to be heard in a couple weeks.

The case could go either way, but I would hazard a guess that the TMT construction use permit will be upheld. I do not express an unfounded opinion here. I have read the lower court decisions and legal analysis of the present case. The university and TMT corporation have followed the law and the decision should reflect that.

Summit and Winter Milky Way
The winter Milky Way over the summit of Mauna Kea
This decision still leaves the issue, how do culture and science share the mountain. The telescope builders have shown a great deal of flexibility to compromise, telescope opponents have shown little compromise. Indeed they have created a situation where their failure will create an enmity that will last for years.

When those with very different faiths and different ideas of sacred share the mountain compromise is important. The most sacred spaces on Mauna Kea have been preserved. The true summit, the top of Puʻu Wēkiu, has been left untouched, the observatories built elsewhere. When the current road was built it was relocated away from the original trails and 4WD road that passed the shore of Lake Waiau, even though the new route was more difficult. You can stand at the lake and see no sign of the modern world. When Puʻu Poliʻahu was slated for a telescope site it is objections from local residents that removed this area from consideration for any telescope construction.

The TMT is being built on the northern plateau as this is removed from the most sacred sites clustered on the southern plateau. If current plans are followed the presence of observatories visible from these sacred sites will be gradually reduced over the coming decades as facilities are decommissioned.

To those who believe that the telescopes belong atop Mauna Kea the special nature of this place makes it all the more appropriate that the telescopes are here. Astronomy is one of the rare human endeavors that bring people and nations together to work for a noble goal. Countries that may be bitter rivals in war or commerce provide funding for the same project. Astronomers who come from difference races, nationalities and religions work together for a common goal. The fruits of these labors are shared with the world, a knowledge of who we are, and where we are in this vast universe. A fitting use for this sacred mountain.

Mauna Kea is sacred to some, who believe that this place is pivotal, the piko of creation. Others believe that the telescopes are sacred, a testament to the finest aspirations of mankind, to learn and explore, to answer the great questions. It is a mistake, made by many in this controversy, to deny either of these views.

Author: Andrew

An electrical engineer, amateur astronomer, and diver, living and working on the island of Hawaiʻi.

2 thoughts on “Using the Sacred”

  1. I truly believe this issue is more a question of ownership, of what rightfully belongs to a particular group than it is a question of sacredness and how the word sacred is defined. To understand what is happening now demands an understanding of the ongoing plight of the Hawaiian people. To view this as a matter of science vs. culture or technology vs. religion isn’t wrong but it’s akin to a view of a single hair atop an elephant’s back. We need to step back–way, way back–to get a better idea of understanding how the A’ole TMT situation is a manifestation of the underlying resentment the general Hawaiian population has toward everyone else and the overwhelming feeling that their rights and concerns have been trampled upon. The TMT issue has managed to unite Hawaiians in a way few other things have until now. Although there are probably dozens of other issues Hawaiians would (some would say should) be better off pursuing, TMT has mushroomed into a global and undeniable symbol of Hawaiian strength and unity. The power that lies within that unity is formidable, laws and court decisions notwithstanding.

    1. I agree that the issue may end up being a good thing for the Hawaiian people, win or lose. The next generation of leaders and community activists may very well be getting their first taste of action now. Hopefully a few will pursue the cause for the long run and not lose interest when this is over.

      I have been reading quite a bit on the ownership issue as well. There are good arguments that Hawaiian claims to the summit are weak at best. The best recipient may very well be the State of Hawaii as a representative of the people of the state.

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