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Hawaiian Scientist Opposes Telescope To Be Built On Sacred Ground

Vadim Kurland,
Mauna Kea as seen from the ocean.

Mauna Kea is a dormant volcano that stands nearly 14,000 feet above sea level. The highest peak in Hawaii, it is a sacred place for native Hawaiians. It is also a sought-after location for astronomical observatories. There are currently 13 telescopes on the mountain, and there are plans for a fourteenth.

The proposed telescope, called the "Thirty Meter Telescope," would be massive and it’s the focus of intense controversy. Some native Hawaiians are strongly opposed to the project for spiritual, cultural, and environmental reasons. There have been years of protests.

Keolu Fox
Credit Courtesy Keolu Fox
Keolu Fox gives a talk.

In 2015, the highest court in Hawaii halted the project. But they recently made a new ruling and gave the go-ahead for construction.

“This is just sort of emblematic of this much larger issue that's going on within the United States and around the world,” Keolu Fox told Living Lab Radio. “And it's the way that we prioritize indigenous rights.”

Fox is a Chancellor’s Postdoctoral Fellow at University of California San Diego’s School of Medicine. He was a 2017 National Geographic Emerging Explorer. He studies human genetics, and as a native Hawaiian, he has been vocal about the need for more diversity and cultural respect in science.

Fox says he is a huge fan of astrophysics. Although he’s not in that field himself, as a scientist, he understands how valuable the data from the telescope could be.

“However, it should not be at the expense of indigenous peoples’ rights,” he said, explaining that the meaning of the name Mauna Kea is “the mountain with the white top.”

“This is likely the first thing our ancestors saw on the first boat coming from Tahiti or Marquesas -- kind of peeking through the clouds,” he said.

Fox says the fact that there are already telescopes on top of the mountain doesn’t mitigate his opposition to the proposed one.

“There's this straw that broke the camel's back thing,” he said. “How many times do we need to be fooled when it comes to land rights and indigenous rights and value systems and treaties that were not honored?”

Fox disagrees with the idea that this is a situation of “science versus culture.”

“I think the more apt kind of comparison is culture versus culture,” he said. “I feel like we're not listening to indigenous concepts and mastery around sustainability.”

Web content produced by Elsa Partan.

Elsa Partan is a producer for Living Lab Radio. She first came to the station in 2002 as an intern and fell in love with radio. She is a graduate of Bryn Mawr College and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. From 2006 to 2009, she covered the state of Wyoming for the NPR member station Wyoming Public Media in Laramie. She was a newspaper reporter at The Mashpee Enterprise from 2010 to 2013. She lives in Falmouth with her husband and two daughters.