Canadian astronomers contend with issue of Indigenous consent over Hawaiian telescope project

The Canadian astronomy community has named the controversial Thirty Meter Telescope its top facilities priority for the decade ahead while also recommending the creation of a policy focused on Indigenous consent in a section of its new long range planning document.

The telescope, proposed for construction on Hawaii’s tallest mountain, Mauna Kea, has sparked opposition and widespread protest from Kanaka Maoli, the Indigenous People of Hawaii. 

Canadian astronomers’ commitment to the telescope has forced the community to contend with the tension between its scientific ambitions and how it navigates questions about Kanaka Maoli consent.

They successfully lobbied the federal government to commit $254.5 million in funding toward the project in 2015. If built, TMT would be among the largest telescopes in the world. A fact-pack on the TMT website says the telescope will “help answer fundamental questions about the universe” will likely lead to discoveries that can’t be anticipated today. 

Astrophysicist Sara Ellison, president of the Canadian Astronomical Society (CASCA), said “it’s not our decision to make” when asked what role Canadian astronomers have to play in answering questions about Kanaka Maoli consent and TMT’s future on Mauna Kea. 

CASCA is a professional body that represents astronomers in Canada and publishes a long range plan every 10 years. 

“It is for the Native Hawaiians and the State of Hawaii to decide whether we’re welcome. And if we’re not, we won’t go,” said Ellison. 

Ellison said extreme efforts and good will went into the consultation process on TMT and said it had support from the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, a political body that represents Kanaka Maoli. 

The office voted to withdraw that support in 2015. 

‘A territorial, jurisdiction issue’ 

Uahikea Maile, a Kanaka Maoli scholar and professor of Indigenous politics at the University of Toronto, said framing TMT as an internal Hawaiian matter is a way for Canadian astronomers to “distance themselves from the kinds of ethical quandaries of dealing with humans and human populations.”

“When, in fact, in order to study the stars and the universe and other universes they have to contend with people on our own planet.” 

Uahikea Maile is an assistant professor of Indigenous Politics at the University of Toronto’s Department of Political Science. (Uahikea Maile)

Maile has been advocating for Canadian divestment from the project and working to educate people about Kanaka Maoli perspectives about astronomy and Mauna Kea. 

Peaking at 4,200 metres above sea level, the dormant volcano is sacred to Kanaka Maoli.

Its elevation and atmospheric conditions also present an ideal location for stargazing. Thirteen observatories have been built on the mountain since the 1960s. 

Maile said the TMT conflict is often framed as a clash between culture and science, but that it’s really “a territorial, jurisdiction issue” — one that has arisen because of colonialism in Hawaii and the limited decision-making authority his people have on the mountain. 

Telescope conflict described as a ‘lightning rod’ 

Sara Ellison describes TMT as a “lightning rod” on Mauna Kea that’s about more than any single project and that the conflict has made it a difficult time to be an astronomer. 

“Some of us have been real targets of animosity… within our own university communities and further afield as well, that we are somehow to blame for police violence against Native Hawaiians,” she said. 

She doesn’t agree with the comparisons that have been drawn between the telescope and pipeline conflicts.

“With pipelines, businesses have something they really want to extract and have something to gain,” she said. 

When it comes to astronomy, she sees her field as “a gain for all of mankind.”

“We’re all asking questions about our origins and I think there’s actually quite a deep connection there with Native beliefs in terms of ways of learning about our past,” she said. 

An artist’s rendering of what the Thirty Meter Telescope would look like once constructed on the Mauna Kea site. (TMT International Observatory)

Maile said it’s offensive to hear astronomers make a “bizarre connection” between their pursuit of knowledge and Kanaka Maoli culture. 

“It is very clear to me that Canadian astronomers, after all my meetings, care more about finding alien life and discovering planets that are habitable for humans outside of our solar system than Indigenous rights and Indigenous Peoples on ours,” he said. 

Consent in Hawaii described as a ‘complex issue’ 

TMT’s external relations vice-president Gordon Squires said in an emailed statement to CBC News that “consent in Hawaii is a complex issue, as there is no single, recognized decision-making authority for the native Hawaiian population.” 

He wrote that TMT has gone through all the necessary processes and has met Hawaii’s legal requirements to allow for construction and that “there is significant support for the TMT Project, including among native Hawaiians.”

Maile said there’s a plurality of perspectives among Kanaka Maoli when it comes to TMT but that there’s evidence to show that Kanaka Maoli don’t consent to its construction. 

“Evidence of no consent from my people would be for decades having opposition to ongoing industrialization of Mauna Kea and other mountains in Hawaii,” he said. 

“Kanaka Maoli say enough is enough and have shown up in force to say no,” he said. 

‘We benefit from stolen land’ 

In many ways, Mi’kmaw astronomer and University of Toronto professor Hilding Neilson straddles both sides of the conversation about TMT and Mauna Kea. 

He submitted white papers to CASCA to inform the long range plan, including one about astronomy on Mauna Kea that included recommendations about how Canadian astronomers can better support Indigenous rights. 

“Most of the people in Canadian astronomy have very little insight or idea of what it means to be Indigenous or Indigenous issues in Canada or Hawaii,” he said, though he said he finds it promising that many in his field are embracing the conversation about the ethics around facilities and Indigenous Peoples. 

Pauline Bramby, astronomer and co-chair of the panel that wrote the long range plan, said she hopes the section calling for the creation of a policy on Indigenous consent will prompt bigger conversations among astronomers, “where we reflect on the kinds of privileges we have as astronomers and how those privileges are informed by the history of colonialism.”

“I think we’ve had a feeling in our field that because we don’t build bombs and blow up people and everybody loves space that astronomy isn’t a controversial field — it’s kind of a blame-free field. And I think many of us are starting to realize that that’s not quite the case.”

Demonstrators gathered to block a road at the base of Hawaii’s tallest mountain, Monday, July 15, 2019, in Mauna Kea, Hawaii, to protest the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope. (Caleb Jones/The Associated Press)

She said TMT is a big part of why recommendations about Indigenous consent were written into the latest report but that a set of guiding principles would also be helpful for astronomers considering sites for ground-based facilities in other parts of the world. 

While the long range plan recommendations about Indigenous consent send the “right message,” Neilson worries that “it’s not clear who is responsible for implementing that spirit and that message. So it could also end up being all for naught.” 

When asked if there’s something he could compel his astronomy colleagues to understand, he responded: “We benefit from stolen land.”  

“Every image, spectrum, beautiful telescope picture we got — taken from Hawaii — is based on stolen land. We might have permission to be on there by the State of Hawaii and various lease agreements, but at this point no Native Hawaiian community has ever given us that consent, as far as I know.” 

Construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope remains on hold. Mauna Kea remains the preferred site for construction, though a site in the Canary Islands has also been identified as a potential backup.

Cost estimates to build the telescope are currently in the ballpark of $2.4 billion. The National Science Foundation is currently reviewing a funding proposal for the project. 

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