Mauna Kea
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Clashing Cosmologies Above Hawai‘i

Asian Week

By Brian Kluepfel,Oct 15, 2004

Snow-capped Mauna Kea is an anomaly in the lush, tropical Hawaiian Islands — 14,000 feet high, freezing cold, shrouded in fog and battered by 120 mph winds, it’s a harsh landscape where Hawaiian legends tell of a battle between the fire goddess Pele and the snow goddess Poliahu. As the highest point in the Polynesian archipelago, Mauna Kea is also a sacred spot for Native Hawaiians — “probably the first thing our ancestors saw as they crossed the Pacific in their canoes,” says Hawaiian storyteller Marie Solomon in the new documentary Mauna Kea: Temple Under Siege.

Although the battle between Pele and Poliahu ended with the fire goddess retiring to the lands below, today another confrontation is happening between Native Hawaiians and modern-day astronomers who utilize Mauna Kea’s ideal location to research the solar system. “The summit of Mauna Kea is overall the best place for looking at stars in the world,” says one astronomer. Eleven countries have built high-powered telescopes at the summit since the University of Hawai‘i was granted a 65-year lease to do so in 1968.

But now Hawaiians and environmental groups are questioning the wisdom of the lease’s unfettered scientific license to explore atop nature’s peak. “They look at the stars while trampling all beneath their feet,” says one local. “This is not a playground for scientists.”

For Hawaiians, Mauna Kea is a place of creation, whether it be the volcanic rock quarries that formed when lava met ice, or the waters from the ancient glacier that still sits directly below its surface — the primary aquifer for the Big Island. The Mauna Kea Adz Quarry is still the place where the most sought-after rock, used to build the adzes for hewing canoes, is found.

The documentary, featured at the Berkeley Video and Film Festival, looks at the environmental impact of astronomy. Although it is known as a relatively “clean” science, there still have been three liquid mercury spills in the past decade atop Mauna Kea. Additionally, the scientific stations generate 500,000 gallons of human waste annually.

Now the University of Hawai‘i is increasing the number of telescopes beyond the limit of 13 in the 1983 master plan. “They have to realize that this is an island, not a continent,” Solomon says. “No more.”

Astronomers, though, say the data collected has been invaluable. “We have written the history of modern astronomy,” says a German scientist. Fred Chaffee of the Keck Observatory notes, “Ancient Hawaiians (in their search for the islands) and modern astronomers share a tremendous amount in common.”

Nainoa Thompson of the Polynesian Voyaging Society, an expert in ancient navigational techniques, casts a doubtful eye on the scientists’ point of view. “Quality science cannot be at the expense of our culture,” he says. Thompson cast the lone dissenting vote on the university’s board of regents against the new master plan.

Festival co-director Paul Kealoha Blake, himself born on the island of Maui, lauds Mauna Kea. “Our festival provides a venue where filmmakers can actually use videos to document and affect change,” he says. “Joan and Puhipau (of Na Maka o ka Aina, also creators of Act of War: Overthrow of the Hawaiian Nation) are two of the most important figures in [the] documenting of Hawaiian issues — they’ve been unflinching.”

Mauna Kea plays this Sunday, Oct. 17, at Wheeler Hall, at UC Berkeley, at 5:20 p.m. For more info go to

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