Maunakea and the Need to Indigenize Astronomy

August 9, 2019
Photo: pedrik/Flickr
Hilding Neilson
Non-tenure stream assistant professor in the Department of Astronomy & Astrophysics at the University of Toronto

I am told by Hawaiians that Maunakea is sacred. I am not sure I understand what that means, I am not Hawaiian, I am an outsider.

What I know about Maunakea is really only two things. The first is that Maunakea is one of the best sites for astronomy observing in the world, thanks to its height and the mostly stable weather on the mountain. That is why astronomers have proposed that the Thirty-Meter Telescope (TMT) be built there. With this telescope, we can expect new discoveries about planets orbiting other stars and whether these planets might host life as we understand it. We might learn about the first stars ever born and peer deeper into the Universe’s history than ever before. I am an astronomer and I will benefit from Canada’s participation in the TMT.

The second thing I know is that Maunakea is Hawaiian territory and we, astronomy, do not have consent for TMT on Maunakea. I think this has been clear for more than a decade through court cases and protests, but the idea of consent came to a head on July 18, 2019 when Elders were arrested by police for trying to protect the mountain. This was a violent moment, but not a new moment. Elders have been arrested for protesting the Alton Gas project in Nova Scotia, Trans Mountain pipeline in British Columbia and as we all know, Standing Rock. All of these situations and more are instances where Indigenous peoples were telling settlers/colonizers that they do not have consent. TMT does not have consent to be on Maunakea. I understand this as an Mi’kmaw First Nation person myself and seeing those arrests on Maunakea from thousands of kilometers away was wrong.

I know these two things and both concepts appear to be in conflict. But not to me. TMT does not have consent and that should be the end of the story. As a scientist, Indigenous rights are infinitely more important than whatever research benefit I might obtain from TMT on Maunakea. For me to do otherwise is to do unethical science and to harm Indigenous peoples. I only wish my colleagues could see this.

Even after weeks of protest, TMT is still looming over Maunakea, and colleagues are making many arguments justifying TMT over Hawaiian rights. Some are saying this is science versus religion, or that TMT is an economic boon to Hawaiians or that science is more important, or that polls say Hawaiians support TMT. None of these arguments matter or are relevant. Saying science versus religion is a Eurocentric (Western) way of diminishing Hawaiian culture and history and attempts to define the sacredness of Maunakea in Eurocentric way. It is irrelevant. Maunakea is Hawaiian and we do not have consent. Our ethical duty is to respect even if we don’t understand. When astronomers/scientists note that TMT should be built because it is an economic boon to Hawaiians, it is also irrelevant. Maunakea is Hawaiian territory and Hawaiians will decide what is or isn’t an economic boon. When scientists cite polls saying Hawaiians  support TMT so it should be built, they are saying that they get to decide what is or isn’t consent. But, Maunakea is Hawaiian and we do not have consent. No matter what frivolous argument astronomers make, (Eurocentric) astronomy does not have rights to Maunakea. Maunakea is Hawaiian territory and it is time we in science and astronomy respect that ahead of our own ambitions.

While I see this “debate” in a simple way, I think the debate exists because of how we do astronomy.  Astronomy in the USA, Canada, etc. is built from a Eurocentric perspective and erases Indigenous knowledges and peoples. Just think about a constellation in the sky made of a grouping of stars. Who defined that constellation, was it European or from somewhere else? It was probably a constellation defined by a group of European scientists about a century ago based on historical use of Greek/Roman constellations and less likely a Hawaiian constellation or an Inuit constellation or any Indigenous constellation.  We have not learned to respect and embrace Indigenous knowledges into astronomy. We have never truly listened to Hawaiians and Indigenous peoples. Maybe if we as scientists had a meaningful understanding of Hawaiian astronomy and perspectives, we could have avoided the situation we are in now.

Instead of erasing Indigenous knowledges, what if we braided Indigenous knowledges and Eurocentric astronomy? The Mi’kmaq Elders Albert and Murdena Marshall presented the term “Two-Eyed Seeing” as a methodology to view natural phenomena through two perspectives: one Eurocentric, one Indigenous. Bringing the two perspectives together allows us to understand natural phenomena better and in more detail. We as scientists would learn to see our relation to the natural phenomena we observe and to the land on which we live and work. Perhaps methods like this would help scientists and astronomers better understand Hawaii and Indigenous peoples worldwide. We have a lot to learn.

Hilding Neilson is a non-tenure stream assistant professor in the Department of Astronomy & Astrophysics at the University of Toronto and is a member of the Qalipu Mi’kmaq First Nation from Newfoundland and Labrador. He is an interdisciplinary scientist and educator working to blend Indigenous knowledges into astronomy curriculum with the goal of Indigenizing astronomy in Canada.  His research also focuses on probing the physics of stars from those like our Sun to the biggest, most massive stars and how we use these stars as laboratories to better understand our Universe from cosmology to extrasolar planets.

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