In 1847 when Hawaii’s King Kalakaua invited British astronomers to observe the heavens he had high hopes for building an observatory on the Big Island. But he probably couldn’t have imagined that over a century later Hawaii would have a $1.4 billion Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) on a dormant volcano called Mauna Kea. Nor could he have imagined the conflict the TMT has engendered between Native Hawaiians and scientists.
After years of legal battles and large protests by Native Hawaiians, which have recently garnered media coverage, the TMT is set to be built with the blessing of Gov. David Ige. But opponents like Kealoha Pisciotta, a Native Hawaiian, argue that the telescope will desecrate sacred land. “These are places of worship and the places where we lay our offering and our prayer,” the activist told Inside Higher Ed.
Scientists are divided on the matter. Some see the telescope, which would be one of 13 already on the mountain, as a form of “colonial science” in which sacred lands are taken from indigenous peoples in the name of scientific progress. Others, some from academic institutions and governments invested in a consortium supporting the TMT effort, try to sound a note of respect for local culture while defending the telescope’s place on the mountain where, it is said, Hawaii’s most beautiful goddess still lives. They are excited by the prospect of learning more about dark matter and possibly understanding how original galaxies formed, or if there is life elsewhere in the universe.
What all this comes down to in its most basic form is an argument between culture and science against the background cries for indigenous autonomy and respect. Scientist Aurora Kagana- Viviani argues that “Science and culture have long coexisted in Hawaii.” But what have not always coexisted, she adds, are scientific inquiry and fundamental respect for the people who come under science’s microscopes – or inhabit the realms of its telescopes.
Similar clashes between conservationists and indigenous peoples have occurred in fragile landscapes when conservationists have “viewed native people as a problem to be solved by eviction,” as environmental writer Mark Dowie wrote in a 2009 story in The Guardian. For example, from the middle of the 19th century until 1914, there was a concerted and sometimes violent effort to rid Yosemite of its native Americans. This kind of racism was repeated in most of America’s major parks at the time and was repeated worldwide. No one knows how many conservation refugees there were globally during this period but estimates say close to 20 million.
It doesn’t have to be this way. As Dowie wrote in his Guardian piece, “These are two forces that share a goal that is vital to life on earth, a healthy and diverse biosphere. Both are communities of integrity led by admirable, dedicated people. Both sides care deeply for the planet and together are capable of preserving more biodiversity than any other two groups.”
It's an important point and both parties bear responsibility for reconciling their disparate points of view with an eye to the greater good. Big conservation groups and some scientists must overcome personal and institutional arrogance while some indigenous people should not think of all conservationists – or scientists - as imperialist.
Conservationists and scientists have experienced the tensions brought about by these diverse yet mutual interests and many have taken part in encouraging dialogue between the formally educated and native societies that have amazing ecological knowledge, passed on generation to generation.
The convergence of ideas and beliefs is not easy to achieve but neither is it impossible. Science and cultural survival can find ways to join together in common cause and it’s happening more these days in many settings.
There is a lesson here for all of us in a variety of contexts. As our entire nation experiences a greater political divide than ever there may still be ways for some of us at least to talk with each other and share knowledge, experience, feelings and hope. I confess I don’t see this happening at the top levels of governance right now, but I can imagine it in neighborhoods, communities, schools, workplaces, academia, and elsewhere where diverse peoples can strive to be heard with respect and interest.
I am reminded of an experience I had years ago in a Bed n’ Breakfast in Oregon. At breakfast, I talked with a born-again Christian woman whose beliefs were hard for me to understand or accept. It was the first time I’d ever had a conversation with someone like her, and it was likely the first time she’d ever met a secular Jew. We talked for a long time, quietly and calmly, as we struggled to understand each other, and though neither of us was spiritually changed by our conversation, we each had a deeper understanding of “the other.” We parted respecting our mutual ability to speak honestly. I think we also prided ourselves on what we had done.
It’s small steps like that, grounded in respectful communication, that lead to “truth and reconciliation.” I hope no matter what the context we can begin to find our way to such important conversations.
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Writer Elayne Clift holds a master’s degree in communication. www.elayne-clift.com