Native Hawaiians Don’t Want a Giant Telescope on Their Sacred Mountaintop at Haleakalā National Park

Haleakalā High Altitude Observatories Site where the ATST would be built. Photo by
Airplane Journal via Flickr.

Haleakalā, a long-dormant volcano, looms 10,023 feet above the wave-lapped shoreline of Maui. It is Maui’s dominant landform, accounting for about three-quarters of the island’s surface area. A visual delight and the proud centerpiece of Haleakalā National Park, the mountain also has a Native Hawaiian sacred site at its summit.

From the Native Hawaiian (kanaka maoli) perspective, the summit of Haleakalā is wao akua, which means “realm of the gods.” Haleakalā is Hawaiian for “house of the sun.” In Hawaiian folklore, the Haleakalā’s summit caldera was home to the grandmother of the demigod Māui. As the legend goes, Maui's grandmother helped him capture the sun and slow down its journey across the sky so the day would be lengthened.

Many Native Hawaiians believe that Haleakalā is literally the physical manifestation (kinolau) of the sacred goddess Pele. From this point of view, Haleakalā is much more than a temple.

Many Native Hawaiians come to Haleakalā and other sacred places to worship and feel close to their ancestors. Two-thirds of the approximately 400,000 Native Hawaiians live in Hawaii. Most of the rest live in California, though there are sizable populations in Nevada and Washington.

Haleakalā National Park was created on July 1, 1916, so this venerable park is celebrating its 92nd birthday. To be sure, the park offers much to celebrate. Its spectacular scenery, gorgeous sunrises, and excellent hiking and horseback trails attracted an estimated 1.3 million people (mostly mainland tourists) in 2007. About one out of six people who visit Maui also visit the park.

Nearly all who visit Haleakalā go away happy. But as the park marks its way through its tenth decade, all is not fun and games for management.

Public safety issues are one concern. For example, the Park Service recently had to declare a moratorium on the popular concessionaire-operated bike tours at Haleakalā after three fatalities and several serious accidents in 2007 raised serious questions about risk management and safety measures.

A much more difficult problem for the Park Service is how to resolve a conflict with Native Hawaiians who are outraged that a giant telescope is scheduled to be built atop their sacred mountain on ceded land they hope to regain some day.

A letter the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sent to the National Science Foundation in October 2006 provides a succinct summary of the proposed construction:

The National Science Foundation (NSF) proposes to construct the Advanced Technology
Solar Telescope (ATST) and support buildings within the 18.166-acre University of Hawaii
Institute for Astronomy (IfA) Haleakala High Altitude Observatories (HO) site at the summit of
Mount Haleakala on the Island of Maui, Hawaii. The ATST would be the world’s largest optical
solar telescope and would be housed in a 143-foot tall structure.

Other sites considered for the ATST included: Big Bear Lake, California; La Palma, Canary Islands, Spain; Panguitch Lake, Utah; Sacramento Peak, New Mexico; and San Pedro Mártir, Baja California, Mexico. The Haleakalā summit was deemed especially suitable for the ATST because of its clear daytime atmospheric seeing conditions and related favorable characteristics, including the fact that the site is federally owned and already has observatory facilities ensconced there.

The four-meter diameter solar telescope the ATST houses can spot objects on the sun as small as 30 km across. It will be used to study the solar corona, which can be loosely described as the sun’s “atmosphere.”.

The ATST would be a very conspicuous structure on the mountain. The top of the telescope would project about 100 feet higher than Haleakalā’s summit. The structure housing the telescope is so massive that the base would have to be dug about 50 feet into the ground.

For a map of the proposed ATST sites, see this site.

Park Superintendent Marilyn Parris, who called the draft environmental impact statement for the ATST (released September 2006) inadequate, is opposed to the project. Of course, if the giant telescope were to be built on Haleakalā, it certainly wouldn’t be the first time a big construction project has taken place in a national park in spite of National Park Service objections.

Leaving aside for the moment the question of whether a massive structure like this belongs in a national park at all, there is the matter of whether Native Hawaiian objections to the project should be given more weight. See this site for a discussion of the cultural and land ownership issues at Haleakalā from the Native Hawaiian perspective.

The conflict at Haleakalā is focused (no pun intended) on a giant telescope, but it can be seen as part of a larger controversy centered on the question of how far federal, state, and local governments should go in accommodating Native Hawaiian demands for the redress of grievances extending back to the time when Native Hawaiians began to lose the Hawaiian Islands to outsiders.

Like Indians on the mainland, Native Hawaiians had to stand by more or less helplessly and watch as their culture was submerged and marginalized. Today, most Americans know little about Native Hawaiian culture beyond the stereotypical image projected by Hawaii’s lucrative tourism industry.

Native Hawaiians also lost their sovereignty and their land. Under tremendous pressure (and implicit military threat), the last Hawaiian monarch, Queen Liliuokalani, abdicated in 1893. This opened the way was opened for foreigners in Honolulu to set up a provisional government and open negotiations for annexation to the United States. The annexation took place in 1898.

The joint resolution of Congress that provided for annexing the Hawaiian Islands to the United States read, in part:

Whereas, the Government of the Republic of Hawaii having, in due form, signified its consent, in the manner provided by its constitution, to cede absolutely and without reserve to the United States of America, all rights of sovereignty of whatsoever kind in and over the Hawaiian Islands and their dependencies, and also to cede and transfer to the United States, the absolute fee and ownership of all public, Government, or Crown lands, public buildings or edifices, ports, harbors, military equipment, and all other public property of every kind and description belonging to the Government of the Hawaiian Islands, together with every right and appurtenance thereunto appertaining: Therefore,

2 Resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That said cession is accepted, ratified, and confirmed, and that the said Hawaiian Islands and their dependencies be, and they are hereby, annexed as a part of the territory of the United States and are subject to the sovereign dominion thereof, and that all and singular the property and rights hereinbefore mentioned are vested in the United States of America.

About 1.8 million acres of land owned by Hawaii’s native people were ceded to the federal government.

Most of the ceded land became state lands when Hawaii achieved statehood in 1959. (Several years ago a Hawaii Supreme Court ruling decreed that the land claims of Native Hawaiians had to be settled before the state could enter into agreements with other parties about the ceded lands. The state promptly appealed that ruling, of course.) Most Native Hawaiians deeply resent that so much of their ceded ancestral land has been developed -- and so many of their important cultural sites destroyed -- to provide resorts, golf courses, and other playgrounds for the affluent.

It is germane that the telescopes of Haleakalā’s existing “Science City” -- property that Native Hawaiians refer to as the Ahupua'a of Papa'anui in the district (or moku) of Honua'ula) -- sits on ceded land at the mountain summit. The Native Hawaiian objections to the ATST therefore run much deeper, from a legal standpoint, then the moral/ethical concerns attending desecration of a sacred site. Certainly, the native people of Hawaii might be forgiven for believing that it would be doubly wrong for the federal government to allow a massive construction project on one of their most sacred sites when that very site might one day be restored to native ownership.

Native Hawaiians will be watching with great interest as the federal government works to resolve land ownership and management problems involving Oglala Sioux lands that are part of Badlands National Park[/url], Navajo lands being managed at Canyon de Chelley National Monument, and other native lands issues. Whether these mainland issues will have implications for disposition and management of the ceded lands in Hawaii, including the Haleakalā summit, remains to be seen.

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