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Let Native Hawaiians Take the Lead on Issues Such as TMT



In the past few weeks, my social media pages, like most people from Hawaii, have been riddled with thoughts on the Thirty Meter Telescope. Mostly, I’ve kept quiet — not because I have no opinion, but rather because, as a haole, I don’t consider it my place to weigh in on the issue. Let me explain.

I’m from Hawaii. I grew up in Kailua, went to elementary, middle school and high school here, and after returning from college on the mainland, also did my graduate work at UH Manoa. So when I say that I’m a haole, it is with a full understanding of what the word means, its origin and use. It is that understanding of its context that makes me hesitant to voice any opinion.

As any astrophysicist will tell you, nothing exists in a vacuum. Even space, the closest thing in nature to a true vacuum, is subject to various forces: Gravity, magnetism, momentum of traveling bodies, strong and weak nuclear forces, thermodynamics — not to mention forces we have yet to fully understand, like dark matter and dark energy. Likewise, the TMT, in my mind, is not the simple “science vs. traditional Hawaiian culture” narrative that it is often presented as. To me, it is another chapter in the centuries-long story of native rights, culture, and people being swept aside when haoles want to use Hawaiian land.

Which brings us back full circle; I’m generally of an anti-development stance, but it’s hard for me to wave the finger when, if I’m being honest, myself and my family have benefitted from that same history. It is the plight of every white person who calls Hawaii home. We are sensitive to the issues that threaten the culture we love and respect, grew up with and are a part of, but there is no escaping the fact that we have been on the advantageous side of an unjust history.

No, my parents aren’t millionaires who bought up real estate and drove housing prices up and shoved out locals, or missionaries that condemned traditional ways of life. But we are also new arrivals to the island, relatively speaking, so to think that our say in such matters is comparable to that of the kanaka maoli is risible. This is not an argument of who has been here longer as individuals, it is simply stating a historical fact that haole claim to Hawaiian land is inherently more shallow, and less meaningful than people of Hawaiian blood descent.

To be sure, I’m not suggesting the extreme, that white people should not be able to live in Hawaii, or have opinions about the future trajectory of their home state. I’m only saying that, when it comes to matters of sacred land, there comes a point when our input should be invalid, or at the very least deferential to Hawaiians. If we look back at history, that point has basically never been reached, and it is criminally absurd that that is the case.

At what point does Hawaiian culture matter? I’m not sure there is a clear answer to that question, at least not when it comes to matters of the use and development of Hawaiian land. This is legitimate problem, and a complex one at that.

The matter becomes tricky, though, because this isn’t a beachside hotel in the middle of a community, or a highway that cuts through a heiau. It’s a telescope, a scientific instrument that will advance humanity’s fundamental understanding of our place in the universe — for a field of study in which Hawaiians have a proud lineage, no less. In that light, I understand the desire to build the telescope, even against the wishes of many native people; the TMT is for all of humanity, whereas the mountain, some will say, is sacred to only a small fraction of human population. It is an honor, then, for Hawaii to remain at the epicenter of scientific inquiry into the last, greatest frontier of human discovery. That point is not lost on anyone. But as I’ve listened to the manaʻo of friends who both protest and support the TMT, it becomes abundantly clear that a compromise is necessary.

This is a complex issue, and there are no simple solutions. Beyond the substantial cultural conflicts, there are also legitimate concerns about the TMT’s ecological impact. On the other hand, there are also valuable points to be made about its scientific importance, as well as how it can improve the university, and like it or not, what’s good for our universities is good for everyone in our state. To dismiss a perspective entirely without coming to an understanding is to dismiss a possible best-resolution scenario. Greatness often occurs at the intersection of ideas.

Everyone who calls Hawaii home has an idealized version of what Hawaii should be, and what it should look like. We are a community of diverse backgrounds, interests, and values, and as such conflict is inevitable. The TMT is no exception. I only ask, to those of us who are not of Hawaiian blood, whose families at some point in time flew to these beautiful islands, to default to a position of listening to our brothers and sisters who have long been muted and stepped over, people who, for generations, have been pushed aside and had their culture suffocated nearly to the point of extinction — and often in a way that has benefitted us. Our very presence in these islands is proof of that dynamic. It’s not an easy admission, because I, too, call Hawaii home, and consider myself a thoughtful member of the local community.

Let the kanaka maoli take the lead on this, and I am confident that they will offer up nothing but aloha and kokua, as they always have to us who have transplanted here.

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