Science on sacred sites: Can we find middle ground?

On June 21 — solstice day — the Supreme Court of Hawaii heard oral arguments in Honolulu on whether to approve a building permit for the Thirty Meter Telescope, which would be the biggest and most expensive in the Northern Hemisphere. And it is a real fight. Native Hawaiian activists claim that the snow goddess — Poli’ahu — lives on Mauna Kea and should be left in peace, on her sacred mountain.

(The more famous fire goddess — Pele-honua-mea (“Pele of the sacred land”) — lives on the more flamboyant (especially right now), active volcano Kilauea. Although the two goddesses are often conflated as the same, they were said to have been bitter rivals.)

For starters, let’s be clear; yes, indigenous peoples have a perfect right to be pissed off or suspicious over honkies who want to set up camp on sacred spots. I do not dismiss their righteous resentment as wrong! But if this truly is a theological issue, then should it not be argued theologically?

Humans have always sought clues to the will of the gods, and since they tend not to speak audibly and objectively, one approach has been to search for “signs” or things that are significantly and unambiguously out of the norm.

In this case, one trait of Poli’ahu’s mountain stands out as special, spectacular… even miraculous. It is the trait that brings the world to the Big Island, hoping to build temples of science. That trait is the mountain’s special — even unmatched — view of the heavens.

What other trait is so unique that many of the planet’s greatest minds pay homage? Mauna Kea is already home to thirteen of the world’s largest, most powerful telescopes, operated by astronomers from more than a dozen countries.

Sure, I’m just a haole sci-fi writer… though I featured characters from an independent and powerful Hawaii in the year 2060, in Heart of the Comet. Elsewhere I argue that all of humanity may speak Hawaiian, in a hundred years! So, it’s with deep respect that I point to the one miracle of Poli’ahu that’s inarguable and universally acknowledged by all. Perhaps she may be saying:

“Here is my mountain. I have made it special, so that you may host the world to gaze in wonder through my window to the universe.”

Wasn’t part of your proudest heritage as stargazers? The greatest navigators and voyagers the world ever saw? Among your heirs may be captains who lead our expeditions across the Great Galactic Night. It’s only a suggestion…

…but might you reclaim (along with others) your rightful title as the People of the Sky?

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Filed under public policy, science, space

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