It begins, as these ventures always do, with miscommunication. Paul Coleman and I had planned to meet at the visitor’s center, the place astronomers called the “VIS,” perched 9,000 feet on the desiccated collar of Mauna Kea, Hawaii’s tallest mountain. A few years back, Coleman, a Native Hawaiian astronomer, began publicly championing an eighteen-story telescope sited atop Mauna Kea, pitting himself against Native dissent and violating certain ethnic expectations. He had offered me a tour of the dormant volcano, along with his thoughts on the fracas. But here where the asphalt gave way to a gravel road, Coleman was nowhere to be found. He was at the University of Hawaii instead, overlooking the white seaside city of Hilo. Evidently, in planning our rendezvous, we’d gotten our wires crossed.
I was there on the suspicion that something had been missed, or elided, in the coverage of the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT). In April 2015, the construction of the TMT on Mauna Kea was halted by protesters, many of them Native Hawaiians who valued the “White Mountain” for cultural reasons. Thirty-one people were arrested. The story won national attention, and then the narrative hardened: An instrument of modern science had been challenged by postcolonial discontent and benighted religion. It was a tragic accident of history, in which an ancient culture, stuck in time, defied a contingent of astronomers who were running out of it, anxious as they were to launch careers and bequeath legacies. The deeper battle, so the narrative went, was between ways of knowing, ways of seeing the world. Mauna Kea was either a restricted high temple, a site of prime creation, or a technically perfect locale for our world’s next great telescope, the instrument that would enable “astronomers’ quest to understand the origins of everything,” as one science journalist wrote.
That’s how tidy the story seemed. But the “clash of epistemologies” is, of course, just another way of framing this particular issue. And as I got closer to the Big Island, it seemed increasingly incomplete, and sometimes disingenuous. There were other ways of looking at the conflict over Mauna Kea’s summit, and not all of them were so convenient.