This is an old story: Mauna Kea and moʻolelo

Part 4 of 4 in our series on 'Resistance at Mauna Kea' 

To read Part 1, click here. To read Part 2, click here. To read Part 3, click here

Bryan Kamaoli Kuwada, University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa 

Bryan Kamaoli Kuwada believes in the power and potential of ea, of life, of breath, rising, of sovereignty, because he sees it all around him, embodied in the ʻāina, the kai, his family, his friends, and his beautiful community. He is a Ph.D. candidate in English at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, focusing on translation theory. He is currently editor of the journal Hūlili: Multidisciplinary Research on Hawaiian Well-Being, and works as a Hawaiian-language editor and translator.

If some of the anti-Mauna folks[1] writing editorials are to be believed, my Polynesian ancestors were amazing astronomers (who settled a land area equal to one third the state of New York, if it was crumpled up and scattered across 10 million square miles of the Pacific Ocean, by the way), but were too ignorant for their deep spiritual beliefs that were interwoven with and undergirding that “astronomical” knowledge to still be taken seriously in this day and age. In this ongoing fight over the telescopes atop both Mauna Kea and Haleakalā, proponents of the telescopes often try to offer us insights about our history and culture to explain why we should give up and just let them build the damn things.

So many of the anti-Mauna folks want to educate us about our history and our culture, but they have little to no clue what they are talking about. Kiaʻi mauna are often described as uneducated (google “uneducated” and “tmt” to see what I mean), but the anti-Mauna people have no problem spouting off about Hawaiian culture and history or even dismissing it without bothering to do any sort of research. 

A good example of the kinds of stories they try to tell can be seen in how the TMT publicity machine has been trying to co-opt the stories of our own monarchs to use against us. A quote that the anti-Mauna folks keep bringing up is by Liliʻuokalani, our beloved queen, who according to them, said, “The ancient Hawaiians were astronomers.” Period. As if she were making a statement about astronomy. The quote actually comes from her translation of the Kumulipo, our cosmogonic genealogy that traces our relationship through a coral polyp and into the blackness of fertility and creation from which everything came. And it is actually just an introductory clause to a longer sentence, with the preceding sentence having bearing as well:

I have endeavored to give the definition of each name as far as it came within my knowledge of words, but in some cases this could not be done because the true signification has been lost. The ancient Hawaiians were astronomers, and the terms used appertained to the heavens, the stars, terrestrial science, and the gods.

What she was referring to is the fact that there were so many terms throughout the 2,000 line chant specific to certain lineages of knowledge that she didn’t know how to translate them all.

Liliʻuokalani is trying to present this information to an audience who is not Hawaiian and who has not shown itself to normally be open to Hawaiian belief except as quaint folklore. How do you explain a kilo hōkū or a kilo ʻōuli or a hoʻokele to people who are still at that time writing about how “kahunaism” and the continuation of Hawaiian beliefs are some of the main reasons for the decline of the Hawaiian people? Many in this audience didn't even think our people were human a few generations prior!  For this audience, she has to equate Hawaiian practice with Western science to claim a legitimacy that proponents of Western science never gave it, except when it benefited them (see the characterization of Polynesian voyagers as astronomers above).

Her brother Kalākaua, who held the throne before her, is also a great favorite of the anti-Mauna people because he was avowedly pro-Western science. And I agree that he was. He seemed to delight in all of the wonders of technology. He visited the Lick Observatory (which was 25ft in diameter and two stories high, if you were wondering), where they set up the telescope for him to look through even though the building wasn’t completed yet. He wanted an observatory for Hawaiʻi (and bought a permanent telescope that was put not on a mountaintop, but at Punahou School in Mānoa Valley). He proposed a trans-Pacific cable. He even built a model of the Nautilus from Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. What the TMT people don’t mention, or likely understand, is Kalākaua’s staunch commitment to Hawaiian traditional practices. He was a keen supporter of hula, which was still being touted in his time as one of the reasons for the decline of the Hawaiian population by people like Sereno Bishop. He had traditional mele performed at his coronation, which resulted in a court case over obscenity in the printed program. He granted licenses for traditional healers to practice lāʻau lapaʻau, for which he was also critiqued by the horrified Western medical establishment.

One of the more controversial moves he made was to dare to combine and reconcile Western scientific knowledge and Hawaiian cultural and practical knowledge in the society known as the Hale Nauā. The Constitution of the Hale Nauā, made up of men and women, a rarity at the time, stated that “the object of this society is the revival of Ancient Science of Hawaii in combination with the promotion and advancement of Modern Sciences, Art, Literature, and Philanthropy.” What that meant in practice was that they recorded and tried to revive traditional Hawaiian arts and practices that were disappearing, studied genealogy, and kept up with breakthroughs in Western science and tried to reconcile them with Hawaiian values and beliefs. They put on lectures and exhibits about traditional culture and corresponded with other scientific associations around the world. Most rational people would probably view these acts as that of an educational and beneficent society, yet Kalākaua’s detractors interpreted all of this to mean that the society was “an agency for the revival of heathenism, partly to pander to vice, and indirectly to serve as a political machine. Enough leaked out to intensify the general disgust that was felt at the debasing influence of the palace.”

Hawaiians attempting to revive and practice their own traditions, blending them with what they wanted from Western science and literature was so threatening to the established order, that some even felt the Hale Nauā was one of the reasons for the overthrow in 1893. The criticisms of the Hale Nauā also changed distinctly in character over time. Before the 1930s, critics only made fun of the society’s aims, but after, they derided the Hale Nauā for its scientific shortcomings in regards to the geologic age of the planet. What strikes me as funny is that, yes, the Hale Nauā miscalculated the age of the Earth in 1886, but Western science hadn’t figured it out either until 1926, and their previously accepted guesses were off by several orders on their own!

Having said all this, I hope it might be a little clearer how egregious an act of appropriation it is for the anti-Mauna people to have bandied back and forth the following quote from Kalākaua for years. You can even see it below on their “informational” website specifically focused on Mauna Kea and the TMT.[2]


What the quote is referring to is Kalākaua’s excitement about the 1874 expedition that had arrived in Hawaiʻi for the transit of Venus. It is meant to show that Kalākaua’s support of the expedition and the telescope that they brought with them would translate today into support for the TMT on Mauna Kea.





If we do even a little research, we can find this picture of the telescope that George Tupman, a Captain in the Royal Marine Artillery and the expedition's leader, used to observe the transit,'s little.

It was set up with all of their other equipment in what was essentially a backyard adjoining a house rented from Princess Ruth Keʻelikōlani in ʻĀpua, an area just seaward of Kawaiahaʻo Church, where the shoreline used to be (Chauvin 195). There were also two small supplemental observation stations, one in Waimea, Kauaʻi, and one in Kailua, Kona. The TMT, on the other hand, is proposed to be 184ft tall and is going to cover 1.44 acres just with the buildings, and a 5-acre footprint when completed.

But Hawaiians trying to make their way through a rapidly changing world while still remaining Hawaiian is not what the anti-Mauna people want to tell. They want the story where the words of Kalākaua will enlighten the ignorant Hawaiians of today about the importance of “progress.” This same story has echoed throughout our time: How Tupman referred to Kalākaua and the other members of the royal family as "savages" and "intolerable nuisances" for wanting to have the telescope opened up to the public to look through, with Kalākaua even offering to send down the Royal Hawaiian Band to play (Chauvin 212). How present day astronomers channel Tupman when they refer to the kiaʻi mauna as a lying “horde of native Hawaiians,” a remark straight out of the nineteenth century. How in 1874, 12 marines and a sergeant were stationed around the observatory compound to maintain silence and keep the curious public out, hundreds of whom had come out in their finest clothes to witness Venusʻs transit (Chauvin 214), how in 2015 kiaʻi mauna bearing lei and mele and reverence are met with handcuffs and body armor and militarized police.

We are experts at the same old story that developers, government agencies, and scientists never tire of telling, the same old story that depends on us getting out of the way of their progress, whether it be sugar, pineapple, the Puʻuloa drydock, Kahoʻolawe, Waikīkī development, Hoʻopili, every ancestral bone dug up to build a Wal-Mart, every place built on sacred land, every single telescope on the mountain. This story has had too many sequels. Too many echoes. It’s time for for more listening from them and less talking. Our story is the one where the land is our elder sibling. Our story is the one where progress isn’t progress if it is built on the backs of others. Our story is that you have much to learn from us. Our story is that we have a great fight ahead of all of us, and that each name of our ancestor we remember, each word of our language we speak, each aspect of our culture, we practice will give us strength to keep going. So if you want to tell us about our history and our culture and you don’t know our story, you better start paying attention.


[1] I am using “anti-Mauna folks” here to refer to the people pushing for the TMT project to move forward. I freely admit that this is purposefully and unfairly essentializing their arguments, but I think it’s equivalent to us constantly being characterized as “anti-science” and “anti-progress.”

[2] The site was subsequently changed and the quotes are no longer featured prominently, which I’d like to think was due to people pressuring them about their appropriation of these quotes, which may have been bolstered by a Facebook post I wrote on April 13, 2015, and a subsequent post by Kristin Momoa on Civil Beat a month later that seems to have been based on my initial post.