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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, June 24, 2004

Mauna Kea: Documentary examines culture, science

By Michael Tsai
Advertiser Staff Writer

Sunset over Pu'u Poliahu. Mauna Kea on the Big Island, the most eastern of the Hawaiian Islands, greets first light of the day.

PBS Hawaii photos

Part of the W.M. Keck Observatory on Mauna Kea. The Kecks are the world's largest telescopes for optical and infrared astronomy.

Kimo Pihana and daughter U'ilani use traditional instruments to pay tribute to Waiau, a lake near the summit of Mauna Kea.

'First Light'

A documentary about the dispute over astronomy at Mauna Kea

8 tonight


The new PBS Hawai'i documentary "First Light" takes its name from two concepts — one tied to Hawaiian culture, and one from modern technology.

Traditional Hawaiian belief holds that dawn is a time of power. Mauna Kea, the highest point in Hawai'i, is therefore empowered by the first light to hit the Islands each day.

"First light" is also a term used by astronomers to refer to the first time a telescope produces a discernable image. To whatever degree scientists may believe in portents, first light is said to foretell the future uses and value of the telescope.

So "First Light" is a very appropriate title for an examination of Mauna Kea as a place of tremendous cultural significance to Native Hawaiians.

Legend says it is the meeting place of earth mother Papa and sky father Wakea, and it is arguably the most ideally situated spot for high-tech deep-space observation.

Mauna Kea is also home to several rare and unique plant and animal species, and its fragile ecosystems have been subjected to devastating incursions. Consider that, and the issue of shared use and stewardship becomes even more complicated and tempestuous.

The documentary, however, suggests a third meaning for the "first light": the emergence of a new understanding between clashing interests, the illuminating of a middle path on which all concerned parties might travel.

"The situation is so huge and so fragile," said producer Ed McNulty. "Everybody has a stake in it. There is a lot of passion on that mountain.

"Some people view Mauna Kea as a temple," McNulty said. "It's also where some of the best science on the planet is being done. All of these kinds of superlatives are at play around this issue."

The tension between native practitioners who view the mountain as sacred, astronomers who value its importance in maximizing the potential of emerging technologies and environmentalists who wish to preserve it as a sanctuary for native life has been sometimes explosive.

Arguments have heightened in recent years, exacerbated by proposals to build more telescopes around the W.M. Keck Observatory.

In fact, McNulty said he is releasing the documentary ahead of schedule to help provide more context for ongoing debates.

"The issue has become more public and even more important than before," he said.

"These issues of culture and science are front and center not just in Hawai'i, but around the world."

'Continuum of identity'

Rather than try to survey all the issues and all the approaches at play, McNulty, writer/director Roland Yamamoto and photography director Ken Libby present cultural, scientific and conservationist concerns through people who have close personal or professional ties to the mountain.

"What we wanted to do was represent each story with as much credibility as we could," McNulty said. "We wanted to make the cultural case, the environmental case, the scientific case."

To do that, the creators tapped people committed to finding ways to reasonably accommodate the major demands being placed on the mountain.

The importance of Mauna Kea, historically and culturally, is explained by people like Larry Kimura, whose family has ritually delivered umbilical cords to the the summit area, maintaining a "continuum of identity ... of who we are and where we come from."

Hawaiian priest Kimo Pihana is shown with his children, Moana and U'ilani, near the summit area practicing traditional rituals of service, respect and connection to the mountain.

Also included: Ed Stevens, who has been visiting Mauna Kea for more than 40 years and who now chairs Kahu Ku Mauna, a panel of cultural resource experts that advises the board responsible for managing the summit area.

On the astronomy end, Keck Observatory director Fred Chaffee speaks eloquently about the value of the data collected by the telescopes and the reasons Mauna Kea, with its 13,796-foot summit towering high above a remote ocean expanse, is so uniquely suited for space observation.

"We weren't looking for people who were acquiescing, but for those who had strong feelings and were working through the system and dealing with the issues in human terms, in a respectful way," McNulty said.

Keck telescopes

The film traces the history of Mauna Kea from its mythical Hawaiian origins; through the early 1960s, when the Big Island was reeling economically from a tidal wave and Mitsuo Akiyama, executive secretary for the Big Island Chamber of Commerce, solicited investment in the mountain; to the ongoing Hawaiian cultural renaissance, which has called all of the scientific development of the mountain into question.

Along the way, it chronicles significant moments, such as when the University of Hawai'i received money in 1973 to build what was then the most powerful telescope in the world, and the construction of the Keck twin telescopes in the 1990s.

It also documents the precarious fortunes of threatened or endangered species on the mountain, like the Mauna Kea silversword, a plant that was almost eaten into extinction by feral animals, and the palila, a Hawaiian honeycreeper.

McNulty said he expects criticism for the documentary's emphasis on collaborative efforts.

"There are those on both sides who have strong feelings and who don't want any part of the other," McNulty said. "But there are also people who look at this in a practical sense and think about what kinds of compromises can be made.

"These are large problems," McNulty said. "But if we can find a solution, it could be a model for the world."

Reach Michael Tsai at mtsai@honoluluadvertiser.com or 535-2461.