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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, July 9, 2006

Cultures clash atop Mauna Kea

By Michael Tsai
Advertiser Staff Writer

Paul Neves of the Royal Order of Kamehameha offers ho'okupu during a ceremony on the summit of Mauna Kea.

Video image by Na Maka o ka 'Aina

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Directed by Puhipau and Joan Lander

Part of the Pacific Showcase series

8 p.m. Thursday

PBS Hawaii

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Number of Observatories: 13

Nations Involved: 11

Latest News: NASA pulls funding for proposed Outrigger telescopes last month, casting doubt on whether the project will ever be completed. An estimated $25 million to $50 million is needed.

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An ahu lele (platform for spiritual offerings) amid observatories symbolizes the dispute between Hawaiians and the scientific community.

Video image by Na Maka o ka 'Aina

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Astronomers have dubbed Mauna Kea as a foremost site for observation of the universe.

Richard Wainscoat

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Kanak Napeahi blows the pu during a solstice ceremony on the summit of Mauna Kea. Some Native Hawaiians want no further development on the mountain and improved management of existing sites.

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Her heart dropped.

It was 1998 and Kealoha Pisciotta, then employed as a systems specialist by the joint British-Dutch-Canadian telescope facility at Mauna Kea, had come with her aunt to a special spot at the 11,000-foot level of the volcano. Pisciotta had erected a stone family shrine there eight years earlier for her grandmother and other relatives.

Pisciotta's aunt, who struggled with diabetes, wanted to visit the site while she was still able, to teach Pisciotta about her native Hawaiian traditions of astronomy.

But when they got there, the shrine was gone.

"I found it days later," Pisciotta recalls. "At the dump."

The shrine had been dismantled by a tour guide working for the University of Hawai'i's Institute for Astronomy, which oversees the sprawling 500-acre Observatory Precinct.

Pisciotta has attempted to reconstruct the shrine several times since then, and each time her efforts have been undone.

At one point, Pisciotta confronted one of the tour guides, in front of a group of 50 tourists.

"It was kind of absurd," she says with a rueful chuckle. "He told me it didn't belong there."

The question of what does and does not belong on the white-capped volcano lies at the heart of the documentary "Mauna Kea Temple Under Siege," which focuses on the tug of war between those who use it for astronomy and those who see it as a cultural landscape. It airs Thursday on PBS Hawaii's "Pacific Showcase."

Filmmakers Puhipau and Joan Lander spent five years on the mountain documenting the mountain ecosystems, Hawaiian lore connected to Mauna Kea, and the debate among various interests attached to the mountain.

Pisciotta, one of several experts and observers featured in the film, eventually left her job at the observatory and now heads the cultural activist group Mauna Kea Anaina Hou. The group is involved in a protracted lawsuit against the university, seeking changes in the management of the site.

While some activists have called for the dismantling of the Mauna Kea observatories and the return of the mountain to the community, Pisciotta and her group (joined in the suit by the Sierra Club and other environmental and cultural organizations) are seeking a more moderate resolution.

"Mauna Kea is a temple," Pisciotta says, "and temples are handled differently, not just as another natural resource. The sanctity of the mountain needs to be upheld."

Pisciotta says her goals include no further development on the mountain, improved management of the existing sites ("It's a conflict of interest," she says. "UH should not be monitoring itself"), and a substantial increase in rent now a token $1 a year.

"Astronomy is a fine thing," she says. "But a good endeavor has to be balanced and reasonable. It has to involve everybody. Native Hawaiians and the community are rightholders; UH is a stakeholder."


The Observatory Precinct has been a point of public contention since the construction of the Keck Observatory in 1995. Yet Pisciotta and others were involved years before that in an effort to improve protections for the area's natural resources and wildlife, and to preserve proper public access to a mountain so closely tied to Hawaiian identity.

"What does it say that they take down contemporary Hawaiian shrines?" Pisciotta asks. "It says that modern cultural practice isn't valid. I believe we have a right to practice our beliefs in a place where our ancestors have done so for centuries."

As the film carefully explains, Mauna Kea is a central figure in Hawaiian cosmology the mountain of the Hawaiian Sky Father Wakea, from whom all Hawaiians are descended, the battleground of Poli'ahu the snow god and the volcano goddess Pele, the site where generations of Hawaiians have learned and prayed and buried their dead.

For nearly 40 years, the pristine summit also has been prized territory for astronomers, who have unanimously dubbed it a foremost site for observation of the universe.

The Astronomy Precinct was established in 1967 and is now home to 13 international observatory facilities representing an estimated $2 billion in research investment.

Rolf-Peter Kudritzki, director of the Institute for Astronomy, says that while concerns may still linger with some in the community, the university has done much to improve its management of the site since the adoption of its new master plan in 2000. And he argues that the film may overstate its case, as in recent years those who manage Mauna Kea have continued to seek compromise and resolution of the debate over use of the mountain.

One key addition has been the Office of Mauna Kea Management. Based in Hilo and also established in 2000, the office is designed to assure local management of the mountain and address concerns about culture and the environment.

The director also defends the $1 annual rent agreement, explaining that the facilities are research-based and not commercial in nature, and that free access to the facilities has been invaluable to UH students.

Kudritzki points to a recent audit by the state auditor that cited significant improvement in the University's management of Mauna Kea as proof that much of what is contained in "Temple Under Siege," which was released to film festivals in 2004, is not relevant.

Another recent development: NASA's decision last month to cut funding for four to six additional Outrigger telescopes on Mauna Kea at the W.M. Keck Observatory.

However, design work continues for a high-powered telescope that could be sited on Mauna Kea a Thirty Meter Telescope, 10 times more powerful than any existing telescope, that would allow astronomers to observe planets around distant stars.


The conflict between science and culture on Mauna Kea constitutes what Hawaiian philosopher of education Manulani Aluli Meyer calls in the film "a clash of cosmologies."

Puhipau, who co-produced and co-directed "Mauna Kea" with Lander as documentary production team Na Maka o ka 'Aina ("The Eyes of the Land"), goes further.

"The question posed by NASA is 'where did life begin,' " he says. "But hasn't the message from Christians always been to look inside, not outside? The justification for the telescopes doesn't hold water. They stomp all over my church so they can find themselves?"

To him, the Mauna Kea issue is closely tied to the issue of native sovereignty.

"What should be done? That's not for me to say," he said. "What I do is try to educate the masses so they can decide collectively. With education comes a sense of dignity as a human, not just a haole or not just a Hawaiian, but a human being."

And the message embedded in the filmmaker's lessons is clear:

"We (Hawaiians) are not trying to carve a niche for ourselves," he said. "We're here. We've always been here."

In preparation for the film, Puhipau and Lander attended nearly every hearing addressing Mauna Kea, and came away with some 60 full tapes of testimony from various groups and individuals. Puhipau said he sold much of what he compiled to various government agencies.

He believes the message in the collected testimonies "It was a loud 'no' over and over again" was influential in the recent decision by NASA to pull funding for the proposed Outrigger telescopes.

Learn more
Na Maka o ka 'Aina, the documentary filmmaking team: www.namaka.com
University of Hawai'i Institute for Astronomy's Mauna Kea site: www.ifa.hawaii.edu/mko
Mauna Kea Webcams: http://kiloaoloa.soest.hawaii.edu/current/cams/index.cgi

Advertiser Big Island Bureau reporter Kevin Dayton contributed information about plans for telescopes on Mauna Kea to this report. Reach Michael Tsai at mtsai@honoluluadvertiser.com or 535-2461.

Reach Michael Tsai at mtsai@honoluluadvertiser.com.

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