There is Room on Mauna Kea for Both Culture and Science


Keliʻi Akina, Ph.D., Trustee, At-Large

One of my favorite cultural heroes is a Hawaiian seafarer who balanced science and culture.

Chad Kālepa Baybayan was one of the original Hōkūleʻa crew members. As a master navigator, Baybayan took part in the three-year Mālama Honua Worldwide voyage. He helped guide Hōkūleʻa on her historic 42,000 nautical mile journey which included stops at 150 ports in more than 20 countries.

Babayan was steeped in ancient cultural knowledge – the Polynesian and Hawaiian art of voyaging. He also supported 21st Century science and astronomy while serving as navigator-in-residence at the ʻImiloa Astronomy Center of Hawaiʻi in his last days.

Speaking of Mauna Kea, the site of several world-class research telescopes, Baybayan said, “There is more than enough room for people to have their own cultural practice and scientific research. We just need to have the collective will to share the Mauna.” Babayan’s words of wisdom are a far cry from the calls that seek to divide science and culture.

Mauna Kea has a dual identity. To many Native Hawaiians, it is a culturally sacred place. Mauna Kea is also a scientific site with the potential to produce major breakthroughs in the field of astronomy. Such breakthroughs hold the promise of cultural, economic, and educational benefits for all people in Hawaiʻi, including Native Hawaiian beneficiaries of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA).

Like many Hawaiians, I believe culture and science do not stand in opposition. Culture produces science and science produces culture.

As Baybayan saw it, the story of the ancient people who journeyed across the ocean to populate Hawaiʻi is a story of culture and science working together. In 2013, he eloquently described this in a TEDx talk: “It’s a story about an intrepid band of canoe-borne explorers, men and women, who leave the safety and comfort of distant shores and, by doing so, discover the stars.” Their success took tremendous courage and collaboration.

Similarly, what we need today is a collaborative effort between OHA and the State of Hawaiʻi to provide proper stewardship, assuring adequate environmental and cultural management. Pono management of Mauna Kea is the cultural and fiduciary responsibility of the state.

OHA’s current lawsuit which seeks to repeal the Mauna Kea Stewardship and Oversight Authority (MKSOA) and order the state to fulfill its trust obligations, is just another example that more work needs to be done to ensure that we mālama ʻāina.

As we move forward, hopefully, the proper care of Mauna Kea will be assured and the TMT will secure Hawaiʻi’s international leadership position in astronomy. The TMT is also projected to create hundreds of jobs for local Hawaiians and generate about $150 million over 50 years. The dry atmosphere atop Mauna Kea will provide the clearest images of outer space possible from earth, enabling scientists to look farther back into our universe’s past to better understand the origins of life.

But before we can look into the past, we must see a future where we can work together toward a balanced solution.

There is room on Mauna Kea for both culture and science. This is in keeping with the centuries-old values of our Native Hawaiian ancestors who made significant progress in astronomy while caring for the land. As Babayan put it, what we need is “the collective will to share the Mauna.”

E hana kākou! Let’s work together to unite the past with the future as our ancestors did.