Artist's rendering of the Thirty Meter Telescope. Courtesy of TMT International Observatory

PSU Multicultural Center discusses controversial telescope in Hawaii

Thirty Meter telescope to be built on mountain considered sacred by many native

Members of the Portland State Pacific Islander and Asian American Resource Center held an informative panel and interactive discussion about the controversial Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) planned to be built on Mauna Kea, the largest mountain in the state of Hawaii. 

The event, held on Oct. 21 in the Multicultural Center, included a panel of five PSU alum, students and community members who answered questions about why the building of the telescope on Mauna Kea is controversial, the unified protest movement that the telescope has sparked, as well as ways people can help support members of the Kia’i—or protectors, as they call themselves—who have been protesting the building of the telescope since its conception. 

“Tonight we’re gonna share information about Mauna Kea, and how we can support the Kia’i and stand in solidarity with them even though we’re thousands of miles away,” said PSU student Kylee Kuogïn, a programming assistant for PIAA and emcee of the event.

Mauna Kea—located on the Big Island of Hawaii—is considered a sacred mountain by many native Hawaiians. In 2013, the mountain was chosen as the site to build a Thirty Meter Telescope, which would make it the largest telescope in Hawaii, and one of the largest in the world, according to Associated Press. Currently, there are roughly a dozen smaller telescopes on Mauna Kea.

“It’s not just a mountain; it’s a place that gives us strength,” said PSU graduate student Leialoha Ka’ula, speaking about the sacredness of Mauna Kea to native Hawaiians. “It’s spiritual, it’s everything. It’s what gave us life.” 

When initial construction of the telescope began in 2015, protesters began blockading the road leading up the mountain, temporarily halting construction. Subsequent attempts to restart construction were met with larger and larger protests, which swelled to over 10,000 people by July of 2019, according to USA Today

“Mauna Kea stands for something that has been a symbol of what has been taken from the Hawaiian people from years past,” said Kaloku Holt, executive director of the Ke Kukui Foundation in Vancouver, Wash., who sponsored the event. “Nothing has changed except for continuous abuse, in a way, toward the indigenous people.”

The protests have consolidated into a unified movement called Kapu Aloha, which has been described by some as a “new Hawaiian renaissance,” according to The Guardian.

Camps have been set up at 6,632 feet, where the Kia’i have been protesting for over 100 days. 

“We’re not doing anything out of violence—we’re not yelling at the police or anything like that,” said Haley Okamoto, a senior at PSU. “Everything is being done as peacefully as possible, and that’s a really big part of Kapu Aloha.”

The day the event was held marked the 101st day that protesters had been camped up on Mauna Kea. 

“They’ve been up there for 100 days, and they’re ready to stay for another 100 days, another 200 days—however long tit’s gonna take,” said panelist Steffany Pacheco.

“It just makes me proud to be a part of this movement,” Pacheco said. “I’m really proud to say that we have all these things established on [Mauna Kea] and that we’re able to talk about these things; because, other than that, our communities would be erased, and no one would [know] about what’s going on, and no one would know what’s happening up on [Mauna Kea].”

As of yet, it is unclear whether or not the telescope will be built in a new location. Some members of the Kia’i have taken the issue to court, and many protesters say they won’t give up. 

According to Hawaiian Governor David Ige, if the TMT is built, no more telescopes will be built on Mauna Kea, and many of the smaller ones already in commission will be shut down. 

“To build something this big at what we consider the most sacred land that we have is just basically telling them they can have anything they want from this point on, because we let them have our most sacred area of land, and we can’t let that happen,” said PSU student Chela Shiroma.

The panelists then suggested ways PSU students and members of the community can get involved. 

Holt suggested that students who are passionate about the issue to visit Mauna Kea should join the Kia’i if they have the means. 

“In terms of educating yourself and becoming more aware, I wanna give a shoutout to,” Shiroma said. “They have a pretty good timeline on there about what has happened since the beginning and where we are now. And you can also donate to there. It supports the [protectors] with legal fees and travel costs and things.”

“It’s important to educate yourself about Mauna Kea, but don’t just stop there—go beyond that, and go to see what else is happening in Hawaii,” Okamoto said. 

Pacheco stressed the importance of understanding both sides of the issue. “Today you’re sitting with five people who are all obviously on the same side of the issue, but it’s actually very interesting to go and look at both sides of the issue and see why people are supporting TMT,” she said. “I think it’s very important for us to just stay educated on the topic as a whole.”