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Open Access Publications from the University of California

‘We’d rather eat rocks’: Contesting the Thirty Meter Telescope in a Struggle over Science and Sovereignty in Hawai‘i


The selection of the sacred summit of Mauna Kea on the Big Island of Hawaiʻi as the site for a Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) inaugurated a surge in activism against desecration of the mountain, particularly following a TMT groundbreaking ceremony in October 2014. Drawing on fieldwork I conducted immediately preceding and following the groundbreaking, I argue that the protectors in these initial years of protection were theorizing an Indigenous future that can be seen unfolding in the immediate present. The accumulated tensions between the state’s parameters for recognition and the existence of Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian) people and practice results in a dangerous dichotomy between Hawaiian knowledges and Western science that delegitimizes the former, so that Kānaka Maoli protecting Mauna Kea from the Thirty Meter Telescope are framed as antiscience, rather than anti-occupation. In response to the state’s disavowal of settler colonialism through the denial of Kanaka knowledges, Kanaka protection of Mauna Kea asserts itself as an anti-occupation reclamation of not just sovereign territory, but also of Kanaka ontologies. This combination demonstrates the mutually constituted nature of science, the sacred, and sovereignty under a Kanaka worldview. Kānaka Maoli position the struggle as a part of an ongoing sovereignty movement to assert continuities between their historical, contemporary, and emergent claims to land and knowledge.

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