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Mauna Kea is sacred to spiritual practitioners and treasured by astronomers

CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / 2019
                                Above, protesters of the proposed Thirty Meter Telescope gathered at the top of Mauna Kea in 2019 to watch the sunset.
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CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / 2019

Above, protesters of the proposed Thirty Meter Telescope gathered at the top of Mauna Kea in 2019 to watch the sunset.

MAUNA KEA >> Shane Palacat-Nelsen’s voice drops to a reverent tone as he tells the story of the snow goddess Poliahu, who Native Hawaiians believe inhabits the summit of Mauna Kea, the highest point in Hawaii.

The tale, repeated in Hawaiian families over generations, speaks of a chief who yearned to court Poliahu but was stopped by her attendants guarding the sacred mountaintop — the abode of the gods, cradle of creation and gateway to the divine.

Today this sublime summit on the Big Island is also treasured by astronomers as a portal to finding answers to the universe’s many mysteries, creating varied — and sometimes incompatible — views on what’s best for Mauna Kea’s future.

The legendary chief eventually gained access to the summit on one condition: He was to step only on the same set of footprints left by the attendant escorting him up and down, said Palacat-Nelsen. He says it’s a metaphor for why Mauna Kea must be protected from further human intrusion, pollution and erosion.

“You do not go up the sacred mountain unless you are called. You do not go up without a purpose.”

Mauna Kea is a dormant 14,000-foot shield volcano. In Native Hawaiian lore it is the firstborn son of the sky father and earth mother. The mountain’s dry atmosphere and limited light pollution make for a perfect location to study the skies — one of just a handful on the planet.

Over the past 50 years, astronomers have mounted a dozen giant telescopes on the summit, with several yielding exalted discoveries, like proving the Milky Way has a supermassive black hole at its center. That particular research led to a Nobel Prize in Physics in 2020.

The proliferation of observatories has troubled many Native Hawaiians, who have pushed back. In their view, such construction is polluting the sacred mountaintop, eroding the environment and depleting natural resources. In 2019, thousands came out to protest a proposed $2.65 billion Thirty Meter Telescope project near the summit. This protest catalyzed the passage of a new state law transferring jurisdiction of the mountain to a new stewardship authority comprising scientists and Native Hawaiian cultural practitioners.

No side wants to reduce this debate to a culture-vs.-science conflict because Hawaiian spirituality embraces science, or studying the physical world, and many astronomers respect Hawaiian culture. Some observatory staff and cultural practitioners are taking small, tentative steps toward new dialogue, but overcoming the cavernous divide will involve difficult conversations and understanding different perspectives.

For many, the mountain is a temple

Mauna Kea, translated literally as “white mountain,” has the same progenitors — Wakea and Papahanaumoku — as the Hawaiian people, according to stories, prayers and chants. After volcanic eruptions sent lava bubbling up from the ocean floor, it took more than a million years to form, growing into the tallest mountain on Earth when measured from its base in the Pacific Ocean.

The summit soars 13,796 feet above sea level, evoking an ethereal feeling as fluffy clouds swaddle its cinder cones and blanket its reddish, almost Mars-like soil. On a clear day, Mauna Loa, one of the world’s most active volcanoes, is visible.

Climbing Mauna Kea is like peeling the layers of an onion, says Kealoha Pisciotta, a cultural practitioner and longtime activist. The mountain’s slopes are dotted with ceremonial platforms, ancestral burial sites and Hawaii’s lone alpine lake, whose waters are believed to possess healing properties.

“The higher you go, the closer your heart is to the heavens,” she says. “(The gods) can see you, feel you, hear you. The protocol is silence because we don’t need to be speaking in akua’s (creator’s) house. We need to be listening.”

Building and bulldozing on or near the summit threatens the people’s sacred connection to the land, Pisciotta said. In her spiritual practice, she considers the mountain and all aspects of creation such as fish, coral, trees and animals to be like older siblings.

“When they diminish our ancestors and our elder siblings, they diminish us, our life force and our existence. And that’s the reason people are saying no,” she said, referring to adding more telescopes.

Palacat-Nelsen, who served on the working group that laid the foundation for the new authority, says to protect the mountain and preserve the summit’s sacredness, people must step out of their silos with open hearts and minds, ready to have uncomfortable conversations.

Looking to the sky for answers

John O’Meara, who moved to Hawaii to become the chief scientist at Keck Observatory shortly before the 2019 protest, is now a key player in that dialogue. He’s learning about the strong connection many Native Hawaiians have to Mauna Kea.

O’Meara is fascinated by the similarities between spirituality and astronomy.

“We are fundamentally asking the same questions, which are: Where are we? Where did we come from? And where are we going? There is a deep connection to the universe … which is the thing that we should be focusing on,” he said.

Doug Simons, director of the University of Hawaii’s Institute for Astronomy, points to the opening lines of the Kumulipo, a centuries-­old Hawaiian creation chant, which describes a scene strikingly similar to what astronomers believe existed during the big bang.

“When fundamental space altered through heat/When the cosmos altered, turning inside out,” begins the chant, according to a translation by Larry Kimura, a Hawaiian-­language expert. It continues a few lines later, “Then began the slime that established a physical space/The source of impenetrable darkness, so profound/The source of fathomless power, reincarnating itself.”

The chant continues for 2,000 more lines, detailing the birth of coral, seaweed, fish, trees and, eventually, people.

The Kumulipo’s description of a dark, eternal form of energy from which everything emerges sounds to Simons like dark energy, which astronomers think predated the universe. Scientists can observe dark energy, which is causing the universe to expand at an accelerated rate, by studying dark matter — invisible to the naked eye but detectable through the study of distortions in galaxy shapes.

Mauna Kea’s telescopes are at the forefront of discoveries about this dark energy thanks to their “exquisite image quality,” Simons said.

It’s a cultural and spiritual struggle

Lanakila Mangauil, a Native Hawaiian spiritual practitioner, was around 9 when he first stepped on the mountain for snow play at the lower elevations. His family never went to the summit.

“One of the important spiritual practices on Mauna Kea is our absence,” he said. “We stay off it because it is sacred.”

When he first ascended the mountain for ceremony, he was a high school senior and climbed with two of his friends. They stopped at altars, prayed near the upper cinder cones, offered chants and dance.

Mangauil does not like to use the word “religion” to describe his spiritual practice. Hawaiians don’t have a central religion, he said, but spiritual practices born of different communities, families and environments.

“Our spiritual practice is not faith-based; it is knowledge-based,” he said. “Our gods and goddesses are scientific observations.”

For example, to understand the deities of Mauna Kea is to understand the mountain’s environment and climate, Mangauil said. Poliahu is the snow goddess, sister of Pele, the goddess of volcanoes and denizen of neighboring Mauna Loa. Lilinoe is the goddess of fine mist. Waiau presides over the mountain’s subterranean reservoirs. Lake Waiau, associated with the god Kane, is where some Native Hawaiians bury their children’s umbilical cords. Its water is collected and used for healing and ceremonies. The summer solstice is an important ritual Mangauil observes on Mauna Kea, as is a Makahiki ceremony in the fall, which marks the start of the Hawaiian year.

This is also a political and cultural issue for younger Hawaiians like Mangauil, who considers himself a product of the Hawaiian Renaissance. Prior generations lost their language as well as culture and religious practices after the U.S.-backed overthrow of the monarchy in 1893.

“We are reestablishing our spiritual relationship with the land, which was disrupted by colonization.”

Finding a way through dialogue

Not all Native Hawaiians hold Mauna Kea sacred in a religious sense, including Makana Silva, an astronomer who grew up on Oahu and was raised Catholic. He is now a postdoctoral fellow at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico studying black holes and gravitational waves, and visited Mauna Kea’s summit for the first time three years ago.

Despite his personal religious beliefs, he is certain that the mountain contains what Hawaiians call “mana,” the spiritual life force that permeates the universe. Silva described a moment when he and his friend stood by Lake Waiau “in peace, silence and awe.”

He believes astronomy on the mountain should thrive so there is a place for Hawaiians to perpetuate their legacy of innovation.

“We have a responsibility to future generations to leave behind these new inventions so they can go places you and I have never been able to dream of,” Silva said.

The future of astronomy on the mountain will in large part be decided by the Mauna Kea Stewardship and Oversight Authority, which is taking over managing the mountain from the University of Hawaii. It will determine whether to renew the university’s 65-year lease for the summit lands, which is due to expire in 2033, and subleases for lands used by all the mountain’s telescopes.

Simons is concerned about the consequences if the leases aren’t renewed in time. The existing master lease says the telescopes must be dismantled and the land under them restored to its original state by 2033 if the lease is not renewed.

“The potential loss of Mauna Kea astronomy … would be catastrophic,” Simons said, adding that this would mean a tremendous loss of knowledge and opportunities for Hawaii’s budding astronomers.

Palacat-Nelsen doesn’t believe astronomy on the summit will end anytime soon. But he does see the lease being renewed at a much higher price than the $1 a year the University of Hawaii pays now.

“You have to pay the best price for the best view,” he said.

He holds out hope for better understanding between the two communities. He recently invited a handful of Keck astronomers and officials to his family’s heiau, or place of worship, on the Big Island.

Rich Matsuda, Keck’s interim director and an engineer, was part of that group. He said the experience shed light on the extensive preparation required to enter a sacred space, such as leaving one’s everyday troubles and anxieties outside, which can be challenging. He has since followed similar protocols when traveling to the summit and believes they could be shared more broadly with other telescope workers.

Palacat-Nelsen said such efforts by observatories give him hope that people will become more mindful of their footprints on Mauna Kea, like the legendary chief who visited the snow goddess. Palacat-­Nelsen is grateful to his ancestors for preserving and maintaining Mauna Kea so current generations have the opportunity to experience the divine. He wonders whether he can do that for posterity.

“Can they speak about me in that way 200 years from now?” he asks. “I hope.”

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Associated Press religion coverage receives support through the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.

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