A collage of images contrasts the landscape painting of Mauna Kea by significant Hawaiian patriot Iosepa Kahoʻoluhi Nāwahīokalaniʻōpuʻu Contrasted with the tools of reading the cosmos from the Age of Discovery to the present. Source: Zannah Mae Matson

ver the last few years, the sacred Mountain of Mauna Kea has been the site of an ongoing war between Hawaiian land defenders and imperial forces. Initiated by plans for the construction of a piece of next-generation astronomical infrastructure, the battle speaks to a larger fight against colonial occupation and the role of infrastructure in maintaining the cultural, spiritual, and political hegemonies that produce it.

An initial expression of collective refusal, which would later become known as the Battle for Mauna Kea, took place on April 6, 2014, in response to ground-breaking ceremony for what was anticipated to be the world’s most powerful astronomical observatory infrastructure, the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT). The TMT was set to be the 14th observatory center on the Mountain. The resistance began with the blocking of the road that provided access to the peak of Mauna Kea Mountain and a protest speaking out against the desecration of the sacred ancestral site. This was followed with the disruption of the groundbreaking ceremony by native Hawaiian and cultural practitioner Lanakila Magauil. Magauil interrupted the ceremony by shouting: “like snakes you are. Vile snakes...We gave all of our aloha to you guys, and you slithered past us like snakes...For what? For your greed to look into the sky?”

As a result of these acts of resistance, ground was not broken that day. And it has remained this way since. After this day, the land protectors maintained their presence on the mountain by establishing a semi-permanent blockade focused on obstructing the passage of construction vehicles to the site. The successful resistance to the development of space infrastructure on Mauna Kea has not only protected the sacred site from further degradation, it has also made visible the material and symbolic systems that work to reinforce colonial normalcy. 

Kahookahi Kanuha and other protesters in conversation with Mayor Billy Kenoi at the blockade against the Thirty Metre Telescope on October 7, 2014. Source: OccupyHilo

Mauna Kea is a dormant volcano and the highest point on the archipelago of Hawai’i. When measured from its base at seafloor, it is the tallest mountain on earth. These towering heights, in a region of the world with minimal light pollution has also earned Mauna Kea recognition of being one of the best spots on the planet for examining the cosmos. Long before the development of modern space infrastructure, however, the peak of Mauna Kea was regarded by native Hawaiians as among the most sacred places on the archipelago of Hawai’i. The place where earth meets the heavens. These divergent perspectives are embedded within a larger relationship of imperial domination that has seeded a century of unrest.

While the primary focus of the protest was to challenge a half-century disregard for this sacred site by numerous entities and interests, the Battle for Mauna Kea cannot be understood outside Hawaii’s 125 year-long history of colonial occupation. In 1893, the Hawaiian Kingdom and its Queen, Lydia Kamaka’eha Lili’uokalani, were overthrown by a US led military coup (Long, 2017). Speaking to a spirit of resistance that has existed on the islands since the coup, scholar-activist K. Kamakaoka’ilima Long (2017: 15) states:

“four decades of land struggles and cultural historical recovery… have grown a Hawaiian sovereignty movement… playing out in both land defense and as a movement to re-realize Hawaiian political independence as a sovereign state.”

This recent assertion of self-determination, now known as the battle for Mauna Kea, has grown to become a global movement with broad support from high-profile figures and the hashtags #Wearemaunakea, #ProtectMaunaKea, and #TMTshutdown trending widely on social media.

More than just a source of inspiration for the groundswell anti-colonial movements around the world, this story provides a context to better understand ongoing colonial occupation that is reinforced through the constitutive power of space infrastructure. Working from decades of resistance that culminated in the “battle for Mauna Kea,” we engage the notion of colonial totality to conceptualize the resistance to space infrastructure and the ongoing US occupation of Hawaii, reflecting on what this movement provides for better understanding totality and the relationship between space infrastructure and the shifting nature of colonial occupation more broadly. The notion of totality describes the process by which occupied spaces are coded with Western values in the form of normalized cultures, epistemologies, and institutions that produces an “atomistic image of social existence” (Quijano, 2007: 174). The institutions, ideologies and systems that advocate for the construction of space infrastructure exemplify this process.

Astronomers frame the building of the observatory infrastructure as an essential piece in advancing our knowledge of outer space and ultimately achieving ‘universal’ progress. The resistance to development of these infrastructural systems is an invitation to consider the relationship between space as a frontier of discovery and ongoing questions of settler colonialism; the blockade has made visible the inherent relationship between the infrastructure of scientific exploration and the logic of totalizing colonial rationality that enables the development of massive telescopes on occupied land. While these perspectives of colonial totality provide a useful understanding of power and institutions that shape this conflict, we suggest that the Hawaiian land defenders’ refusal of the normalizing force of space infrastructure demonstrates the complexities and conditions relating to the notion of totality and ultimately the inadequacies of the concept.

During a public comment period at 2015 University of Hawai‘i Board of Regents meeting, Dr. Pualani Kanaka'ole Kanahele gestures to both the totalizing colonial discourse that suppresses her cultural beliefs and the importance of fighting back against these systems:

... we believe in the word of our ancestors...they say we are the products of this land and that is our truth...and that is what we are fighting for. This is our way of life. This is not our job. We don’t earn money from doing this. But for generations after generations, we will continue to be doing what we are doing today.

What Dr. Kanahele speaks of goes beyond the physical destruction of the sacred ancestral site, to describe a hegemonic normalization and occupation that actively effaces traditional Hawaiian ways of being in the world. The words and actions of the land defenders challenge totalizing structures that classify space according to a narrow set of beliefs about the world. Working from these acts of resistance, we want to suggest that the Hawaiian sovereignty movement illuminates how systems of scientific thought and the project of space exploration rely on Euro-western values being the standard by which all other values are measured. It is this wide acceptance of these structures and principles of reasoning that serve to justify the construction of infrastructure that at once reproduces and fortifies these myths.

This self-reinforcing relationship between the production of space infrastructure and the logics that justify it speaks to a powerful aspects of colonial totality: the way it gains power by rendering illegible the very elements relied upon to actively produce the other. The generally unquestioned salience of space infrastructure is a powerful example of this. As Quijano (2007: 174) describes, the relationship between colonialism and scientific discourse is a mutually reinforcing and “part of, a power structure that involved the European colonial domination over the rest of the world.” In Hawai’i, we see the settler colonial process of cultural attrition operating through a totalizing force of colonial knowledge systems that extend beyond physical occupation of land to include an erasure of Indigenous Hawaiian ways of knowing.

Although the spatialities and technologies associated with this form of stellar navigation are radically dissimilar, we suggest that on a basic level, this form of space exploration is continuous with a lineage of Euro-western projects of discovery.  In short, space as the ‘final frontier’ is not simply a metaphor but speaks to the role of astronomy in upholding the ongoing projection of values onto new territories and extending power and acquisition of territory to those complicit in colonial processes. This extends both to the world’s highest peaks and into the heavens. Space infrastructure is central to this ongoing frontier process that seeks to code ‘new’ territories as knowable according to certain values and, as a result, casts inhabitants who fall outside this paradigm as irrational, less-than-human, and exploitable. However, as Lowe (2015: 2) warns, these abstract promises of human freedoms and rational progress are necessarily discordant with the “global conditions on which they depend.” Which is to say that these atomistic systems dispose of the very relationships and elements of life that make them possible. A belief in respecting the sacredness of the world is just one example of this.

It is also essential to recognize the process of establishing colonial totality is one that imperial forces have worked tirelessly to instill. Recognizing this helps to disrupt an appearance of givenness that colonial occupation relies upon. The land defenders have been vocal about this, reminding of us of the fact that since the arrival of James Cook to the Hawaiian Islands in 1778, settler colonial campaigns have been advancing longstanding patterns of cultural removal, fueled by beliefs in colonial supremacy. Following the coup and overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy by US-led forces, a colonial oligarchy banned Hawaiian languages from schools and formalized English as the official language for business and government relations (Silva, 2004: 2-3).  This legislation eroded language, culture, and sacred practice; and is an example of what Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o (cited in Silva, 2004: 3) describes as a “cultural bomb” of settler colonialism that serves to “annihilate a people’s belief in their names, in their languages, in their environment, in their heritage of struggle, in their unity, in their capacities and ultimately in themselves.” According to Chickasaw theorist Jodi Byrd, continually reflecting on the historical and ongoing work that maintains the conditions of settler colonialism is essential to resisting the tendency for colonial constraint to appear inevitable, unresolvable, and complete (Byrd, 2011; see also Simpson, 2014). There was nothing, easy, given, or natural about processes of colonial occupation.

While we acknowledge the usefulness of totality for thinking about colonial supremacy, we have concerns about its tendency to inscribe an inaccurate depiction of Euro-western superpower with total ideological control over subjugated Indigenous population. Put differently, we are cautious of the work that the notion of totality does to reinforce a too widely accepted view of Indigenous populations as helplessly dominated, or even anachronistic. The Hawaiian sovereignty movement demonstrates that this is not the case. What the battle at Mauna Kea has shown—akin to other efforts of refusal, such as those at Standing Rock—is that the war against colonialism is ongoing.

Sunrise on Mauna Kea Mountain illuminates the existing telescope infrastructure built across the peak. Image Source: Skeeze

At present, it appears the land protectors have been successful in their goals of halting construction, as the development team behind the project has begun considering secondary sites for the telescope. The resistance at Mauna Kea, then, is a powerful symbol of the possibility of rupturing the normative totality of Modernist scientific rationality, but it also underscores the recalcitrance of the structures of control and the challenges of pushing back against colonial occupation. However, despite this rupturing of hegemonic ideas of science and progress through the resistance movement, the dominant response from the scientific community has been largely one of confusion and perplexity. This reaction to the uprising speaks to the power of the narratives that cement the Western framework as ‘truth,’ ‘natural,’ and ‘given.’ For these representatives of state and international institutions, violent control is re-framed as co-existence to achieve Modernist notions of progress, while the claims of Indigenous people are reduced to frivolous demands with primitive and irrational connections to the past. This, of course, exists with little consideration of the irony of how this frenzy to build infrastructure that works to “know” the cosmos may be read as equally irrational.

This essay has sought to consider the relationship between infrastructure and colonialism, emphasizing that even the most futuristic space telescopes have embedded within them a lineage of Euro-western cultural supremacy. It is important to recognize the extant materiality of these infrastructures as a manifestation of hegemonic systems that perpetuate myths of rationality and Euro-western cultural supremacy.  The battle for Mauna Kea movement highlights the importance of remembering the long historical processes and extensive exertion of colonial constraint and cultural removal that has been necessary to maintain control of the land. Despite the social processes that naturalize colonial infrastructure, there is nothing essential, necessary, or pre-ordained about enormous telescopes. The success of the land defenders at Mauna Kea, and the support the movement gained around the world, shows us that Euro-western forces and the infrastructure that is central to maintaining their normative influence, are replete with fissures and contradictions worth pushing against. In spite of the hegemonic forces of modernity and rationality behind the construction of the TMT and a continued attempt to assert colonial totality, the battle at Mauna Kea indicates these hegemonic forces have been far from totalizing. The colonial powers do not have the final word. The land defenders at Mauna Kea have demonstrated a powerful vision for disrupting normative ways of occupying land and knowing the cosmos inspiring us to think further on the complexities of mobilizing infrastructure to resist colonialism. It is within these ruptures that we see a potential for a continued learning from the stars and our social existence. 


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