Our third year student Bobine Notenboom has been awarded a studentship through the SeNSS (South East Network for Social Sciences) Doctoral Training Partnership scheme to pursue a Master’s and Doctoral dissertation for her project titled ‘The Sacred Volcano and the Extremely Large Telescope: Structural Violence and Conflicting Notions of Pollution at Mauna a Wākea, Hawai’i’.
Mauna a Wākea is a dormant volcano on the Island of Hawai’i that is named after the “sky father”. It is considered to be a sacred place and living relative to the native Hawaiians. The mountain is also a piko (umbilical cord, spiritual centre) of the land and therefore a powerful place that acts as the cord that ties the ancestors to the living and the heavens to the earth. The native Hawaiians are not the only people who have an interest in the mountain however. It also happens to be the best place for ground-based astronomy in the Northern Hemisphere because it is the highest point in the Pacific and, as scientists like to put it, it has exceptionally low levels of ‘atmospheric-, electronic- and light- pollution’ (Morrison, 1973). For this reason, 13 telescopes are already on the mountain and plans are in the works for the biggest one yet, the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT). The kia’i mauna (native Hawaiian protectors of the mountain) see it as their duty to ensure no more construction is ever carried out on the mountain, which has resulted in an ongoing conflict at Mauna a Wākea.
This project proposes to conduct ethnographic research at both Caltech (in Pasadena, California) and on Hawaii. Caltech is one of the organisations behind the TMT and I want to conduct interviews with the astronomers to collect qualitative data on how they position themselves within this conflict. I want to examine in how far astronomers are aware of the cultural context connected to astronomy, how they consider the native Hawaiians’ connection to Mauna a Wākea, and why they feel that scientific astronomy should be prioritised over local beliefs. In Hawaii I want to interview people from organisations who fight against the building of the TMT and for the preservation of Hawaiian cultural beliefs. One of the topics I want to explore through these interviews is how the astronomy practices are experienced as a form of cultural pollution by the natives. I want to examine how the obstruction of the Hawaiian people’s connection to their land, spirits, and ancestors can pollute their societal awareness of themselves. I also propose a link between this pollution and structural violence, meaning injustices produced by systems that, among other outcomes, prevent the people it marginalises from gaining self-actualisation. Astronomy is generally considered to be non-polluting and non-violent, but that is greatly dependent upon who gets to decide what is considered as violence or pollution. I will be taking lessons to gain an elementary proficiency in the Hawaiian language as the language is an essential part of the Hawaiian culture and cosmologies. Although I expect English to be the driving lan-guage in the interviews, I think it is important that the interviewees feel free to use terms and sayings best expressed in Hawaiian, and that I can understand them. I also feel that, as an outsider, having knowledge of the ‘Ōlelo Hawai’i shows I take the Hawaiian culture and its suppression seriously and want to do my best at portraying their stories as authentically as possible.
Where astronomy is generally considered to be an equalising science, showing us where our collective history and place in the cosmos is, this research aims to show the divide it can likewise create. It could change the way the general public considers astronomy and help give rise to an anthropological understanding of the field. It also has potential to be a contribution to the discourse surrounding land ownership in colonised spaces. Public consciousness about colonial histories and the questions surrounding land rights are increasing in public discourse and politics. I consider the story of Mauna a Wākea to be a key example of this kind of topic and believe it has the potential to impact how these questions are considered.