A Voice Among the Stars

Sam King was among the many voices who testified before the State Legislature as it considered HB2024, which passed at the beginning of May and will transfer stewardship of the summit of Mauna Kea on the Big Island....

Native Hawaiian Group Rallies Support for Astronomy on Mauna Kea

Sam King was among the many voices who testified before the State Legislature as it considered HB2024, which passed at the beginning of May and will transfer stewardship of the summit of Mauna Kea on the Big Island—along with its observatories—from the University of Hawaii to an eleven-member Mauna Kea Stewardship and Oversight Authority, after a five year transition period. Only one member will represent the University.

Mauna Kea observatories on the Big Island. Photo by Frank Ravizza.

The law requires that one member be a recognized practitioner of Native Hawaiian traditional and customary practices, and a second must be a descendent of such an individual. Other members must be specialists in education, land management and business finance. 

King is president of Ohana Kilo Hoku, a Native Hawaiian group organized to promote astronomy. He also claims to be a descendent of the chiefs of both Maui and O‘ahu, who were defeated by Kamehameha at the battle of Nu‘uanu. His family served in the court of Queen Lili‘uokalani and King’s great-grandfather and namesake was the first Native Hawaiian governor of Hawaii. 

In light of large demonstrations and vocal opposition to the planned construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) atop the mountain that some hold sacred and consider kapu, King feels the need to give voice to what he sees as the other side of the argument. He believes that astronomical observatories are an extension of the Native Hawaiian traditions of exploration, observing nature, and learning about the movement of the stars as they navigated the Pacific. 

King and other pro-astronomy Native Hawaiians have banded together in an effort to educate people about the importance of astronomy on Mauna Kea and to lobby in favor of responsible development atop the mountain. 

“The protesters have managed to play this card where it’s science versus culture, and that’s not accurate,” King asserted in an interview with Maui Times. “Science is part of our culture,” he continues. “Culture is an umbrella term that encompasses science and religion. So, it’s not science versus culture, it’s science versus religion.” Indeed, language in the new law states that “Mauna Kea has come to symbolize a rigid dichotomy between culture and science.” 

King points out that the kapu religion, to which many TMT protesters claim to adhere, was abolished by the Native Hawaiian Kingdom long before American imperialism or statehood. “So, as a Native Hawaiian matter, it’s no longer in existence. It no longer governs land use in Hawaii.” 

Sam King II, president, Ohana Kilo Hoku.

King calls the Ku Kiaʻi Mauna (Guardians of the Mountain) movement a form of “neo-kapuism,” and says that it combines some elements of the old kapu religion with environmental principles, which he dubbed “kind of cool.” But he adds that Hawaiians have a long history of development and early adoption of new technologies, reminding us that Iolani Palace had electric lights four years before the White House. 

“Kamehameha used cannons to conquer the islands, right? We adopt the technologies that are the best. We’re all about the pursuit of knowledge,” he said. “But in a way that is pono (righteous). That’s Hawaiian culture.”

King, a Native Hawaiian himself, testified against language in the bill that would have weighted the new authority’s membership more heavily towards Native Hawaiians. It has since been removed from the amended version. He also successfully argued that the “establishment clause” of the US Constitution’s First Amendment required that religious language in the bill be dropped, as well.

“This is the proper way to do it,” he says of working with the legislature to amend the bill. “This is democracy in action, and I’m pro-democracy.” Referring to the anti-TMT protesters, he says that he doesn’t think violating the law or “blocking roads because you don’t get your way” is pono.

King doesn’t think many of the protesters are really standing up for their own religious beliefs. He thinks many are just seizing on an opportunity to protest injustice against the Hawaiian people. “I think there’s a very small sliver that have fervently-held religious beliefs and a large chunk of people that are fighting for something that they perceive as a wrong,” he explained.

King sees astronomy as beneficial to the Native Hawaiian community and points out that 20 percent of the rent that the observatories atop Mauna Kea pay to the state goes to the Office of Hawaiian Affairs to support cultural preservation efforts. He is especially pleased that the new law clearly establishes that the official policy of the State of Hawaii is to support astronomy within the state. To this last point King says, confidently, “Astronomy is not going anywhere.”

To learn more about supporting astronomy in Hawaiʻi, visit imuatmt.org, and to join star-gazing events or participate in the Shadow an Astronomer program, visit ohanakilohoku.org. 

Dan Collins

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