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Sovereignty Under the Stars


[clock] 38-MINUTE READ ISSUE:  Winter 2017
On the island of Hawaii, a proposed telescope has ignited a fight between the champions of modern astronomy and Hawaiians seeking to protect a sacred site.

The Milky Way as seen from Mauna Kea on May 17, 2015. Foreground: Gemini Telescope. (Mike Orso) It begins, as these ventures always do, with miscommunication. Paul Coleman and I had planned to meet at the visitor’s center, the place astronomers called the “VIS,” perched 9,000 feet on the desiccated collar of Mauna Kea, Hawaii’s tallest mountain. A few years back, Coleman, a Native Hawaiian astronomer, began publicly championing an eighteen-story telescope sited atop Mauna Kea, pitting himself against Native dissent and violating certain ethnic expectations. He had offered me a tour of the dormant volcano, along with his thoughts on the fracas. But here where the asphalt gave way to a gravel road, Coleman was nowhere to be found. He was at the University of Hawaii instead, overlooking the white seaside city of Hilo. Evidently, in planning our rendezvous, we’d gotten our wires crossed.

I was there on the suspicion that something had been missed, or elided, in the coverage of the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT). In April 2015, the construction of the TMT on Mauna Kea was halted by protesters, many of them Native Hawaiians who valued the “White Mountain” for cultural reasons. Thirty-one people were arrested. The story won national attention, and then the narrative hardened: An instrument of modern science had been challenged by postcolonial discontent and benighted religion. It was a tragic accident of history, in which an ancient culture, stuck in time, defied a contingent of astronomers who were running out of it, anxious as they were to launch careers and bequeath legacies. The deeper battle, so the narrative went, was between ways of knowing, ways of seeing the world. Mauna Kea was either a restricted high temple, a site of prime creation, or a technically perfect locale for our world’s next great telescope, the instrument that would enable “astronomers’ quest to understand the origins of everything,” as one science journalist wrote.

That’s how tidy the story seemed. But the “clash of epistemologies” is, of course, just another way of framing this particular issue. And as I got closer to the Big Island, it seemed increasingly incomplete, and sometimes disingenuous. There were other ways of looking at the conflict over Mauna Kea’s summit, and not all of them were so convenient. 

Road approaching Mauna Kea, 2012. (Grant Kaye) The Big Island of Hawaii holds eight of the world’s thirteen climate zones. Driving to Mauna Kea was to watch the landscape change kaleidoscopically. Pacific shoreline became verdant forest became thistled scrubland became plains of cinder cones became endless lava fields, frozen black in bubbling rancor. Ascending slowly, all this life and color fell away along the side of the dormant volcano, until I reached a landscape that belonged at the end of time. A little more than halfway up, the ground was auburn sand and the loose rocks clinked like glass in my palm. There was almost nothing: just blue sky, stubborn shrubs, and the occasional dust devil.

Coleman arrived, finally, in a huge golden truck. He was a dusky guy, short with stout shoulders and a loose confidence in the way he walked. I didn’t ask him, but I suspected he played acoustic guitar; his right hand had the long and pretty nails that only fingerpickers bother to maintain.

Before making the last third of our climb—from 9,000 to 14,000 feet—we had to allow our bodies to acclimate to the dearth of oxygen and decreasing pressure. Otherwise we risked serious problems: acute mountain sickness, high altitude pulmonary edema, and high altitude cerebral edema. He asked, should we wait in the Onizuka Center, just across from the VIS?

I thought so.

Inside, we found a table and began with the focus of the controversy, the Thirty Meter Telescope itself. There are several telescopes already on Mauna Kea, and like many of them the TMT would be a species of instrument called a Ritchey–Chrétien telescope, which uses two canted mirrors to collect and focus light. Mention a telescope and the first thing any astronomer will likely ask about is the diameter of the primary mirror, simply because these mirrors are the first and arguably the most important limitation. The light that makes it to our planet and through our atmosphere travels to this huge “collecting” mirror, which is curved to reflect the light toward another, smaller mirror, also curved, that again focuses the light into the detector of the astronomer’s choice. The smaller your collecting mirror, the less light you can collect, the shallower and dimmer your vision. As its name implies, the Thirty Meter Telescope’s primary mirror would be roughly ninety-eight feet in diameter.

“The cool thing” about that feature, Coleman said, “is for the first time we’ll be able to look back to the farthest distance you can possibly look.”

In extragalactic astronomy, the farther away from Earth you look, the younger the universe you see. According to general relativity, light has a definite speed, so it takes time to get places. The sun, technically speaking, is the actual sun, rotating faraway in space, as it looked almost eight and a half minutes ago. Likewise, an image of the very edge of the expanding universe is how the universe looked at its birth.

Well, close to its birth, Coleman said. The big bang theory has the earliest universe condensed into one tremendously energetic point. In these conditions, photons (light particles) are absorbed as soon as they’re emitted, which means, as Coleman put it, when the universe was young, “there was no way to see anything.” As the universe unfurled and cooled, light decoupled from matter, hence this early period is called the Decoupling epoch. After that point, Coleman said, photons travel freely through the universe. “I liken it to living in a smoked-filled room,” Coleman said. “As the universe expanded, the smoke started to clear and then eventually you could see a photon that traveled across the room. So you could detect the other side of the room or you could detect something in the room.”

Though every telescope in the world can see back to this epoch, few, if any, have the mirror size to gather enough light necessary for meaningful inquiry. Simply enough, the TMT will have such a mirror and will allow us to characterize the universe when it was roughly 1 million years old.

When we glimpse the first light of the cosmos, we will stare into time of the past. Only in late modernity would something so spellbindingly removed from human life be entangled with the vicissitudes of money and power, the earthly concerns that have animated opposition to the TMT. In astronomy as in everything else, ambition breeds complication.

There is little to no money in the TMT (it is not a traditional investment) but there is substantial money behind it. Astronomy is a profitless venture, so it takes a Herculean effort to find international and private support for its instruments. The technologies required by a world-class telescope are highly specialized, finicky, and expensive. Before the TMT’s building permits were invalidated by Hawaii’s supreme court, the projected cost of construction was roughly $1.4 billion. In order to raise this capital, the TMT nonprofit corporation found partners in a handful of universities, as well as the governments of India, China, Canada, and Japan. What’s more, a substantial amount of funding comes from the foundation named for Gordon Moore, cofounder of Intel and originator of the famous Moore’s Law, which roughly describes the rapid growth of computing power over the past half century.

As for incentives, our technocratic culture likes to imagine scientists pursuing fundamental knowledge merely for the sake of it. To the astronomers I knew (astrophysics was my research focus as an undergrad), telescopes were as much totems of careerism as they were metaphysical instruments. You simply cannot achieve conventional success in astronomy without receiving time on a major telescope or benefiting indirectly from it. Telescopes give you data, and proprietary data is the fabric of any career in this science. This is why, in technical papers dating at least as far back as 1986, astronomers were already considering Mauna Kea as the site for what would be called a Giant Optical Device.

The true currency of any large telescope project is not money, but time. There are only so many clear and semi-clear nights any observatory experiences in a year, and depending on the kind of astronomy you do, that can be determinative. Astronomers don’t “pay” for telescope time but are awarded it based on a variety of idealized factors: scientific merit of proposal, track record of publication, prestige of employing institution, etc. Like much in academe, the process is absurdly competitive. Universities and other institutions can winnow the field by fronting money for construction and operation costs—which gets them preference on telescope time proportionate to their contribution. In all likelihood, the vast majority of the TMT’s telescope time would be divided among the partners that paid for it.

This is all to say that if you happen to be an astronomer who’s managed to secure time on a Mauna Kea telescope, you have good reason to be nervous about the dying hours you’ve been given. Do-overs are a rare thing, Coleman told me. And this is why he repeatedly made the half-joke about the present astronomers perseverating about the cloud cover and humidity that threatened their awarded time. Coleman averred that the question “When’s the weather going to clear?” is ricocheting through their minds.


The complex of telescopes near the summit of Mauna Kea, 2014. (Grant Kaye) Given clear skies and the right angles, you can spot little white domes on the sleeping volcano that presides over Hilo, which rests aside the canine-shaped Hilo Bay on the eastern edge of the Big Island. Hilo, the largest settlement on the island of Hawaii, guards its black-sand beaches from Pacific tsunamis with T-shaped barriers of caged stone meant to cleave walls of water. They struck me as more symbolic than practical. 

It was beyond the churn of Hilo’s surf and its salt-blasted storefronts that I met Kealoha Pisciotta, a long-standing opponent of development atop Mauna Kea who now serves as a kind of cultural arbiter between the Native youth of Hawaii and the elder contingent. Both parties had their own politics, vernaculars, and outlooks—none of which always agreed—and Pisciotta was of the right age and personality to mediate.

She was late, but that was easy to forgive, as Pisciotta was still recovering from a stroke she’d suffered in 2014. Immediately following her stroke, she couldn’t speak, but in recovery the only enduring effects seemed to be on what she called her “time center.” Her perennial memory and personality were intact, but the stroke still deterred her “ability to know time very well and to know dates.” Scheduling, in other words.

Pisciotta was born on the island of Oahu and spent much of her early childhood living on a fifty-foot ketch with her stepparents in the Ala Wai harbor. “I come from a water family,” she said. “An ocean family.” Her grandmother, her “tutu,” was her primary conduit into Hawaiian tradition and is partly why Pisciotta is recognized as a Native practitioner today. 

When she departed for college, she studied physics but had to return during some familial trauma. To help her family, she looked for work and eventually was interviewed for a telescope operator position at the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope (JCMT) on Mauna Kea. After a grueling panel interview, Pisciotta was certain she’d foundered. But one of the interviewers pursued her down the hall to say, “We think you have the proper temperament to deal with irate astronomers. We’d like you to apply for the TO job. Would you like to do that? Would you like to operate the telescope?” 

If there was ever a professional primed to be disillusioned with the glister of astronomy, it would be the telescope operator. The TO, as she was called, is usually a full-time employee of whichever organization maintains and runs the telescope. She slews the telescope to the coordinates in astronomers’ observing plans, performs routine maintenance, calibrates fussy components, and retains contact with the specialists who can address electronic, software, and mechanical problems as they arise. When I asked Pisciotta what TOs knew about telescopes and astronomy of which astronomers are ignorant, she broke into a fit of laughter. Pisciotta said, “It’s kind of like we’re the blue-collar and they’re the white-collar workers.”

Like all highly specialized and intricate instruments, telescopes have unique personalities that respond differently to the demands astronomers make of them. The TO’s chief responsibility is to understand this personality and to use that knowledge to accommodate the visiting astronomer—sort of the way a seasoned captain tacitly knows the idiosyncrasies of a ship. Of course, a corollary responsibility of the TO is managing the emotions of astronomers who in all likelihood have just one night to execute their observing plan, for whom a mishap in that plan represents a serious setback in their career.

“We always used to say that neurosis goes up with frequency,” Pisciotta said. If you’re an astronomer who observes at low frequencies, like radio, there’s less in the way of weather and malfunction that can ruin your night. But higher frequencies, like optical, are vulnerable to all kinds of things—dust, clouds, temperature, light pollution. “I’ve had lots of astronomers go and pray outside—I tell you—for good weather, or ask me to pray for them.” A smooth observation session, at least as I recalled, is boring: You fly in; you observe; you fly out. Inevitably, though, things go haywire. “We’ve had incidents where people freak out and throw chairs across the room.” 

Evidently, the JCMT took this element of the job seriously enough to send its TOs to an intensive workshop that Pisciotta remembered as “How to Handle Difficult People.” Pisciotta excelled at this aspect, so much so that she was selected to handle a querulous astronomer who often used the JCMT. She described long observation sessions, in a cramped control room, when he listened to the Nutcracker Suite “the whole time.” After his first time working with Pisciotta, he requested her at every session.

It was toward the end of her twelve-year tenure, in 1995, that Pisciotta involved herself in opposition to telescope construction on Mauna Kea. But she’d be quick to tell you that opposition—which has always included protest, activism, and litigation—began in 1968, soon after the state Board of Land and Natural Resources (BLNR) issued a sixty-five-year lease to the University of Hawaii to build an observatory on Mauna Kea—a 0.6 meter telescope with an estimated construction cost of $300,000. The initial remonstration came from people whose access to Mauna Kea was abruptly restricted: hunters, recreationists, and members of the Audubon Society. 

Throughout the ’70s and ’80s, five more telescopes were built. Opposition then swelled into an alliance of Native Hawaiians, sympathetic Americans, and environmentalists. In the 1990s, five more telescopes were built. Two more would be added in the 2000s, but before then the state of Hawaii audited the management of Mauna Kea by the BLNR and primary lessee, the University of Hawaii, and produced a scathing report in 1998 that accused the BLNR of a “laissez-faire attitude” when issuing and regulating the permits it granted. The report also alleges that the university had inadequately pursued its own management plans, abandoned testing equipment it was obligated to remove, and collected lingering “trash from construction” only after public complaint. The report depicts misaligned priorities in that the university “focused primarily on the development of Mauna Kea and tied the benefits gained to its research program. The university neglected historic preservation, and the cultural value of Mauna Kea was largely unrecognized.” A follow-up report in 2014, however, noted both improvements and enduring inadequacies.

Depending on whom you ask, there are now either thirteen or twenty-two telescopes at the summit of the mountain. The truth here depends on how one defines the term “telescope,” and that depends on how one regards Mauna Kea as a resource. For example, the Smithsonian’s Submillimeter Array comprises eight individual antennae but is counted by astronomers as one functional instrument—which is uncontroversial and true. However, the antennae that constitute the array are individual structures, which is understandably all that matters to those concerned about construction. So, depending on your vantage, the Submillimeter Array is either one telescope or eight. There are other cases like this, but both perspectives generalize and both are correct.

In addition to political action, Pisciotta and a group of dedicated friends took on the telescope development legally. In a twenty-year period, they managed to thwart between six and ten telescope projects, without funds for lawyers of their own. 

In one of their more recent cases, not long after protesters were arrested on Mauna Kea for blocking construction crews, Hawaii’s state supreme court vacated the permit granted to the Thirty Meter Telescope, which would be the largest telescope on the mountain. The justices concluded that the “BLNR acted improperly when it issued the permit prior to holding a contested case hearing,” which formally allows the public to dissent and affect the outcome of permitting. Mauna Kea is, after all, public land.

To Pisciotta it is also sacred land. The wellspring of her motivation happens to be extremely difficult to communicate to anyone unfamiliar with the Hawaiian religion. I tried to persuade her that, for this reason, the issue should be seen as fundamentally political—politics supposedly being the language of human disagreement. She quickly disabused me of this notion.

“The issue—a hundred percent—is a spiritual issue, even though it has political ramifications.” 

And that was that.

“I’m coming from a philosophy of Aloha,” she said. “Our sense of truth and dignity, Aloha, you know. Not everybody knows how to move Aloha—make it work in the world. You can feel Aloha, that’s one thing, but moving Aloha is a different thing. Moving the whole realm around you in that way cultivates goodness and diplomacy.”

She gave the impression of being a genuine cultural conservative (quite distinct from the American  mainland variety). She does not separate—cannot separate—political strategy from a mode of behavior reflective of the tradition from which she hails. 

Given that the TMT dustup was one of many in Hawaii, I wondered if the reason Pisciotta was so committed to Aloha was that, not by coincidence, very little if any of Hawaii’s political conflicts have turned violent. Did she ever fear that possibility?

With a certain graveness, she said yes.


Graphic by Haisam Hussein Near the summit, at Coleman’s direction, we had a drink of water. That high up, it was physiologically necessary, but it soon became our own little ceremony. We stop. We hydrate. We don’t pass out. The last mile of the ascent was a smooth road that astronomers feared, Coleman said, because it turned into an “ice bath” during winter. The truck’s tremble abated and I could feel my pulse in my shoulder—a steady thrum. Coleman intended to show me the interior of the telescope he’s affiliated with, the University of Hawaii’s eighty-eight-inch telescope, before we wrapped around to view the proposed site for the TMT. 

Mauna Kea is coveted, astronomically speaking, because it places observatories closer to their plane of interest and above most of the region’s water vapor. The mountaintop rises over a huge section of atmosphere that would diminish, scatter, blur, or otherwise affect an image of light (determining and correcting for these effects is an intense subscience that astronomers call “seeing”). Alone in the great Pacific and near the equator, Mauna Kea presents stable and clear weather, plus cooler temperatures for instruments sensitive to heat. Its seclusion, along with island-wide light ordinances, mitigate “light pollution”—the ambient brightness of nearby nightlife. The skies here are uniquely dark.

One of the common charges from the supporters of the TMT is that the cultural opposition is against astronomy, against science. The rejoinder is that Hawaiian culture itself is steeped in a rich astronomical tradition; therefore, it can’t, lest it be self-effacing, be “against” astronomy, nor is the conflict really about astronomy.

Coleman, a bit annoyed by this counterargument, said, “People are constantly saying, ‘I’m not against astronomy.’ Well, really they are if you think about it,” adding that the mountaintop was the best place for a telescope. “So I consider it disingenuous, because they really are against astronomy, or they don’t understand what modern astronomy does. Politically, I think the smart thing for the Hawaiians to do would be to take this over”—this being astronomy and the Mauna Kea observatories. “I mean, you want to get self-determination, you want to have something that separates you from the old Hawaii. You don’t want to have your kingdom depend on tourism.

“You think about Hawaii’s natural resources,” he continued. “The ocean. We should have the leading oceanography institutes of the world. Anything having to do with the ocean should come from Hawaii first. And then, volcanology. We have pet volcanoes—they erupt on command, they let you move all your people out of the way. We should have the best volcanology studies. We should have the best geothermal stuff. And we have the skies.” 

That was the first time I heard Coleman mention the word “kingdom,” as in the Hawaiian Kingdom that was overthrown with the help of the US in 1893. Did he think there was a way to heal that old wound?

“I think something has to be done,” he said. “I think it was a huge injustice to a group of people and I think a lot of our social problems directly stem from losing homeland—loss of homeland and culture, loss of way of life. Those are huge things to have removed from your cultural psyche. So, yeah, something has to be done.”


The summit of Mauna Kea was a gargantuan bowl of volcanic and glacial aftermath: cinder cones; calderas; lifeless but voluptuous slopes of rust-colored rock. Combined with the eerie lunar quality of the unfiltered sun, this reminded me of Buzz Aldrin’s “magnificent desolation.” From the truck we saw huge red hills zippered with black roads across which little white cars roved. The sky was an uncorrupted blue. We passed the lone white dish of the Very Long Baseline Array. Coleman identified stone quarries where ancient Hawaiians would mine for axe heads and prized tools. We saw the National Radio Astronomy Observatory and the foot trail of cultural significance that it was unfortunately sited on—out of ignorance, Coleman explained, not malice.

Coleman pointed in the direction of Lake Waiau, a sacred permafrost lake where Hawaiians still bury part of their umbilical cords to signify connection with a mountain that harbors an intricate metaphysics for them. We passed the two Keck Telescopes. The United Kingdom Infrared Telescope. Caltech’s ten-meter. Sacred cinder cones. The Subaru eight-meter. Sacred rock formations and altars. The Gemini Telescope. We eyed two intrepid hikers who had found what Coleman said was the true summit of Mauna Kea, and we both felt uneasy (Coleman’s not big on recreational use of the mountain). He showed me the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope, the first telescope on Mauna Kea he’d ever used and Pisciotta’s old stomping grounds.

We parked near the eighty-eight-inch telescope, and drank. We could see the broad shoulder of Mauna Loa blazing in sunlight, with the nearby clouds low and blooming. They replaced the Earth, the islands, the ocean, and became an empyrean, white and endless.

After a silence, I said, “This is very beautiful in a very alien way. I’ve never seen anything like this.”

“It’s really odd,” he said, “because to me it’s very beautiful in a very familiar way.”

He led me inside to a tiny and overwarm room where I met some TOs. “We’ll try to get out of your way as quickly as possible,” he told them. We took a tiny elevator up and walked into a narrow telescope control room, then out into the cavernous dome where the massive instrument was brooding in the cold. 

Coleman then hastened us outside onto a thin corrugated balcony clinging to the blinding white shell of the dome, maybe twenty feet above the mountaintop, the highest elevation we’d achieve. We looked out again onto that alien view. We raised our hoods like acolytes to shield ourselves from the ceaseless and frigid wind.

Coleman told me that “Your vision is only working at 60 percent because there’s not enough oxygen refreshing the detectors in your eyes. So if you want to get the best view of the sunset from Mauna Kea you don’t stay here. You noticed you don’t really belong here, you feel this oppressive lack of oxygen. It makes perfect sense to me that the Hawaiians would call this a place only for the gods and that they would stop building things as they get closer to the summit. It’s no fun being here, right?”

Not fun, no. My entire body felt vaguely hollow and his words reached my ears as if from across a long marble hallway. When I spoke, I slurred. Walking took a degree of balance and concentration. My pulse beat vigorously in my shoulder and throat, and I hadn’t had much feeling in my fingers for a while. It reminded me of coming to from anesthesia.

We returned to the golden truck and headed for the TMT’s building site.

At the summit’s northern plateau, the site of the TMT was the same igneous expanse as everywhere else up here, just flatter, groundbroken but vacant. Coleman and I peered out my window as we talked. There was no equipment, no foundation, certainly no telescope eighteen stories tall. I saw a small purplish dirt road that began and quickly petered out. We didn’t stay for long.

Coleman drove on and we left the truck to look at the sky. It felt as though there was a fine layer of dust on both my hands, and the creases in my forehead had started to ache—sunburn, probably. 

I asked Coleman, again, about the political nature of the TMT controversy. Was it not true that the United States instigated an illegal military coup and then later stole these islands near the turn of the nineteenth century? So weren’t these internecine politics sort of peripheral to the fact that Hawaii was a sovereign kingdom that was robbed from the Hawaiian people? And was that robbery not at gunpoint? And was it not true that the astronomers and groups supporting the TMT were just tacitly benefiting from a major geopolitical crime that was never rectified? Wasn’t the fundamental question of developing anything on Mauna Kea solely within the purview of the citizens of this hypothetical Hawaiian Kingdom? This was, to say the least, an uncomfortable question to ask, but it was important to know what one of maybe three Native Hawaiian astronomers on this planet thought about it.

He said, “There are very large numbers of Hawaiians who think statehood is a great thing. People who say, ‘We want to be Americans. We love it. We were born Americans, we served in Vietnam and Korea. We want to be seen as Americans.’ And then there are people who say, ‘No, we don’t want to be Americans. We hate the place.’” He speculated how these two groups could achieve consensus and the cold wind picked up and I grew impatient.

“Which one of those options is most appealing to you?” I asked.

“From a perspective of justice…” he clicked his lips. “They should give us the kingdom back.”

“You think so?”

“From a perspective of justice,” he repeated, carefully distinguishing this answer from a pragmatic one. 

“You’re using your moral calculus there.”

“Yeah,” he said. “Purely.”


Protesters during the first of many blockades to stop construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope, June 2015. (Holly Johnson/Hawaii Tribune-Herald/AP) On April 2, 2015, a young Hawaiian protester, Chase Michael Kaho’akahi Kanuha, was arrested during the well-known protests that blocked construction of the TMT on Mauna Kea. About a month later, in response to the arrest, Kanuha’s lawyer drafted and Kanuha himself hand-delivered a 168-page complaint of war crimes to the Attorney General of Canada and the Canadian Minister of Justice. In addition to a series of international agreements that compel it to do so, Canadian law obliges its government to conduct an “urgent and expedited” investigation of any alleged war crimes, which in this case were various instances of the “destruction of public property”—in other words, development atop Mauna Kea. The report listed every telescope that preceded the TMT, including the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope (where Kealoha Pisciotta worked) and the telescope belonging to the Institute for Astronomy (where Paul Coleman worked).

Appended to the complaint was a “comprehensive analysis of the international armed conflict that currently exists between the United States and the Hawaiian Kingdom since 1893,” written by a political scientist specializing in Hawaiian state sovereignty and international law, a professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, David Keanu Sai.

I was sitting at a heavy wooden table with Sai in the Big Island’s rural stretches near the town of Volcano, in the powder-blue split-level he shares with his aging parents. Sai was a towser of a man: redoubtable shoulders, a wide strong chest, his gravity kept low by short legs.

“You can’t understand TMT without first understanding Hawaii being occupied,” he said. “TMT is a microcosm of the whole thing.”

Sai had retrieved a few books and documents for our reference, but just then he consulted his laptop and cued up a song. The music he played sounded like everything Americans typically associate with Hawaii: a careless slack-key guitar, a rhythm like rustling palm fronds, men harmonizing the lyrical and intensely bevoweled Hawaiian language. It sounded azure and paradisiacal. It sounded like vacation.

Sai explained that “This song was composed in 1894 to signify the defiance of government officials who refused to sign the oath of allegiance,” that is, allegiance to the government installed after the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarch, Queen Lili’uokalani. The song’s title was “Mele Aloha ‘AΩina,” or “Patriot’s Song.” 

“Listen to the words,” he said. An English overlay commenced: “Famous are the children of Hawai’i / Ever loyal to the land / When the uncaring messenger comes / With his greedy document of extortion / No one will write his name / On the paper of the enemy / With its sin of annexation / And the sale of native civil rights.”

“It was originally a chant,” Sai said. “You know, real Polynesian.” The academic stomped the floor and smacked his forearms together. Sai heard this song frequently when he went out—in supermarkets, or on the radio.

To live in a world that revolved around such a song, a world in which nearly everyone else’s interpretation of that song was not only different than yours but fundamentally opposite, despite that your interpretation was not exactly without merit and had been validated by the academy of the very world that by and large disagreed with you—that was essentially what Sai’s life had felt like for the past three decades or so. For him, the TMT was merely one among an abundance of crimes, all of which had nearly fallen indelibly into the past, all of which he was determined to remember.

David Keanu Sai—“Keanu” being Hawaiian for “the coolness”—was born into the Reeves family, who collectively owned nine acres of land on the island of Oahu. (Incidentally, actor Keanu Reeves hails from the same family.) Sai told me it’s typical for the oldest child in a family to be the slightly spoiled favorite of the grandmother, tutu, and such was his case. It’s a long story of its own, but they were very close.

Sai was also born with the unflappable temperament and iron mind of a strategist. Given these aptitudes and his unquestioned American identity, it made sense for him to study to be an officer in the US military, and so, in the early 1980s, he enrolled at a military college in New Mexico. As graduation approached, he received a dire call concerning his grandmother, who had cancer. He flew home, and before she died she made Sai promise that he would know his genealogy, because then, she told him, “you will know who you are and what you need to do.”

Later, in a curious marriage of academic zeal and ancestral fervor, Sai made the first of many personally seismic discoveries: His family was ali’i, Hawaiian nobility. “That completely blew my mind. None of this was told to me by my tutu. After I discovered that, you know, an inquiring mind wanted to know more. And I just started digging. I spent so much time in the archives looking at original documents. It took me to the era of the Kingdom and I began to realize, this is not the history I was taught.”

In 1778, the Hawaiian archipelago was rediscovered by the audacious Captain James Cook. At a minimum, Polynesian settlers had found Hawaii a thousand years earlier—likely an incredible feat of celestial navigation. Cook’s crew included the astronomer William Bayly and the telescopically inclined Lieutenant James King. According to historian Gavan Daws, after landing on the western coast of the Big Island, “Lieutenant King was allowed to set up the astronomical observatory in a patch of sweet potatoes…and the obliging priests of Lono placed a kapu [a religious restriction] on the site to keep trespassers away.” It was here that the crew of Cook’s ship, the anchored Resolution, erected an “observatory tent” and hauled in “astronomical instruments.” King was returning from a “night at the observatory” not a day before Cook was stabbed and clubbed to death in a bloody tide at eye-shot from his ship.

In 1893, Queen Lili’uokalani attempted to restore the Hawaiian constitution that had been replaced by the US-friendly “Bayonet Constitution.” In response, sugar merchants, US diplomats, and a minority of Hawaiian sympathizers overthrew her. These insurgents requested—and received—the presence of US Marines in order to ensure a bloodless transition. After commissioning the famous Blount Report, which confirmed US involvement in the coup, President Grover Cleveland ordered the president of the provisional government, Sanford B. Dole, to dissolve said government and reinstate the queen. Dole, from the industrious family of pineapple fame, refused. Efforts to restore the constitutional monarchy of Hawaii languished, and Cleveland relinquished any further investigation to Congress, which commissioned the Morgan Report of 1894. This report rather conveniently rebuked every claim of substance in the Blount Report and exonerated all actors involved with the exception of Queen Lili’uokalani. When the Spanish-American War transpired in 1898, the United States, through the secretive Newlands Resolution, officially annexed the Hawaiian Kingdom, which gave the US military a foothold in what would become the Pacific Theater.

Though this account is simplistic, it draws from fairly standard history. Moreover, it was officially capitulated by the US government in 1993, when it issued a formal apology for its role in overthrowing the monarchy.

Sai’s epiphany, however, was that the Hawaiian Kingdom had been recognized as an independent and sovereign state by France and the United Kingdom in 1843, and it had since engaged in many international treaties with several other nation-states, including the United States. The joint resolution passed by the US government in 1898 annexing Hawaii was not such a treaty—it had only domestic jurisdiction. Sai invited me to imagine “the United States trying to pass a law today annexing Cuba. Or Cuba passing a law annexing America.” The absence of a treaty ratified by both (legitimate) governments means that the United States did not legally acquire Hawaii but occupied it. And if you follow this logic, it still occupies it. That Hawaii was “given” statehood in 1959 was yet another decision that obscured the reality from the global community. 

“So all of a sudden this history of Hawaii started to interconnect with my training as an officer, and it just started to open up. And I realized”—he thumped the table—“son of a bitch, I’m in the wrong army!”

In 2008, Sai received his Ph.D. in political science from the University of Hawaii and has since been busy reforming the ways Hawaiian history is taught. To this end, he published a concise, affordable version of his dissertation called Sovereignty Endures

If Hawaii is occupied, its military occupier, the United States, would be forbidden by Article 147 of the Geneva Convention from destroying public property. “Mauna Kea is public property,” Sai said. “And by building the thirteen telescopes up there already, that’s destruction of property. Because the Hawaiian government did not authorize it.

“We’re seeking compliance to the laws of occupation. Fix this problem and then you leave,” he said with sudden severity, speaking as though there were an audience embedded in the back of my skull. “You’re going to fix the problem of Mauna Kea. All those telescopes, you’re going to take them down. You’re going to fix the problem of depleted uranium in all the firing ranges, you’re going to clean up Pearl Harbor. And you’re going to pay back all that money that people paid to an IRS that was illegal in Hawaii anyway. There is much more you’re going fix; so, don’t expect to leave anytime soon.” 

Sai’s thesis had achieved a certain amount of validation—from fellow Hawaiians, from foreign academics and governments, but he knew it stood in dramatic opposition to status quo politics and the unquestioned opinion of millions of people. Sai knew better than most that the power of the argument that Hawaii is a part of the United States is not so much in its technical rigor but in the sheer number of its adherents, many of whom were his neighbors, his friends, his fellow Hawaiians.

It must be difficult, I explained, to have spent the latter half of his life making a veritable citadel of his mind, given that nearly every aspect of normative life in Hawaii was implicitly hostile to Sai’s reality. One’s head shakes when contemplating such an oppressive postmodern predicament. How had he preserved his sanity? How had he warded off misanthropy? How on Earth had he maintained any hope?

His answer was pragmatic: “The practical value of history is that it’s a film of the past, run through the projector of today, onto the screen of tomorrow. That film never changes but that projector has to get updated. Once you update your projector, you can process more film, now you can see the future.” Sai, in other words, believed in truth, in humanity’s ability to see it, in our allegiance to it, and in its power to radically change our condition. Once people were given the right framework, an updated projector, the world’s proper reordering would follow.

“The term for future in the Hawaiian language is ka wa ma hope,” he said. These words translate literally as “the time of the past.” To understand how you should behave and the nature of the problems you face, you must consider history. “When you tell a Hawaiian to look to the future,” Sai said, “he turns to the past.”

He saw me out, through his doors and under the sun-bleached flag of the Hawaiian Kingdom. As Sai strode to open the gate at the end of his driveway, his parents emerged from inside, wishing to thank me. His mother had cancer but was responding well to her treatment—she hugged me, and I was surprised by the strength and sweetness of her embrace. “I already know my ancestors,” Sai had said, back inside. “I’m just continuing where they left off. I need to complete what they started. My accountability is not to the people today, it is actually to the past.”

I turned and saw Sai waiting for me by the gate, sentry-like, his big skull caught in the sheen of the yellowing sun as he stood, barely squinting, against the day. 


A temple on Mauna Kea. (Getty/Ullstein Bild) Paul Coleman was right. The sunset as seen from 9,000 feet was majestic. After we parted ways, I hiked up a ridge maybe a quarter mile from the visitor’s center while a cool wind soothed my sunburns. Miles away, a thick, low haze roiled across the greener foothills. Mauna Loa stretched out like a tired colossus. And the tangelo Hawaiian sun sank with mitigated light; you could stare right at the big orb and see it for the mere star it was.

As our star fell the rest of them appeared. The night sky was populated in proportion to the crowd that came to marvel at it. Stargazing at the VIS was a pretty regular thing, and it was quite the attraction. With some residual sunlight yet, maybe fifty people had come. Facilitators had set up various amateur telescopes around the gift shop, in front of which were tables for coffee, hot cocoa, and ramen cups. A throng of Asian children arrived, each with a blanket wrapped around them. Facilitators began admonishing the use of flash photography, flashlights, headlamps. By the time night arrived, the crowd had doubled in size and I could see the red-lit armbands of facilitators as they stood near their telescopes. The gift shop, warm and increasingly popular, was flooded with a night-vision-friendly red. The only light pollution was the caravan of cars descending Mauna Kea via switchbacks in the distance. If a nearby motorist dared use headlights, or someone consulted a cell phone, they were barked down by the crowd with alacrity. People began waiting in long lines, invisibly pressuring the one person peering through the scope. A facilitator got on a mic to begin a laser-guided tour of the night sky and the crowd craned skyward like iron filings aligned by a magnet.

I understood why astronomers cared about astronomy, but why this science arrested the public imagination eluded me. Exactly what did they see in these distant suns that captivated them? If indeed this science grasped at our grandest story, what conclusion did they expect? Astronomy today is marketed to the public with feelings of majesty, mystery, and stupefaction—as if outer space were a numinous frontier. The contradiction underlying this fervor, though—as read in Carl Sagan’s famous ode to galactic scale, Pale Blue Dot—is our utter insignificance and the indifference of the heavens we exalt to our suffering, with our desire to belong somewhere in this universe. In that sense, stargazing does not feel like a cosmic epiphany. It feels like wanting to have one.

On the ridge where I watched the sun’s plummet, I saw two wobbling headlamps, two souls choosing isolation among the stars, and I sympathized. I did the Whitman thing and found solitude on a small dune and laid my head down in the cold sand—at serious risk of nodding off. I could still hear the voice of the star guide, though. And I could still see her green laser searing into the firmament. She identified a satellite and a murmur rippled through the crowd.

The North Star in the Hawaiian language is called Hoku Pa’a, she told them. She compelled the crowd and they enunciated: “Hoku Pa’a!”

While visiting Hawaii, I obsessed over the chasm between Hawaiian culture and my own. I was never going to earnestly call the North Star by the name Hoku Pa’a. I was never going to believe that Mauna Kea was literally sacred. When a lei was hung around my neck, I was never going to feel anything but embarrassment. I was never going to know what it was like to have my culture besieged by modernity and to be called retrograde when I tried to protect it. The word “aloha” would remain, as I told Pisciotta, a term of perpetual mystery to me. 

What’s odd, though, is that I felt in Hawaii some of the wonder and odd comfort I used to associate with astronomy. It had something to do with the landscape and atmosphere, and it was hard to believe that Hawaiians hadn’t noticed it in the two millennia they’d lived on those islands. 

Life seemed anything but hostile here. The lush flora, their sumptuous fruits, their flowers, the polychromatic fish, the birds, many and lyrical—it was all of indescribable diversity, and in some cases biological mystery. Even the obsidian logic of natural selection softened a bit: almost any plant, no matter its unfitness, thrived on the Big Island. Defenses became superfluous: poison sumac, here, was just sumac. Even in the Big Island’s darkest venue, on the side of forbidding Mauna Kea, when trace sunlight had vanished and I nearly fell asleep, you could gather some confidence that the world had a place for people, as it did for everything else that lived here. I reached out to navigate the boulders and curbs and brambles and trunks; my eyes were no good for that now. Nearby things were purpled and outlined—hazy dreams of objects. I looked up. The night sky had suddenly become the realest thing around, with its pitch as black as ignorance, and its stars begging to be renamed.

2 Comments

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mikey's picture
mikey · 4 weeks ago

The courts need to throw out this nonsense and be done with it. Hawaiian activists would be better served taking care of some real problems, like their horrendous school system. Look forward, just once.

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Guest's picture
Guest · 3 weeks ago

Great article. Ironic that the Hawaiian's are told to look to the past for their future in the same manner that modern astonomers also look to the past to define their own. 

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