Protesters blocked the road to put a stop to a groundbreaking ceremony for the Thirty Meter Telescope at Mauna Kea, Hawaii, earlier this month. Credit Hawaii Tribune-Herald, via Associated Press
Galileo knew he would have the Church to contend with after he aimed his telescope at the skies over Padua and found mountains on the moonand more moons orbiting Jupiter — and saw that the Milky Way was made from “congeries of innumerable stars.” The old order was overturned, and dogma began to give way to science.
But there is still far to go. Congeries of stars have given way to congeries of galaxies, but astronomy — one of the grandest achievements of the human race — is still fending off charges of blasphemy. These days the opposition comes not from the Vatican, which operates its own observatory, but from a people with very different religious beliefs.
This month a group of Native Hawaiians, playing drums and chanting, blocked the road to a construction site near the top of Mauna Kea and stopped the groundbreaking ceremony for the Thirty Meter Telescope, often called T.M.T. Larger than any now on earth, it is designed to see all the way back to the first glimmers of starlight — a triumph in astronomy’s quest to understand the origin of everything.
But for the protesters, dressed in ceremonial robes and carrying palm fronds, T.M.T. has a different meaning: “too many telescopes.” For them the mountain is a sacred place where the Sky Father and the Earth Mother coupled and gave birth to the Hawaiian people.
They don’t all mean that metaphorically. They consider the telescope — it will be the 14th on Mauna Kea — the latest insult to their gods. Push them too far, the demonstrators warned, and Mauna Kea, a volcano, will erupt in revenge.
It can be difficult to tell how motivated such protests are by spiritual outrage and how much by politics. Opposition to the Mauna Kea observatories, which are run by scientists from 11 countries, has been going on for years and is tied inseparably with lingering hostility over colonization and the United States’ annexation of Hawaii in the 19th century. The new telescope is a pawn in a long, losing game.
Adding more complications, the indigenous protesters were allied with environmental activists denouncing the encroachment of what they call “the international astronomy industry,” as though there were great profits to be made from studying black holes and measuring redshifts.
“Mauna Kea is a Temple or House of Worship,” says a statement on the website of Kahea, the Hawaiian-Environmental Alliance. “Therefore, the laws of man do not dictate its sanctity, the laws of Heaven do.”
Whether the target is a scientific installation or a ski area in the West, some environmentalists have learned that a few traditionally dressed natives calling for the return of sacred lands can draw more attention than arguments over endangered species and fragile ecosystems. In this marriage of convenience, there seems to be little worry that the tactics might undermine the credibility of what may be perfectly sound scientific arguments about the effects of a mammoth construction project on vulnerable mountain terrain. The state’s Board of Land and Natural Resources agreed with astronomers that the trade-off is worthwhile, and plans are proceeding.
For many this was a familiar situation. A very similar drama unfolded in the 1990s on Mount Graham in Arizona, where the construction of a complex of observatories (one is the Vatican’s) was fought by a group of Native Americans swearing allegiance to different gods, while the Sierra Club agonized over the fate of the Mount Graham red squirrel.
The astronomers prevailed, as they have so far on Mauna Kea. But both episodes are reminders that it is not just religious fundamentalists who are still waging skirmishes against science.
While biblical creationists opposing the teaching of evolution have been turned back in case after case, American Indian tribes have succeeded in using their own religious beliefs and a federal law called the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act to empty archaeological museums of ancestral bones — including ones so ancient that they have no demonstrable connection to the tribe demanding their reburial. The most radical among them refuse to bow to a science they don’t consider their own. A few even share a disbelief in evolution, professing to take literally old myths in which the first people crawled out of a hole in the ground.
In this turn back toward the dark ages, it is not just skeletal remains that are being surrendered. Under the federal law, many ceremonial artifacts are also up for grabs. While some archaeologists lament the loss of scientific information, Indian creationism is tolerated out of a sense of guilt over past wrongdoings. Again the spiritual is inseparable from the political.
Dismayed by all of this, I got in touch with Steve Lekson, a professor of anthropology and curator of archaeology at the University of Colorado Museum of Natural History. Dr. Lekson is known as an outspoken iconoclast, and I was expecting to hear his outrage.
“There’s no question we are losing information,” he said. But he had become persuaded that complying with the artifacts law was the right thing to do.
“It’s bad for science, but good (I suppose) for the Native American groups involved,” he wrote in an email. “Given that the U.S.A. was founded on two great sins — genocide of Native Americans and slavery of Africans — I think science can afford this act of contrition and reparation.”
But how is letting Indian creationism interfere with scientific research any different from Christian creationism interfering with public education — something that he would surely resist?
Logically they are the same, Dr. Lekson agreed. But we owed the Indians. “I’m given to understand that the double standard rankles,” he said.
I left the conversation grateful that in another part of the world, astronomers are standing their ground. Chad Kalepa Baybayan, a Native Hawaiian, expressed his support for their efforts last year in an essay for a local newspaper.
“Our ancestors,” he wrote, “sought knowledge from their environment, including the stars, to guide them and to give them a greater understanding of the universe that surrounded them. The science of astronomy helps us to advance human knowledge to the benefit of the community.
Its impact has been positive,” he continued, “introducing the young to the process of modern exploration and discovery, a process consistent with past traditional practices.”