Indigenous Rights and Controversy over Hawaii’s Maunakea Telescope

Last Updated: October 9, 2019

When the first colonial settlers arrived in what is now the United States of America, the land was not empty, but home to hundreds of diverse indigenous nations. These colonists, and later the US government, seized land from indigenous nations and violated the rights of indigenous peoples. Other countries have similar histories. Today, indigenous groups continue to fight for recognition of their sovereignty⁠—their right to govern their lands and peoples.

Since mid-July 2019, Native Hawaiian protesters have been blocking the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) on Maunakea (also spelled Mauna Kea), the highest mountain in Hawaii. Maunakea has some of the clearest views of the skies in the world, and it also is one of the most sacred places to Native Hawaiians. Many Native Hawaiians view the plan to build this telescope on Maunakea’s peak as the latest affront to their rights over their ancestral lands. The events on Maunakea raise important questions about the US government’s treatment of indigenous peoples and Native Hawaiians’ claims to sovereignty.

This Teaching Idea provides historical context for the protests against the Thirty Meter Telescope and helps students explore the reasons why many Native Hawaiians oppose its construction.

Note to teacher: For more background information on the protests, read the Vox article Why Native Hawaiians Are Fighting to Protect Maunakea from a Telescope.

  1. Provide Historical Context

    The protests against the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope are part of a historical struggle over sovereignty in Hawaii. Use the timeline located on the Hawaii’s Legacy of Colonialism handout  to introduce students to some of the key events in the history of Hawaii’s colonization.

    Discuss the timeline with your students using the Connect-Extend-Challenge teaching strategy. The questions below are also located on the handout.

    • Connect: Is there anything in this timeline that connects to what you already knew about the history of Hawaii or the history of indigenous peoples in other places?
    • Extend: How does the information in this timeline extend or broaden your understanding of Hawaiian or US history?
    • Challenge: Does this timeline challenge or complicate your understanding of Hawaiian or US history? What new questions does it raise for you?
  2. Why Do the Protesters Oppose the Telescope?

    Maunakea is on land that was owned by the crown during Hawaii’s monarchy and then ceded to the state government when Hawaii became a state. Right now, the state of Hawaii leases the summit of Maunakea to the University of Hawaii. After a lengthy review process, construction of the telescope was scheduled to begin on July 15, 2019.

    Begin by playing the first portion of the NBC Left Field video Why Native Hawaiians Protesting Giant Telescope on Mauna Kea Aren't Going Anywhere, stopping the video at 3:22. Ask your students:

    • What reasons do the protestors in the video give for why they oppose the construction of the telescope?
    • What reasons does the representative of TMT, Gordon Squires, give in favor of building the telescope?
    • Many Native Hawaiians see Maunakea as a cultural heritage site. What places or buildings are significant to your own cultural heritage? How do you think cultural heritage sites should be protected?

    Then, ask students to read the excerpt from Smithsonian Magazine’s “The Heart of the Hawaiian Peoples’ Arguments Against the Telescope on Mauna Kea” included on the Hawaii’s Legacy of Colonialism handout.

    After students read the excerpt, discuss the following questions:

    • What role does the legacy of American colonialism play in the events happening on Maunakea?
    • Who do you think should get to decide what happens to Maunakea and why?

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