Mauna a Wākea: Whose culture is the most important?

Have you ever felt so connected to a piece of earth that you can feel the appreciation in your heart swell? Or perhaps you envision that place in your mind, recollecting the memories, and become very upset at the idea of it no longer being there? What if I told you that the connection you feel to this land is just imagined in your mind, and has no material precedence and should become developed for Western intellectual pursuits? Would you feel devastated?

I like to keep myself up to date with the controversies surrounding natural and sacred spaces, and their ongoing protection and destruction from capitalist developments. Divergent concepts and understandings of culture around the world have laid the groundwork for multiple controversies surrounding environmental protections, the rights of nature and climate change; from the protection of water at Standing Rock, the scheming of the Australian government to bulldoze 800 year-old sacred Djab Wurring trees, to El Salvador becoming the first country to recognise the inherent rights of natural forests. I think it is important for all beginner anthropologists to consider how different understandings of culture play into these debates.

Recently on October 30, 2018, the Supreme Court of Hawaii approved the building permit for the Thirty Meter Telescope on top of the sacred Hawai’ian mountain, Mauna a Wākea. This decision came after years of legal battles between the Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawai’ians) and scientists, as well as multiple country stakeholders (India, China, Japan and Canada).

“A panorama of the Milky Way from Mauna Kea, Hawaii. From left, University of Hawaii 2.2 Meter Telescope, Mauna Kea Summit, Kilauea Volcano under cloud cover and Mauna Loa.”
Mauna Kea

The Kanaka Maoli and environmentalists opposed the development of the giant telescope because it would be built on one of the most sacred natural locations in Hawaiian culture. The Mauna a Wākea is a sacred mountain for the Kanaka Maoli. Wākea, sometimes translated as “Sky Father”, is considered the father for many of their peoples and in other respects the “piko, umbilical cord, or centre of existence for Hawaiians” (Sacred Mauna Kea 2015, p.1). The summit is a sacred place for their spiritual connectedness, practices and sense of oneness with the earth – all of which are fundamental elements of their culture (Ibid).

Many of the telescope’s stakeholders failed to acknowledge the importance Mauna a Wākea had in Hawaiian culture and instead, focused on the scientific exploration and commercial production that the telescope would bring. This was evident in the TMT International Observatory’s commitment to “a new paradigm of development on Mauna Kea founded on integrating culture, science, sustainability and education” (TMT 2017, p.1). Their investment in the TMT, as the largest telescope in the Northern Hemisphere, was ultimately embedded in their desire to bolster Western cultural and astronomical contributions.

This opposition between the worldviews and values of the TMT and the Kanaka Maoli brings into question: What counts as culture and who determines what cultural perspectives “win” in developmental conflicts?

The struggle over Mauna a Wākea is a struggle over the meaning and making of sacred places, nature and Indigenous cultures. Native Hawai’ian scholar, Marie Alohalani Brown (2016), describes that the kinship relations between the Kanaka Maoli and the island-world environment are not validated by the West unless they are materially visible. She states, “The Hawaiian Islands…[and] culture is something to be enjoyed as long as it is presented in a form that is palatable, saleable, and consumable” (Brown 2016, p.166). The traditions and sacred elements of Indigenous cultures are recognised insofar as they do not limit the economic and cultural projects that strengthen Western domination.

The western ideologies of scientific exploration and commercial exploitation are imposed on the Kanaka Maoli by the TMT as being for ‘the better good of humanity and culture’. This prioritisation of western thinking is clear in the Hawaiian Supreme Court’s decision to approve the construction of the telescope – it alludes to how scientific discoveries and explorations have become a fundamental aspect of Western culture that is treated with the upmost regard.  This is completely at odds with the spiritual relationship to Mauna a Wākea and the island world that is central to Native Hawaiian culture – the sacredness is not merely a concept or label as perceived by those holding the western ideologies. The sacredness of the mountain stems from their understanding of it as a kin relative – “Sky Father” – which they maintain a sacred and traditional relationship with. The mountain is, in many respects, a lived experience that is representative of the Kanaka Maoli’s connection to the natural and spiritual worlds (Brown 2016, p.166).  

This is evidently a highly contested space, within and beyond, the anthropology discipline. But these cultural complexities leave us with some key anthropological questions to ponder: what ‘counts as culture’ in our Western society? And who decides whether nature is incorporated into these understandings and protections of ‘culture’?


References:

Brown, Marie Alohalani 2016, ‘Mauna Kea: Ho’omana Hawai’i and Protecting the Sacred’, Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature & Culture, vo.10, no. 2,150–69.

Sacred Mauna Kea 2015, Sacred Mauna Kea-He Makahiapo Kapu Na Wakea, viewed 5 June 2019, <https://sacredmaunakea.wordpress.com/about/>.

TMT International Observatory 2017, Thirty Meter Telescope: Astronomy’s Next-Generation Observatory, viewed 6 June 2019, <https://www.tmt.org/>.

See Also:

Dyan’s articles: No Homo Bro: Viewing Humans as Primates and the Nature/Culture Divide and Mary Douglas’s Garden; Imo and Sarah’s Part I The Anthropo Scene and Part II The Anthropo Scene

Here are some sources to keep up to date with all environmental news, conflicts and controversies:

For subjects relating to the rights of nature (also find them on Facebook): Earth Law Center

Environmental News (also find them on Facebook): EcoWatch

For subjects on spirituality, ecology and and nature (also find them on Facebook): Spiritual Ecology: Emergence Magazine

Imagining Notre Dame: A Global Perspective

On the 15th April, the Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris, France became engulfed in flames underneath the structure of the roof, leading to the collapse of the centuries-old Spire. As the Cathedral continued to burn with flames lighting up the sky, Parisians, tourists and international residents were seen gathering across the Seine River to pray and sing hymns together. It was a pivotal moment in history that pierced the national consciousness of France, a piercing that was felt in communities around the world as an iconic, international masterpiece began to fall.

For centuries, the Notre-Dame Cathedral has been the centrepiece of local and international societies; as an exemplar of French Gothic architecture, for the coronation of Napoleon Bonaparate, the blessing of Joan of Arc and as the sacred meeting place for millions of Catholics around the globe. From the religious perspective of many individuals, the Notre-Dame is a Catholic icon that inspired many to engage in larger devotional lives. As one onlooker to the Cathedral’s fire described:

“It (Notre-Dame) represents our ability as human beings to unite for a higher purpose” (Patel and Yuhas 2019, p.1).

Even more so, the Cathedral is a symbol that reinforces how influential Christianity was in structuring Western civilization and European culture, providing it with its morality, virtues and understanding of the cosmos. Over time, the significance of Notre-Dame has expanded beyond the boundaries of France, and it now includes an international community of Catholics that admire its religious symbology in the practice of their faith. When images and reports of the burning Cathedral flashed across televisions, newspapers and social media around the world, the international Catholic community united to donate to its reconstruction.

“New York Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan announces a fundraising effort from St. Patrick’s Cathedral April 18, 2019 to help support the restoration and rebuilding of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.”
New York

I argue that this collective effort to save and rebuild Notre-Dame emerges from the importance of having the Cathedral as a unifying symbol of Catholic faith. Why is this so important? Well, it reinforces imaginings of an international Catholic community. This collective imagining, according to Benedict Anderson (1983), is facilitated through the distribution of cultural materials that seek to construct and represent social cohesion. The significance of these cultural materials is then reinforced by the collective imagining.

It is the cultural force of the Notre-Dame Cathedral that Anderson (1983) argues promotes the strength of the Catholic community. The Cathedral is a cultural symbol that reflects the Catholic community back to themselves, which creates a unified imagining of the religious beliefs that rule their community.

While this is an effective way of analysing the importance of Notre-Dame as an international Catholic symbol, I’m not convinced that Benedict Anderson would be too pleased with me applying his theoretical assumptions from Imagined Communities (1983) in this context. Sorry Benny, but you laid excellent theoretical groundwork here that was too good not to build upon!

In Anderson’s original text, he asserted the “imagined community” is created by our collective imagining of the spaces we inhabit – spaces that are locally and geographically bounded. He limited the scope of the imagined community to the nation. Anderson (1983) focused on how the collective identity of the nation was spread through print capitalism (newspapers, language, literature, material maps, museums and census’), which strengthened the shared culture and nationalism that reinforced the boundaries of the nation. However, this is a major flaw in Anderson’s theory. He thought that the nation (aka community) had to emerge from a “local” group that differentiated itself from other communities and societies. He further neglected to question and understand the different forms of “community” and how these were not always bounded to one place in space and time.

It pains me to limit Anderson’s analysis locally, and I think his theory is just as effective in a global framework! I, similar to other scholars, have taken inspiration from Anderson’s ideas and used them to understand the transnational context of Notre-Dame and the Catholic community. Surely Benny would be pretty impressed with how far-reaching his original theories now are!

Let’s look again to Notre-Dame. Catholics around the world saw representations of the Cathedral burning and the devastated reactions of Catholic (and non-Catholic) Parisians on television, social media and in newspapers. These representations reinforced their imagining of Notre Dame as an iconic Catholic monument, which re-stablished their collective knowing of its sacred importance to Catholics around the world. As one facebook user described:

Facebook

As a result, this collective ‘knowing’ reassured them – whether they were in Brazil, the Philippines, the United States, Ireland or wherever – that they were part of an international Catholic community devastated by this destruction. And… to try and please Benny, this global community does still consist of what he required must be “outsiders” – who in this case could be viewed as people in different religious groups.

The importance of Notre-Dame to the international Catholic community is a prime example of how it is possible to be part of a community that expands beyond the borders of France, Europe and the West; a global community that is imagined across multiple cultures, identities and languages.


References:

Anderson, B 1983, Imagined communities: Reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism, pp.427-449

Patel and Yuhas 2019, ‘Fire at Notre-Dame Cathedral Leads to Expressions of Heartbreak Across the World’, viewed 3 June 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/15/world/europe/paris-cathedral-fire.html

See Also: Maddie’s article on Subtle Diasporic Traits; and Rita’s article Battle of the Ethics: Subsistence Looting