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).
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’?
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/>.
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