Kālepa Baybayan & Astronomy on Mauna Kea

Kālepa Baybayan’s point of view on the pursuit of astronomy on Mauna Kea has often been sought, and he has generously agreed to speak out frequently (formally, in court hearings, and informally at public panels) in support of the Thirty Meter Telescope’s (TMT’s) construction. “It’s good for humanity, it’s great for the state of Hawai‘i, it’s great for the university system…and clearly Mauna Kea is the best place on the planet to build a telescope.”

His understanding of the sky’s beacons has enabled Kālapa to safely lead ocean travel. “My perspective of Maunakea is based on the tradition of the oceanic explorers from whom I descend, a people who left the safety of their coasts, sailed away, and in so doing discovered the stars.”

Kālepa testifying in support of the TMT.
Kālepa testifying at a county council public hearing in 2019. Photo by Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today

He honors the Pacific Islanders’ history of starry-night navigators, in whose traditions he follows, for their urge to explore, and to achieve the knowledge needed to find both their destinations, and where they came from. “I come from a wayfinding/navigator’s background, and the basic job of the navigator is to provide his community with the ability to sustain itself. That’s why they explore, that’s why they sought out new homeland. And so if I was just to understand my function as a navigator, that’s my role. It’s to provide new opportunities for my community and my species to survive.”

Astronomical science atop Mauna Kea is a step in that same tradition. It is to peer into the far past of the universe: where did we—on this planet, in this galaxy, in this part of the universe—come from? It is to gain a better understanding of how things—our solar system, our galaxy, our universe—will unfold in the future. It is to scope new information about extra-solar planets, including the chance to learn about those that are Earth-like and habitable. We could now be poised as Hawaiians’ ancestors were, discerning distant “islands” for later generations to seek and explore.

“To value astronomy and its work on Maunakea, you have to value the importance of ‘ike, knowledge, and its quest for a greater understanding of the universe we live in. Our ancestors were no different; they sought knowledge from their environment, including the stars, to guide them and to give them a greater perspective of the universe that surrounded them. The science of astronomy helps us to advance human knowledge to the benefit of the community. It teaches us where we have come from, and where we are going. Its impact has been positive, introducing the young to the process of modern exploration and discovery, a process consistent with past traditional practices.”

Kālepa aboard the deep-ocean canoe, the Hōkūle‘a.
Photo courtesy of ʻŌiwi TV

In addition those broad strokes, Kālepa notes that history evidences a long-time cooperation between Hawaiians and Western science. In 1779, the ali‘i (royalty) and kāhuna (priests) agreed to Captain James Cook’s first astronomical observing station in a sweet potato field near Kealakekua Bay, to determine Hawai‘i’s exact latitude and longitude, and on occasions afterward. For more than 200 years, this cooperation developed, leading to astronomy programs in the state’s universities, and other educational venues such as the ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center in Hilo where information about Hawaiian history, culture, and navigation share the same space as exhibits about contemporary physics and astronomy.

And, of course, there are some of the world’s best astronomical observatories on Mauna Kea, whose construction began in the 1960s.

Kālepa further references history to show that the use of Mauna Kea for practical purposes is in keeping with Hawai‘i’s past: its adz (a.k.a. adze) quarry.

Examples of adze found on Mauna Kea.
Examples of adze used to build canoes. Photo from http://archive.hokulea.com/ike/kalai_waa/plants_and_tools.html

Located approximately three miles south of the nearest astronomical observatory along the observatory loop, is the Mauna Kea Adz Quarry. According to the National Park Service, of which this adz quarry is a part, this is the largest primitive rock quarry in the world. Its large quantities of quality basalt (a cooled volcanic rock) yielded blades that, after tooling, were prized for their hardness and ability to hold an edge. Dating processes show it was used from around 1000 to 1400 AD, and its area encompasses roughly seven and a half miles between 8,600 and 12,400 feet in elevation.

“The Maunakea adze quarry, the largest in the world, offers conclusive evidence that the ancients recognized the importance of Maunakea’s rich resources and its ability to serve its community by producing the tools to sustain daily life. They ventured to Maunakea, reshaped the environment by quarrying rock, left behind evidence of their work, and took materials off the mountain to serve their communities, with the full consent and in the presence of their gods. … Using the resources on Maunakea as a tool to serve and benefit the community through astronomy is consistent with the example of the adze quarry.”

The TMT project is of a piece with Hawaiian history, whose people, Kālepa reminds us, have “roots grounded in the stars.” Hawaiians and astronomers both have a deep appreciation and wonder of the night sky, and a yen to enlarge our knowledge of it. “Maunakea, like life, is sacred, and we need to proceed with the important work of insuring our future. Let’s look to Maunakea and continue a synergy of mountain, exploration, and the stars.”

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