~ Photography by Christine Peterson ~
Mauna Kea is a dormant volcano on the island of Hawaii. Standing 13,803 ft above sea level, its peak is the highest point in Hawaii. However, most of Mauna Kea is below sea level; when measured from its oceanic base, its height is actually 33,100 ft —more than twice Mount Everest’s base-to-peak height of 11,980 to 15,260 ft, making it the tallest mountain on Earth.
The summits of the five volcanoes of Hawaii are revered as sacred mountains; and Mauna Kea (which means “white mountain” in Hawaiian), is the highest and therefore the most sacred. For this reason, a kapu (ancient Hawaiian law) allowed only high-ranking tribal chiefs to visit its peak. Ancient Hawaiians often associated elements of their natural environment with particular deities. In Hawaiian mythology, the sky father Wākea marries the earth mother Papa, giving birth to the Hawaiian Islands. In many of these genealogical myths, Mauna Kea is portrayed as the pair’s first-born son. The summit of Mauna Kea was seen as the “region of the gods”, a place where benevolent spirits reside.
With its high altitude, dry environment, and stable airflow, Mauna Kea’s summit is also one of the best sites in the world for astronomical observation, and one of the most controversial. Since the creation of an access road in 1964, thirteen telescopes funded by eleven countries have been constructed at the summit. The Mauna Kea Observatories are used for scientific research across the electromagnetic spectrum from visible light to radio, and comprise one of the world’s largest telescope facilities of their type. In April 2013, the Thirty Meter Telescope project was approved, and will be the largest telescope ever built. Their construction on a “sacred landscape”, replete with endangered species, ecological concerns, and ongoing cultural practices, continues to be a hot topic of debate and protest. Indigenous activists continue to oppose its construction and are fighting for the protection of their most sacred mountain.
“We will not obstruct, construct, destroy, or desecrate that which is held as most sacred. Our ancestors never destroyed to advance, never constructed in a manner that would irreparably harm their island home or its inhabitants, and would never do so with or without proper management. They were a people who protected the balance, the alignment, the interdependence, and the energy in all things, and knew on the deepest of levels how connected all was and is still, not just to here, but to everywhere and everything. In us, that memory still lives.” – Pua Case
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