The controversy over the proposed Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) project on Mauna Kea is a hot topic, but in actuality the battle for control of the sacred mountain has been raging for over a decade. Stars with familial ties to Hawaii including Dwayne Johnson, Bruno Mars, and Jason Mamoa, and other famous supporters like Janet Jackson and Leonardo DiCaprio, continue to generate headlines by showing solidarity with protesters who point out that 13 other telescopes already obscure the landscape. This committed band of defenders has successfully blocked the construction of this new, 18-story leviathan, the largest telescope ever built, for several months.
Mauna Kea is prized by astronomers because its summit offers the best view of the heavens on Earth. When measured from its base beneath the waves, at 13,796 feet, Mauna Kea is our planet’s tallest mountain. Supporters of TMT construction contend that this unique vantage point will offer humanity the opportunity to glimpse the immeasurable abyss at the beginning of everything, learn more about our origins, and discover other intelligent life in the universe. Opponents actually seem to agree on these points, but argue that Mauna Kea already offers these opportunities without the telescope.
The protesters, who call themselves protectors, are on a mission to save their sacred mountain from both the environmental and spiritual impact of such a massive structure, which will soar eighteen stories into the sky as well as penetrate two additional stories into the ground. But not only glitterati and native Hawaiians are stepping up to protect Mauna Kea, some claim even spiritual beings are speaking out.
The protectors of Mauna Kea believe the mountain is sacred and view the construction of such a monstrous telescope as an unforgivable desecration. The mountain is not only the burial ground of ancient kings, but also the current home of shape-shifting lizard creatures called the mo`o, one of whom has launched a formal complaint in court.
To traditional Hawaiians, Mauna Kea is their origin, the wellspring of all life on the islands, and the cosmic center of their universe. It is home to the Sky Father Wakea and the thunder beings. The snow goddess Poliahu and her protector, a giant lizard named Mo`oinanea are also resident deities.
Mo`oinanea is one of the many fearsome water spirits reported throughout the Hawaiian islands. Called the mo`o, these colossal inhabitants of Hawaiian lakes and rivers can also appear in the guise of beautiful women to lure unsuspecting men to their doom. While many mo`o could be considered carnivorous predators, some are revered as fierce protectors of freshwater. While the uninitiated might call them monsters, the native Hawaiian concept of aumakua might help us grow in understanding. Some actually claim a lineage which includes mo`o ancestors. Aumakua can refer to a deceased family member who is transformed into a deity, an ancestral protector spirit, which can sometimes take the form of a mo`o.
Mo`oinanea is the queen of the mo`o and the guardian spirit of Lake Waiau near the summit of Mauna Kea. Believers contend that Mo`oinanea also visits the foothill village of Waimea, appearing at a sacred rain rock called Manaua, where the faithful leave offerings. Manaua is a place of pilgrimage during droughts, but, more regularly serves as a point of connection where Mo`oinanea can communicate with those receptive to her messages. During a 2009 visit, Kapulei Flores, the daughter of Pualani Case, caretaker of Manaua, became one such correspondent. Pualani or Auntie Pua as she is known in Hawaii claimed in this 2018 interview that her daughter then just 9-years-old suddenly exclaimed:
“The lady from the lake. I see her. She’s talking to me. Mom, the lady asks . . . ‘Can you stop the telescope?’”
Kapulei conveyed an urgent message to her mother Pua. Mo`oinanea wanted Pua to stop the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT). She urged Pua to go to court and to make a case that the telescope would be detrimental not only to Mauna Kea, but to the Earth in general.
According to articles that appeared in the Hawaii Tribune-Herald in August of 2011, Pua filed a motion before the Hawaii Board of Land and Natural Resources (BLNR) on behalf of Mo`oinanea. As a resident of Mauna Kea, Mo`oinanea should be allowed to take the stand at a hearing to decide the fate of TMT construction, argued Pua. Kapulei, who claimed direct contact with the deity, offered to testify for Mo`oinanea. E. Kalani Flores, Kapulei’s father, offered written testimony.
Flores also argued that the Mo`oinanea is part human, has a genealogy, can manifest herself as a person or a mo`o — a giant reptile — and cannot be seen by some because she “resonates at a different vibration.”
He also produced a sworn affidavit authorizing the Flores-Case family to speak and act on her behalf.
A fierce debate ensued over whether Mo`oinanea could be considered a person by the legal definition.
Before the hearing ended, Flores attempted to bolster his case, conceding that “this may be a concept that many cannot understand.” Of Mo`oinanea, he said, “you could say she’s a spirit, but yet she’s not.” In the petition, she is described as a nature spirit “because that’s the only English terminology that can be placed on that.”
“She has humanity connected to her,” he continued, and if not everyone can see her, “it’s just that she resonates at a different vibration, and at a different vibration which some are not open to seeing or hearing . . .”
Unfortunately, Mo`oinanea’s testimony was not admitted and the BLNR ultimately rejected the motion. However, the effort garnered public attention and mobilized native Hawaiians to oppose the TMT. Pua Case and her family help lead the opposition movement and are still engaged in the court appeals process to delay and eventually permanently halt TMT construction.
More than eight years later, with the proposed construction of TMT again looming, one wonders what the future holds. However, cracks in the monolithic support for TMT construction are beginning to appear. India, a key player in the international consortium seeking to build the TMT, is urging the other members to move construction to an alternative site in the Canary Islands.
“India’s position has been clear. We would like the project to move to an alternate site if all the procedures and permits there are in place,” Ashutosh Sharma, Secretary, Department of Science and Technology, told The Hindu. “The difficulty is that even if construction [in Mauna Kea] were to go ahead, there could be future agitations,” he added.
India is contributing $200 million to the project, about a tenth of the proposed cost. Since India is also one of only six partners that make up the consortium, this is a significant development and may signal that Mo`oinanea has finally prevailed. Construction has officially halted and Hawaii’s governor has pulled the law enforcement presence from the mountain. Whether this impasse leads to the victory Mauna Kea protectors have been praying for, or is just a temporary reprieve, only time will tell. But if Mo`oinanea truly has a message for us perhaps it’s this: Choose your battles wisely, for immortal entities have eternal staying power.