can “science” be decolonized? and what really is “science”?

lainakea beach

Context, and then some of my thoughts on astronomy

Mauna Kea, the tallest of five volcanoes comprising the big island of Hawai’i, is the most sacred of mountains to native Hawaiians. Protected by kapu, a code of conduct, visitation was restricted in order to protect the sanctity of the mountain. Around the 12th century native people began small quarries high on the mountain to gather dense volcanic stones and glasses; quarry work was a religious act as much as other rituals that took place on the mountain [source]. For hundreds of years the mountain has been the center of religious practice and burial.

Often it is said the mountain is the ‘best place in the world to do astronomy.’ A site coveted for its elevation, stable and cloud-free atmosphere, and minimal light pollution. This results in some of the lowest seeing (a measure of blurring due to the Earth’s atmosphere) of any observational site in the world. In the 1960s the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources gave the University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy a 65 year lease for all land within 4km of its telescope. From native hawaiians to the Audubon Society, to citizens of Hilo (a nearby city), opposition to continued development and construction on the mountain has mounted.

It can be hard to understand why the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope has become the wedge issue for a broader movement of decolonial activists, why native hawaiians might object to construction on the Mauna, or why the problem is being raised now, when there are already so many telescopes up there. I’m not writing to convince you why occupation of indigenous lands is wrong, or why the history of development in Hawai’i has been disastrous for the ecology, health, and safety of the island’s inhabitants, why native hawaiians have good reason to be skeptical of treaties and agreements with colonial entities. You can read about the United States’ history of nuclear weapons testing in Hawaii, including the detonation of a thermonuclear warhead from the Kalama Atoll (also recommended is this tongue-in-cheek buzzfeed article; “Beautiful Places the US Military tested weapons on”). It takes a modicum of sympathy (maybe even some empathy, if you can spare it) and a peek into a couple history books (really you can just read wikipedia for half an hour) to understand this issue in the broader context of colonial projects in the Pacific and violence against indigenous people.

I’m not writing to convince you, because there are plenty of people who are much better suited to that both within and without the astronomy community. If you have a similar stance on the issue, or maybe you’re catching up, what I am really writing to discuss is the implications these ongoing struggles have for the practice of astronomy, and science more broadly, going forward.

When I was registering for the American Astronomical Society’s 235th meeting, held in Honolulu, HI, I was and (frankly) still am preoccupied with managing the cost of attendance, the logistics of travel, and the state of my poster/research/purpose. The protests on Mauna Kea were a far flung affair, a headline I would read, an opinion to loosely form and move past. As the conference approached, and my anxiety over funding, travel, presentation, networking, you name it, began to mount, I began to question why I was attending this conference, and began to problematize the situation. I became trapped in a catch 22: I saw my attendance of the conference as perpetuating the process of colonial imposition under the guise of scientific advancement, particularly astronomy, but I had already sunk an inordinate amount of money I didn’t actually have into the trip. I wanted to give up on being an astronomer, a profession which seemed to hinge on the appropriation of land and resources in order to perpetuate itself – walking all over the shoulders of giants, but I didn’t see another career that would apply the kinds of skills I had been working so hard to learn.

Imperialism leaves behind germs of rot which we must clinically detect and remove from our land but from our minds as well.

Frantz Fanon

I felt crushed. The realization that your existence, your sense of home, belonging, purpose, is predicated on a history of violence, selfishness, and disruption of which you had no say is incredibly demoralizing. I had recently read the last section of Fanon’s Les Damnés de la Terre (Wreched of the Earth) where the author describes psychiatric case studies of patients during the Algerian war for independence. Explicitly Fanon’s work (incl. Peau noire, masques blancs and L’An V de la Révolution Algérienne) details the psychological conditions imposed on colonized subjects; implicit to his analysis is the understanding that this structural process of dehumanization operates on all the individuals of a colonial society. In Part 4 of Wreched, Series A, Cases 4 and 5 recount the disorders developed by two French police officers who had been employed to torture Algerian revolutionaries. The same hand that appropriates land, dignity, and history from Native Americans robs the settler of humanity, similar to how in dehumanizing their victims, Fanon’s patients begin to dehumanize their families and eventually disassociate from themselves.

I held this tumult of emotions in the pit of my stomach as I boarded the flight to Honolulu, where my friend Arpit had reserved an Airbnb for the two of us. A month or so previously I had listened to the Red Nation‘s podcast, where Dr. Nick Estes had interviewed Dr. Uahikea Maile while in Hawai’i together (I’m an avid listener of that particular podcast). I had been following both on Twitter for a while, ever since my attempts to become more informed about issues of sovereignty and self-determination, as well as ongoing decolonial projects, began. I’ve attempted to transcribe below a portion of that episode I tried to learn from.

The Red Nation Podcast: “Hawaiian pizza is racist w/ David Uahikeaikaleiʻohu Maile” Transcript begins 6m:40s

Nick Estes: “what is the correct way to come here?”

Uahikea Maile: “the correct way to come here… could be modeled, but not in a cooptive way… by the way that we (kanaka maoli) understand our genealogical relationship to this place. i think that there’s a way to learn from this, kind of, genealogical practice… that is not appropriation and to just imagine how society could be organized when accountable to one’s genealogical relations – not just as a person, but as a person that occupies place and land and waters. So the way that we understand the correct way to come to a place is through our mo’o kū’auhau… generally translates to genealogy but it also can mean, like uh, succession of bones, like skeletal succession, so it kind of has two particular meanings, on the one hand of like literal ancestral succession of people but it also can be understood as a succession of people that have had their bones buried in the land of a place, and that the land and those bones have commingled together and that those are, like, both together our ancestors. So our understanding of who we are comes from not just the bones of our people that have been buried in certain places but the place itself… That, I think, is the proper way to come to a place; is to recognize your genealogy, who you are, but also to where your bones are buried… People will ask me “who’s your family,” or “what’s your genealogy,” and it typically does not include just the people, but where the people were born or where they died. That is a way that we [kanaka maoli] come to, even, different islands [in the archipelago]. I think there’s a common misconception in Hawai’i that like, we’re all from Hawai’i, but like Hawai’i is one island -“

Nick: “Right. That’s me, being an orientalist, (both laugh) a mainlander, what would you call me like a haole? am I a haole in this context? (both chuckling) am I haole-ing it up?”

Uahikea: “No, I wouldn’t call you a haole, um, I think Pua Case would say it best, she’d say you, Nick Estes, are a hoaloha ‘āina, you are a friend that cares for your land and for the sacred gerontological kin that you are related to. That’s the way she describes it at Mauna Kea, that’s the way she describes it at the plenary panel here at ASA [the American Studies Association annual meeting was held in Honolulu, HI in Nov 2019], and that’s the way we think about our relations to struggles that are distant seeming but really quite intimate…”

Nick: “So how do most tourists and military people come to this place?”

Uahikea: “Empire.”

Transcript Ends 12m:05s

an image of a dark blue ocean and two small islands below light cloud cover, as seen from a plane window
my first impression of the islands

I arrived on Oahu in the HNL airport: a concrete maze whose tendrils extended outwards to become the highways and freeways of Honolulu. My uber driver from the airport was a U.S. marine from Texas, our Airbnb was hosted in the Hawaii Monarch Hotel in Waikiki, overlooking the Ala Wai canal, where outrigger boats thronged the waterside. As Arpit and I got settled in, we explored a bit, and I was able to let my anxious mind rest. I got in contact with the Pu’uhuluhulu over twitter and was invited to the Imiloa Astronomy exhibit at the conference, as well as a discussion circle they had organized with some of the elder protectors of the Mauna (thank you to Ilima Long for inviting me).

ala wai canal

At that discussion circle I had the privilege of meeting Noe Noe Wong-Wilson and Pua Case. They shared a sentiment that has been said aloud countless times before, but deserves repeating. Kanaka Maoli are not anti-astronomy; they are anti-colonialism. Aunty Noe Noe said to me “We want the Thirty-Meter-Telescope to succeed, but it cannot here.” The reality is that the construction of the TMT on Mauna Kea is an issue that can be grasped by Kanaka Maoli and used in their struggle for decolonization. This is not a setback or an insult to astronomy. It is a boon for the field, precisely because it is an opportunity for astronomers to reflect on their actions, the systems that they operate within, and the purpose of their work – and then enact change.

Being able to meet and listen to the elders, and talk with Aunty Noe Noe was incredibly affirming, because it made me realize that educating myself, lending my voice to amplify others, and seeking change in my immediate surroundings – communicating and organizing with the people around me – is all that is required of me. I realized that I’m not condemned, not a morally failed person, and that my sense of self, my understanding of purpose, and astronomy more broadly is not un-salvageable. The process of decolonizing astronomy sits within a broader context of decolonial struggles; listening is the first step.

“[something that I saw was] a general attitude amongst scientists to completely reject traditional knowledge and cultural information… truth-telling [is about] acknowledging and recognizing the power of indigenous knowledge and the contributions it can make to our world today, instead of seeing it as some false narrative about ‘myth and legend’ of which it is neither.”

Prof. Duane Hamacher, Indigenous Astronomical Knowledge and Truth-telling

There doesn’t yet exist a grand, unified theory of a perfectly moral, decolonized science. The problem is that decolonized science doesn’t exist without land back; returning land to indigenous peoples in order to facilitate the proper stewardship of the land. My initial reading of Fanon misinterpreted his call to action; Fanon writes and speaks from experience, from the actual ongoing process of decolonization: uprooting and excising the rot, and not from some omniscient, preeminent woke perspective. What that means is that there will be no point in my life where I will have the answer, or where I will be the perfectly good and unaccountable person I wanted to be. My sense of self, purpose, and a deeper understanding of astronomy can’t be defined on those terms. What they can be defined by is a conscious effort to build a more collective, more informed, and less harmful astronomy, while continuing to advocate for land back.

To that end, I’ll end with referencing some of the many resources I’ve learned from and am learning from. Decolonized science doesn’t exist yet, but it’s foundations exist in an intimate understanding of materialism and indigenous knowledge. I hope you’ll join me in taking the time to listen and learn from native voices, and fight with them for a better world.

Some Resources

A Native Hawaiian-led summary of the current impact of constructing the Thirty Meter Telescope on Maunakea (Kahanamoku et al. 2019) (note: my hero/role-model/new-friend Mia is a co-author on this paper!)

Observations of red-giant variable stars by Aboriginal Australians (Hamacher 2019) with more work at, and a great lecture quoted and linked above.

Like A Mighty Wave: A Mauna Kea film (Puuhonua Puuhuluhulu)

Science, Time, and Mauna a Wākea: The Thirty-Meter Telescope’s Capitalist-Colonialist Violence, Part I (Dr. David Uahikeaikalei‘ohu Maile)

Resurgent Refusals: Protecting Mauna a Wākea and Kanaka Maoli Decolonization (Dr. David Uahikeaikalei‘ohu Maile)

For Mauna Kea to Live, TMT Must Leave (Dr. David Uahikeaikalei‘ohu Maile)

‘Imiloa Astronomy Center

Recovering the Sacred: The Power of Naming and Claiming (Winona LaDuke)






3 responses to “can “science” be decolonized? and what really is “science”?”

  1. Katherine Harmon Avatar
    Katherine Harmon

    Fascinating, Will! I’m going to have to try to read this post with the rigorous attention you put into writing it. I will probably make a copy and take it to the park and read it under a tree as I am wont to do when I have something special I want to inhale. When I was a kid I liked to read my favorite books in the sling swings at the park across from our house, but I don’t do that now cuz it might require an embarrassing rescue by the Fire Dept. Is it a large cat? No, it’s a large grandma who sling-shotted herself into a tall stand of rotty cottonwoods and can’t climb down. Better bring the bucket truck. And my citation book. This time I’m going to ticket her. Keep up the great work, Will. As always and forever, you can delete any of my comments that bring shame or ridicule to you and your vlog. I won’t take offense. In the Age of Comments, you have to establish your own standards. LOL, Gr K

    1. willb Avatar

      im so glad the writing will make it into physical reality. my comment standards will never exclude you grma, you need not worry lots of love, let me know what you think

  2. Katherine Harmon Avatar
    Katherine Harmon

    Oh, and thank you for the fantastic resources and links. Gr K

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