Us vs. Us: TMT TNT and Cultural Policing

So my high school students are an endless source of thought-provoking moments. The other day they gave me a good little germ to seed my thoughts. They were complaining that a new teacher is giving them more homework than they've ever had before. One kid said, "That's just not Hawaiian!" Another kid agreed-- "yeah, well, she's not really Hawaiian-- she's too Oahu." They all nodded-- being from Honolulu, or doing things like some other Hawaiian immersion school, or assigning too much homework-- those things disqualify someone from REALLY being able to represent his or her culture. And if that's true, the kids had the right to ignore her because whatever else she was, she wasn't (their kind of) Hawaiian. Never mind a direct ancestral relationship to some of the most influential Hawaiian scholars, fluency in modern and archaic Hawaiian, written and spoken, and a working knowledge of Hawaiian crafts, cultural behaviors, and skills. Nope, sorry, voted off the racial island.

Granted, these are kids-- subtlety and relativism are not thick on the ground-- but they voiced a thought that exists among adults who are more able to disguise the absurdity and bias in their cultural policing.

For example-- there's a huge, loud and emotional battle on social media about the TMT-- the thirty-meter-telescope-- that is being built on top of Mauna Kea on the Big Island. The mountain is sacred, as the seat of Wakea, who with Papa and Hina, fathered the Hawaiian islands and the first taro and the first human. When building on the 13th telescope on top of the mountain started, photogenic and media-savvy Hawaiians on the Big Island protested, and dozens were arrested. Since then, Hawaiians and anti-TMT supporters have provided minute-by-minute instagram and facebook documentation of their protests across the islands and the world. The planning for this telescope-- one of a campus of more than a dozen already built-- has been open, public, and legal. In fact, OHA-- the Office of Hawaiian Affairs-- is public in their support of TMT, and Hawaiian cultural representatives were an active part of the planning.

When I mentioned that to my coworker, she said, "WHO were these Hawaiian cultural representatives! I bet they were JAPANESE!" She was disgusted. "Where did they find these people? I bet they don't even have Hawaiian studies degrees!" Because she doesn't agree with the result, she dismissed the voices involved.

This highlights a situation that seems really obvious if you are in or within spitting distance of Hawaiian politics, but may be completely opaque to, say, international telescope builders.

There is no such thing as a single Hawaiian social or political consensus. Someone who may seem like the ideal Hawaiian representative, say like a Hawaiian language professor at the University of Hawaii, may not actually have any social or cultural capital to calm fears or inspire action. Or an award-winning Merrie Monarch kumu hula may have actually alienated too many other performers to be persuasive off stage. And even when individuals are widely respected for their work in one area, like education or music, deeper philosophical and political issues can keep them from being really representative. One friend of mine passionately wants the Hawaiian Kingdom, under the Hawaiian monarchy, to be restored. Another friend riles AGAINST the pageantry and exploitation of monarchy and champions a egalitarian political system based on substistence-farming in family units. While these friends can work together to, say, teach kids mythology for a day-long fieldtrip to a taro patch, they could never come together to support one political goal. What single goal could possibly meet both of their visions?

So there's no wonder that many astronomers are baffled or offended by the anti-TMT social media backlash-- emotions are running very high and the presence of "cultural consultants" at the table is not at all the palliative that the planners had counted on.

There are a multitude of groups and subgroups within the Hawaiian community, and there is no apparatus for these groups to talk to each other. They have long histories, and real philosophical differences, that keep conversations from moving forward in a useful way. My co-worker, the one who thought TMT's cultural consultants must have been Japanese impostors, laughed when I mentioned this diversity of groups, and said, "We need a Hawaiian phone tree-- Hey what's going on at UH! What's going on with the charter schools! What's going on with the state office!"

So that's something to remember-- there is no centralized Hawaiian organization, there are no definite shared beliefs beyond the broadest and least specific. And I have sat in probably one hundred hours of meetings trying to come to a consensus about even the most general-seeming tenets of Hawaiianness in order to fine tune the vision and mission of our Hawaiian Charter School. "The Language is central-- but not more that culture. But without language, culture is meaningless. But culture without land-based practices is fluff. But land-based practices without blood relationships are exploitation. But blood-relationships don't account for culture!" And around and around.

A brusque local Portuguese auntie, way back when I had just moved to the islands and was trying to figure out the social lay of the land, chastised me when I asked her something about Hawaiians in Hawaii--I don't remember exactly the question-- something about music and tourism, probably, being a nosy little folklorist. "I don't know. Only Hawaiians can decide for themselves who they are and what they want. And nobody else can speak for them. So if they don't speak for themselves, we don't know and can't say."

Even someone speaking from authority can only speak for themselves, really, and you have to hear many voices in order to get the beginning of a complete picture.

More on this later...


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