Viewpoint: Hunters, Gatherers and Shamans; The Conflict Of Mauna Kea

By Alan D. McNarie

The telescopes of Mauna Kea are in the news again. Four state senators have introduced a resolution, SR 80, calling the University of Hawai`i’s current dollar-a-year lease of the mountaintop “a breach of the State’s high fiduciary duties as trustee of the ceded lands trust.”

The resolution urges the Board of Land and Natural Resources not to renew the lease, and requests the university’s Board of Regents  to “submit reports and summaries” of the subleases it grants for various telescope facilities on the mountain.

I’ve been covering the conflict on the mountaintop for about two decades now. In its latest chapter, a consortium of educational institutions wants to build the Thirty Meter Telescope, touted as the world’s largest (or second largest, depending on whether it or a telescope in Chile gets completed first), on Mauna Kea.

They’re opposed by a coalition of kanaka Maoli and conservation groups. A contested case ruling against the telescope opponents is currently under appeal in the Third Circuit Court. Astronomy’s supporters have made various concessions to their critics: The new telescope, for instance, would be sited to minimize its effect on the island’s “view planes” (in other words, those of us who live down below won’t see all 18 stories of it), and would take only a small bite out of the cindery habitat of the endangered wekiu bug, which lives nowhere else. Governance of the mountain has moved from UH-Manoa to UH-Hilo and the Office of Mauna Kea Management.

The astronomy community has even tried to build spiritual bridges with native Hawaiians—the biggest sign of which is the Imiloa, with its mix of space science and Hawaiian cultural exhibits. But telescope opponents still point to a long string of broken promises by the university (see a scathing summary by the Sierra Club’s Deborah Ward at

They’ve argued that the mountain’s management plan doesn’t adequately address the astronomy’s cumulative effects on the mountaintop, and that the $1 lease arrangement robs OHA and the kanaka Maoli of reasonable revenues from ceded lands. Under the management plan, activities such as religious practices are not allowed to conflict with telescope operation. And there’s still perhaps the most irresolvable problem of all: the sacredness of Mauna Kea to the kanaka Maoli.

Underlying all these problems seems to be a general lack of empathy. Whatever lip service the university and the astronomy consortiums pay or hoops they jump through, they just don’t appear to comprehend that, to many in the host culture, they’re like squatters who move into a church, convert it into an industrial park and set their own nominal rent. They don’t seem to “get” that others might really see other values for the mountain as equal to that of astronomy, or that someone else might feel they have a prior right and responsibility to the mountaintop. And, to be fair, sometimes some of their opponents don’t seem to recognize that astronomy offers any value to humankind.

It only occurred to me recently that this conflict may be an extension of one that’s as old as humanity itself. I think seekers after knowledge may still be following thought patterns set up by our most ancient human ancestors. You can divide them into three basic camps: hunters, gatherers and shamans.

Hunters go after big game and specialize in the knowledge required to catch it.

They may be able to read the minutest mark in the grass and the finest eddy of the wind, but only if it’s relevant to the hunt.

Astronomers are clearly hunters, stalking the biggest game of all: the very origins of the universe, the possibility of extraterrestrial life, maybe even new homes for us among the stars. Their tools are among the biggest, baddest, most incredibly precise spears and arrows ever devised, able to target the tiniest wobble of a distant star and find an unseen exoplanet. But they often aren’t equipped to see the significance of tiny bugs at their feet, or of mythical beings such as Poliahu, the Hawaiian snow goddess.

Gatherers see a huge range of possible sustenance, but earn it seed-by-seed and berry by berry; they can value even the smallest particle of knowledge as well as the largest. They can see and appreciate the wekiu bug, for instance.

Most of us probably wouldn’t even notice a wekiu bug; you’d have to get your face right down against the cinders just to spot it. But it’s really a remarkable creature: a descendant of weevils, super-miniaturized and hyper-adapted to survive one of the most hostile bits of terrain on the planet. In a realm with almost no plants, it’s adapted to suck the ichor (what passes for blood in insects) of whatever other bugs get accidentally blown into its realm. Its own ichor contains natural antifreeze, and it functions in a place where oxygen is so sparse that humans, with all their technology, must still retreat to lower altitudes frequently to avoid brain damage.

The bug may very well have lessons to teach us about surviving in other cold, low-oxygen environments, such as, say, Mars.

Is the wekiu bug worth the knowledge of how the universe formed? A hunter and a gatherer might answer that question differently.

But hunters and gatherers both operate in the realm of the senses. The third type of human seeker envisions realms beyond the physically observable.

At age 11, while reading a book on prehistoric humans, I collided with an extraordinary image: a man’s legs and genitalia, a deer’s body, a horse’s tail, kangaroo-like curled forepaws, a stag’s antlers, and a weird, smiling, lopsided face like no human’s or animal’s on earth. It was Henri Breuil’s famous sketch of a cave painting in Trois-Freres, France. Breuil called the painting “The Sorcerer”; he speculated at first that it represented an ancient shaman. But no human being in an animal suit could have had the proportions of that 13,000-year-old figure.

Scholars have since theorized that The Sorcerer was the oldest known painting of a god. Such images can strike something powerful deep within the psyches of even the most skeptical of humans. I still remember the chill that ran up my spine when I first saw The Sorcerer.

The shaman taps that power of the imaginary to explore human truths.  The Kumulipo and Genesis are not scientific, but they can tell us things about ourselves, and how we see ourselves, that the Big Bang can’t. Bruil, interestingly enough, was a scientist, a priest and an artist. That’s a rare combination today. But in ancient culture after ancient culture, the first observatories were also religious centers, and religion and art inspired each other. Breuil probably sensed a kinship with that long-ago cave painter. Archeologists since him have questioned whether that faded cave image actually had antlers. But if Brueil’s interpretation wasn’t scientifically accurate, it’s still shamanically right: it adds to the chicken skin.

The astronomer may think his telescope is most important, the biologist may want to protect the wekiu bug, the kahuna seeks to protect Poliahu’s sacred temple. But I suspect one thing hasn’t changed since the Sorcerer was painted: societies still work best when the hunter, the gatherer and the shaman work together; when the hunters go on their quest fortified by the shamans’ blessing and the gatherers’ gifts, and the gatherers know the hunters and shamans cherish and protect them.

The general public may wonder whether any of this has much value to everyday life. But Poliahu, the Big Bang and the wekiu bug all three are all, in their own ways important to humanity, because knowing and valuing them helps to define what makes us human. There will never be peace on Mauna Kea until everyone acknowledges that.

Alan McNarie is the newly named contributing editor of Big Island Chronicle.  He has been reporting on Big Island issues for two decades. As Senior Contributing Writer, then Senior Contributing Editor at Ka’u Landing and its successor the Hawaii Island Journal, McNarie became known for in-depth investigative stories on such issues as the proposed Ka’u prison, the continuing East Hawai’i garbage crisis, the problems with Puna Geothermal and the influence of outside money on local elections. He’s also done investigative reporting for Honolulu Weekly, Big Island Weekly and the Hawaii Independent, and feature stories for Hana Hou and Ke Ola. He’s published a few dozen poems and one novel, Yeshua, which won the Editor’s Book Award in 1991.


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