Colonial pasts and futures atop Hawaii’s sacred peaks, 2017–

Image by The Atlantic, 2015 (

Islands have long held the imaginations of continental populations as small, isolated, paradises. Colonialists and scientists alike have considered islands as blank slates, perfect laboratories (Matsuda 2007). This project investigates these island imaginaries through the colonial history of Hawaii and the contemporary scientific projects taking place on its sacred mountains. Recent controversies surrounding the construction of a new Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) atop Mauna Kea have sparked vigorous protest campaigns and legal battles. Indigenous Hawaiians wish to protect this sacred site from further development, a peak with twelve existing telescope facilities already. Having been denied permission twice since 2015, the world’s largest telescope project made its way up to the Hawaii Supreme Court, which granted the TMT permits just this July, 2017. However, opponents have pledged to appeal the ruling, feeling dismissed in the decision making process and that their indigenous sovereignty is being violated, reminiscent of historic colonial power relations felt by native Hawaiians (Gagné 2012).
Nearby, on sister peak Mauna Loa, the other sky-high mountain of Hawaii, a NASA dome installation provides a training habitat for future astronauts. This undertaking is meant to study human behavior under these extreme conditions of solitude. NASA’s supplies virtual reality (VR) goggles to offer astronauts relief from the monotonous, red, rocky rubble landscape. Trainees are secluded, only six people in the habitat dome, for an eight month stretch. This island mountain is a laboratory, simulating the isolated and empty landscape of Mars, in preparation to colonize the planet. The New York Times has been documenting these experiences with their own VR experience, where readers can join the astronaut trainees in the dome and their VR therapy through NYT VR. This virtual reality within a virtual reality is a layered, meta representation, a simulacrum (Deleuze 2004; Massumi 1987), a potential future colony habitation, located in a place of violent historical colonization.
This project will explore these themes – indigenous rights, colonization, island imaginaries, and science, knowledge, technology and power. This research will utilize theoretical approaches offered by island studies, colonial and indigenous studies, and science and technology studies literatures. Data collection will include a series of interviews conducted with indigenous rights activists, Hawaii’s Board of Land and Natural Resources and select scientists involved in these projects. The significance of this project lies in contributing to the growing field of island studies and critical social theory by analyzing the way western science infrastructure is contested by indigenous sovereign movements, as well as how persistent colonial island imaginaries contribute to the extraction of scientific knowledge through controversial power relations.


Chancellor’ s Office Research, Scholarship and Creative Activities Award (RSCA), CSU ($5,000).

Gagné, N. (2012). Appeals to indigeneity insights from Oceania. Social Identities,
18(4): 381-398.
Kothari, U. and Wilkinson, R. (2010). Colonial imaginaries and postcolonial
transformations: exiles, bases, beaches. Third World Quarterly, 31(8):
Massumi B. (1987). Realer than Real: The Simulacrum According to Deleuze and
Guattari, in Copyright, 1, 90 – 97.
Matsuda, M.K. (2007). ‘This territory was not empty’: Pacific possibilities.   Geographical Review, 97(2): 230 – 243.