John Ryan Fischer: Land on Hawai’i’s Mauna Kea

fischer_cattleWe welcome a guest post today from John Ryan Fischer, author of Cattle Colonialism: An Environmental History of the Conquest of California and Hawai’i. Environmental historians have too often overlooked California and Hawai’i, despite the roles the regions played in the colonial ranching frontiers of the Pacific World. In Cattle Colonialism, Fischer significantly enlarges the scope of the American West by examining the trans-Pacific transformations these animals wrought on local landscapes and native economies.

In today’s post, Fischer explains how recent disputes over the use of Hawai’i’s Mauna Kea landscape are part of a long history of colonial conflict on the islands.


Since October of last year, dozens of protestors have been arrested near the peak of Mauna Kea, the large mountain formed by volcanic activity on the Big Island of Hawaiʻi. The peak is one of the most sacred sites to traditional native Hawaiian beliefs, and the protestors have demonstrated against the construction of a large astronomical observatory there.

The elevation and relative isolation of the Big Island’s highest peaks make them valuable sites for atmospheric and astronomical observation, and several observatories already stand on the peak. The land is controlled by the state government, which has allowed these projects since the mid-twentieth century, but not without opposition. The current project, also the largest, is the Thirty-Meter Telescope. Environmental groups argue that the telescope is a threat to an endangered species on Mauna Kea, the palila bird, and Native Hawaiians and allies have protested this latest incursion on their sacred land.

Mauna Kea is an important site in the history of Hawaiian colonization. Not only is it an imposing landscape—more than 4,200 meters above sea level and sometimes capped by snow even in its tropical location, it is taller than Everest when measured from its base on the sea floor—but it has also been a central site of habitation and colonialism. Much of my book Cattle Colonialism on the role of introduced cattle in Hawaiian history takes place on the dormant volcano’s slopes. These gentle slopes provided some of the largest rangelands for introduced cattle to graze after the British explorer George Vancouver introduced them to the island in 1793.

European explorers and missionaries often noted the animals’ effects on the crops of native commoners, some of whom were forced to abandon traditional ways of life to work in the burgeoning beef provisions, hides, and tallow industry. The Great Māhele land reform in 1850 allowed Americans and Europeans to buy up native Hawaiian lands, and before the era of sugar plantations, many of these accumulated lands became cattle ranches. It was in this same land reform that native Hawaiians lost control of most of their land, including much of the sacred territory of Mauna Kea. Even today, the slopes of Mauna Kea look more like western ranching lands than the beaches that Hawaiʻi usually evokes.

Astronomical research has value, and the Big Island’s peaks have played a notable role in the history of science. The neighboring Mauna Loa is almost as tall, and it hosted the climatologist Charles Keeling and his early observations of the growing atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide in the 1960s; these data have been central to our understanding of current climate change. The Thirty-Meter Telescope would allow astronomers to observe further into the past of the universe than ever before, and it could also allow us to learn more about other planetary systems.

However, Mauna Kea was not the only possible site, and the Thirty-Meter Telescope will not be the only instrument of its type. An intergovernmental European group is currently constructing the bluntly named European Extremely Large Telescope (larger than the Thirty-Meter Telescope with a mirror of over thirty-nine meters) in Chile’s Atacama Desert. In construction projects like the Thirty-Meter telescope, backers and landholders need to take America’s colonial history into account—the indigenous people are still and ever stakeholders in American landscapes, even when they have lost formal ownership or oversight in those landscapes. There certainly could have been more outreach and communication with indigenous and environmental groups—perhaps even some sort of partnership could have been formed. Or, had the telescope’s backers weighed the opposition and ethics of the site, they may have chosen another.

One hundred and fifty years ago, Europeans and Americans bought up most of the land in Hawaiʻi, leaving native Hawaiians dispossessed in their own country; then the United States annexed that country, furthering the dispossession. A high-powered observatory may seem a more noble use of this land than the vast ranches and plantations that took the land and then employed its former holders (and hosts of immigrants) at low wages. However, without a clear awareness and acknowledgement of the site’s history and how that history makes all native Hawaiians stakeholders in public lands, the project becomes another event in Hawaiian colonialism.

John Ryan Fischer is visiting assistant professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. His book Cattle Colonialism: An Environmental History of the Conquest of California and Hawai’i is now available. Follow him on Twitter @RyanFischer1050.