Mauna Kea Sacredness: Debunking the assertion of religious sacredness as a cynical ploy by activists seeking race-based political power and money for racially exclusionary government handouts.

by Kenneth R. Conklin, Ph.D.

During Summer and Fall 2021 there were several calls for supporters of the Thirty-Meter Telescope project on Mauna Kea to submit testimony to various institutions in Hawaii and mainland USA. Following is a consolidated version of Ken Conklin’s testimony, also intended for future use. Permission is hereby granted to anyone who wishes to use it in part or in whole, provided that the URL and Conklin’s name must be cited.


Aloha. I am Kenneth R. Conklin, Ph.D., retired professor of Philosophy. I have lived in Hawaii permanently since 1992, speak Hawaiian with moderate fluency, and have developed considerable expertise in Hawaiian history, Hawaiian culture, and especially the Hawaiian sovereignty movement. My testimony about Mauna Kea focuses mostly on debunking the disrespectful assertion of religious sacredness as a cynical ploy by activists seeking race-based political power and money for racially exclusionary government handouts.

1. Activists seeking political power are (ab)using Mauna Kea as a pawn in their political game. They illegally block the access road, literally holding the summit as a hostage. They hope to either secede from the USA and re-establish Hawaii as an independent nation, or else obtain federal recognition for a phony Hawaiian tribe. The state government agency Office of Hawaiian Affairs demands megabucks in “rent” [bribe] for the telescope campus — money to be spent on racially exclusionary projects. Both varieties of activists want to control access to the telescope campus and the summit, and the kinds of activities permitted there, so they can force visitors to comply with cultural/religious protocols and listen to propaganda about Hawaii’s history. If you decision-makers withhold funding or political support for the telescopes, of if you cater to activist demands for control over visitors, including activist requirements for visitor orientation and protocol, you thereby enroll as their accomplices.

2. Extremely few people truly believe Mauna Kea is “sacred” in a religious sense. Everyone appreciates the beauty and majesty of Mauna Kea. The activists regard it as “sacred” in the sense that controlling it is essential to their political and financial success, in the same way as a football quarterback is sacred to the team, or teenagers’ weekly allowances are sacred to them. By using the word “sacred” they expect that the warm-hearted and generous people of Hawaii will step back in awe and give deference to what is falsely portrayed as their religion. The activists have a long history of claiming that every square inch of land in Hawaii is “sacred” because of a beautiful creation legend that they twist to say that anyone with even one drop of Hawaiian native blood is genealogically a child of the gods and a sibling to the land in a way nobody else can ever be who lacks a drop of the magic blood. Every location is “sacred” because chiefs, gods, or plants/animals who are body-forms of the gods lived there or did actions there. In bygone centuries Hawaiian natives buried family members or fallen warriors in shoreline sand dunes, back yards, or under their houses; thus ancient bones are found everywhere. Nowadays if a single bone is found at a construction site the whole project must be halted until a committee decides whether to spend lots of money to ceremonially protect and rebury it in place and leave a vacant perimeter around it, or whether to move it somewhere nearby. Claims of places or bones being sacred are asserted everywhere, thereby giving the activists a race-based permanent property-rights easement on all the lands of Hawaii, along with political power, and basis to demand compensation. Today’s activists have been known to bury some human bones or erect small structures either to claim that they are ancient artifacts or to claim that the Hawaiian religion is alive and therefore the artifacts newly created by its practitioners must be treated as sacred.

3. The ancient Hawaiian religion with centuries of tenure was permanently abolished in 1819, the year before the first Christian missionaries arrived. It was abolished by the four top political and spiritual leaders of the Kingdom in a public display in front of perhaps a thousand important people. They broke an major taboo whose violation normally carried the death penalty, and then gave a short speech proclaiming that the old religion was now overthrown, and ordering the destruction of all the stone temples and burning of the idols throughout all of Hawaii. The four leaders were the young King Liholiho Kamehameha II, his biological mother Keopuolani (sacred wife of Kamehameha The Great) who had the highest mana (spiritual power) in Hawaii, his regent (co-ruler) stepmother Ka’ahumanu (“favorite” wife of Kamehameha The Great among more than 20 official wives and numerous unofficial concubines), and Kahuna Nui (High Priest) Hewahewa. These leaders freely exercised self-determination on behalf of the entire nation. Soon thereafter came a short civil war. High chief Kekuaokalani, to whom Kamehameha The Great had entrusted the war god Ku, and his army, fought to preserve the old religion but were slaughtered in the Battle of Kuamo’o. Some ethnic Hawaiians today seek to revive the old religion as a political power-seeking ploy, thereby disrespecting the freely-chosen self-determination of their ancestors, and also disrespecting the Christianity practiced by most ethnic Hawaiians today. Many ethnic Hawaiians today claim to embrace both Christianity and the ancient religion, and pray or chant to the god(s) of both. There are even a few left-leaning Christian pastors who tell their flocks it’s OK to embrace both; but the Protestant missionaries of the 19th Century and the Catholic hierarchy of today reject such syncretism. One thing that makes Kauikeaouli Kamehameha III famous among historians was his gut-wrenching public vacillation between the two religions: He dearly loved his younger sister Nahi’ena’ena (same pair of parents) and made a baby with her (especially for love and also for politically-expected genealogical enhancement of mana in the royal family) even while periodically repenting and trying to be a good Christian when the missionaries warned him.

4. An essay drafted by 7 Native Hawaiian leaders in July, 2021 is entitled “The Historical Context for Sacredness, Title, and Decision Making in Hawai‘i: Implications for TMT on Maunakea.” It points out that the ancient Hawaiian religion and its gods had no objection to using areas near the summit of Mauna Kea for commercial and industrial purposes which included living and working there, digging into the ground to quarry rocks for sale or barter, and leaving their trash behind. It is not “Wao Akua” (the realm of the gods where ordinary people are not allowed to live or work). “Archaeological evidence demonstrates that, while the kapu system was in effect, Hawaiians utilized Maunakea as a valuable resource for industrial activities for over 500 years until the time of western contact. Hawaiians excavated the upper slopes of Maunakea for stone of exceptional quality to make tools. As described by Hawaiian cultural practitioner and master navigator Kalepa Baybayan during the TMT contested case hearing, “[t]hey … shaped the environment by quarrying rock, left behind evidence of their work, and took materials off the mountain to serve their communities, within the presence and with full consent of their gods.” This adze quarry complex covers an area over 900 times the size of the permitted TMT site, which itself is small compared to the entire astronomy precinct”

5. Hawaii is multiracial, with many different religions. No individual race or religion should be allowed to dictate to everyone else what will be the decisions of the government. The Constitution, First Amendment, says there shall be no “establishment of religion” by the government, meaning that government must not adopt any particular set of religious beliefs as the primary basis for making decisions that affect all people of all different religions. That Amendment allows “free exercise” of religion by any religion, so long as it doesn’t force itself on anyone who is not an adherent of it. It would be both legally and morally wrong for any government agency to award custody of Mauna Kea to any racial group or to adopt decisions or regulations establishing the ancient Hawaiian religion as the primary authority. The Constitution of the State of Hawaii, Article XII, Section 7 declares that the State “reaffirms and shall protect all rights, customarily and traditionally exercised for subsistence, cultural and religious purposes and possessed by ahupua‘a tenants who are descendants of native Hawaiians who inhabited the Hawaiian Islands prior to 1778, subject to the right of the State to regulate such rights.” Subsequent court decisions have ruled that those rights extend to ethnic Hawaiians beyond the borders of any particular ahupua’a, and apply to shoreline access and gathering of certain plants for subsistence and cultural practices. To avoid imposing racial exclusivity, all such rights should be allowed to every resident of Hawaii. We would thereby ensure that all Native Hawaiians would be protected as required by the Constitution, while also manifesting the Aloha Spirit and the value “ho’okipa” as we avoid racial supremacy or exclusivity.

In conclusion: The thirty-meter telescope project will bring jobs and economic development sorely needed in Hawaii. Objections based on culture or religion are unacceptable both legally and morally. Mauna Kea is indeed a sacred place — not only for Native Hawaiians, not only for all the people of Hawaii, but for the entire human race. It will help us explore and understand our origins and the beauty of the cosmos. It will bring us knowledge to guide our descendants as they navigate among the stars, just as ancient Hawaiians used the stars to navigate across the ocean.

See also:

On September 27, 2018 Ken Conklin submitted testimony regarding proposed rules for Public and Commercial Activities on Mauna Kea Lands. A short summary of the testimony lists 4 fundamental principles of unity and equality, two conclusions, and topics of specific rules that are analyzed. The summary is at
The complete 18 page testimony is at

Compilation of newspaper articles from 1999 to 2003 describing the importance of astronomical discoveries on Mauna Kea, opposition to Mauna Kea astronomy from Hawaiian sovereignty activists, and OHA’s attempts to extort money and political power

Ken Conklin testimony March 11, 2002 to Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources: How the telescope campus on Mauna Kea serves the spiritual essence of this sacred place in accord with Hawaiian creation legend.

Ken Conklin testimony January 12, 2004 NASA EIS scoping hearing: How the telescope campus on Mauna Kea serves the spiritual essence of this sacred place in accord with Hawaiian creation legend; why testimony from Hawaiian sovereignty activists should be discounted in view of their motives.

On May 21, 2015 Honolulu Star-Advertiser published a major commentary I authored: “Protesters use claims of sacredness for political agendas” Full text of the commentary, plus greatly expanded analysis, is available on my webpage “Mauna Kea 2015: Sacred Place; Political Pawn; Profane Demagoguery; Recreational Activism” at
See item 8 in that webpage for the newspaper commentary.

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