Native Hawaiian protesters get a pass in NPR story about Mauna Kea fracas

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Every so often, there are articles that cause a sense of journalism whiplash and this is certainly one of those.

Here is an NPR story on a group of Hawaiians who are camped out atop Mauna Kea, the dominant volcano on the island of Hawaii. Claiming an allegiance to the pagan gods and goddesses said to inhabit the area, the leaders of this group do not understand why there has to be a 14th astronomical observatory on this peak.

Although there’s been local media reports about this controversy -- which has erupted six years after construction was approved by the Office for Hawaiian Affairs -- National Public Radio appears to have been the only national medium that has reported on the fracas.

The bottom line: Notice the lack of snark here and the respect paid to the beliefs of the devotees.

In Hawaii, a battle is going on over the future of a mountaintop. Native Hawaiians say it's sacred ground, while astronomers say it's the best place in the world to build a massive, 18-story telescope.
This is not simply a story of religion versus science. Activists consider the construction of a giant telescope on the island of Hawaii to be a desecration of their sacred land.
On an overcast morning, barefoot men and women dance hula 9,200 feet above sea level, to a song honoring Mauna Kea, the mountain under their feet. Their hips sway to the beat of a drum as they call out in chant to Poliahu, one of the many Hawaiian gods said to reside in the mountain. Hundreds of protesters who have camped out on Mauna Kea for weeks watch the hula in silence. A gust of wind ruffles an upside-down Hawaiian flag, a sign used to show the state is in distress.
"We've been advocating for no more development on Mauna Kea for years. And our words have fallen on deaf ears," says Vicky Holt Takamine, a kumu hula, or hula teacher, who led the dancers.
The $1.4 billion project would be the 14th and largest observatory on Mauna Kea. Scientists say the telescope would allow astronomers to see 13 billion light-years away, going all the way back to the origins of the universe. It could lead to greater knowledge of star formation, dark energy and other fundamental questions of existence.

I didn’t see much explaining the religion behind these beliefs and why protesters feel another telescope desecrates the area.

So, what do we need here? I’d be interested too in where all natives on the Hawaiian islands feel this way or is it only a select group? And why does NPR say it’s not a story of religion versus science? It is exactly that. I’m often amused to see this non-critical hands-off attitude when it comes to coverage of pagans, Wiccans, native religions and so on even when they go up against science.

Thus, I searched out what the local media were saying. This Hawaii News Now story calls the demonstrators “protectors” of the mountain. It’s a little unclear in either story as to why a telescope on the peak would be sacrilegious. This story explains how objectors to the telescope -- which was approved for construction back in 2009 -- plan to go to court.  And this story points out this is not the first time protestors have been unhappy about massive telescopes on the peak and that the new telescope is not even on one of the established sacred areas.

So let's think about a journalism mirror-image situation, for a moment. What if the protesters were, say, a conservative Protestant or Catholic group? Would they receive the same NPR deference?

Conservatives’ views on, say, same-sex marriage or abortion are often portrayed as antiquated at best and hateful at worse. Not so here. One of the protesters says that by building the telescope, construction crews will “desecrate and destroy” the land. How so? This is not a casino or a bunch of condos being built up there. It’s going to be the largest of all telescopes built there because the island’s isolation out in the Pacific Ocean and the lack of light pollution.

I’m wondering where these worshipers were when the other telescopes were being built on the slopes of the mountain starting in 1968. At least NPR quotes one of the scientists saying that. And does the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978, which gave Indians access to their sacred places, weigh in here? It’d be nice to know.

I know that Native groups are fascinating to the average journalist but that doesn't remove the reporter's responsibility to ask some of the tough questions, the questions that journalists would ask to other religious groups in this kind of public-square conflict.

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