There in the darkness, we had a chance to ponder the big questions.

I don’t think we do that enough.

Not when we have Netflix and bills to pay.

Too often we are too wrapped up in the trivialities of everyday life.

But on this night, we were halfway up a dormant volcano on Hawaii’s big island. The sun had already sank beneath the distant horizon in a glowering orange spectacle, and we were turning our attention toward the heavens.

We were stargazing.

Up here on Mauna Kea, the skies are often so clear and overwhelmingly dark that it opens up a view few of us get to see anymore; not that we are even looking.

The stars stretched from horizon to horizon and we were left to ponder what it all means, with each dot of light representing a single sun, or more overwhelming, another galaxy with hundreds of suns, and the possibility that a “Stars Wars” type world is not so much possible as inevitable.

Through our telescope, we looked at the gaseous clouds of Venus.

The orange streaks across the face of Jupiter.

And the rings of Saturn.

We then turned our attention farther away, to binary stars and the Milky Way itself, where the distance is measured in a hard-to-fathom metric called “light years.”

This was 8,000 feet up on the side of Mauna Kea, and even on this tropical evening in Hawaii, the temperature was dipping into the 50s and we needed our wool hats and scarves.

The conditions are so dark on Mauna Kea that 13 giant telescopes have already been constructed at 14,000 feet.

Another billion-dollar 30-meter telescope was proposed a few years ago to continue the research of far-away galaxies and the search for other forms of life. It seemed like a logical use for such pristine conditions.

But just a few miles away and a little higher on the mountain, a small tent city had been erected around the access road to the observatories.

Inhabited by Hawaiian natives and activists, they had blocked the road and halted the construction of the $1.4 million telescope. For a time, astronomers had been halted from attending the other observatories.

This was sacred ground for many native Hawaiins.

They had said, “Enough!”

It was one of those news stories that had passed me by over the summer. It was just another protest. And on this night, it seemed short-sighted to halt the pursuit of science over a few natives’ spirituality.

But the more I read about the controversy — even Hawaiians are split on the issue — the more I questioned my original support of the scientists.

What many of us don’t realize about our 50th state is that they are not necessarily American by choice.

The tropical islands provided a strategic military presence in the Pacific, and despite initial deals, we gradually just took more and more of what we wanted.

Sure, there were economic benefits, but it wasn’t necessarily by choice.

Consider that one Hawaiian island remains uninhabitable today after being used to test weapons during World War II. It has never fully been cleaned up, despite American promises to do so.

There is a U.S. military base up on Mauna Kea, too, where noisy helicopters were sweeping across its face on the night I was there.

The telescopes on Mauna Kea were constructed repeatedly over the years, despite Hawaiians’ calls that this was a scared, spiritual place that should be left pristine. Their wishes were steamrolled, and the resulting construction often led to environmental damage.

It came to a head this summer.

The government website about the observatories on Mauna Kea says that the access road is closed because of construction to the visitors center.

That is not true.

There is no mention of the tent city, the protests or the sacred beliefs of indigenous peoples about what the mountain means to them.

So here I was a few miles away, considering the possibilities of distant worlds, while just down the road another people were trying to protect their own past world.

I imagined them looking at the same night sky night after night, but perhaps seeing it all in a different light through the mythology of their ancestors.

They had been up there four months now, making a stand that they probably should have made years ago.

Above us, you could hear the roar of a military helicopter. In the distance we heard the clatter of machine-gun fire. Night maneuvers, we surmised.

And then there was us, around the telescope, among the other tourists.

All this within a few miles of the sacred ground.

All with the brilliant night sky high overhead.

I learned later that the 30-meter telescope could be built on Tahiti. The conditions are not as good as Mauna Kea, but the site there is not sacred.

Maybe we’ve all intruded enough on the Hawaiians.

Maybe, we should give them Mauna Kea back.

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Ken Tingley is editor of The Post-Star and may be reached via email at tingley@poststar.com.


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