A Hua He Inoa

Blending Traditional Hawaiʻian Indigenous Practices Into Astronomical Discoveries

Before the advent of modern day maps, magnetic compasses and satellites, the ancient Hawaiʻians and Polynesians had a deep connection to the cosmic origins of their universe, as they utilized celestial objects to help navigate their voyaging canoes across great distances of the Pacific Ocean. With their careful study of the stars, moon and Sun, these skilled and knowledgeable explorers became some of history’s early astronomers.

Today, those traditions are being advanced through a unique and collaborative educational program led by the ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center of Hawai‘i at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo (UH Hilo).  Known as A Hua He Inoa, or “calling forth a name” in Hawaiʻian, the program aims to shift global paradigms and position Hawai‘i as the first place in the world to weave traditional indigenous practices into the process of officially naming astronomical discoveries. The program has drawn keen interests from astronomers worldwide.

‘Imiloa Astronomy Center of Hawai‘i Executive Director Ka‘iu Kimura at the American Astronomical Society conference, January 2019

“This notion of astronomers working with the local, indigenous community to name discoveries may seem novel to most,” said Ka‘iu Kimura, executive director at ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center of Hawai‘i. “But if the research is in and from this place, then that relationship to place and first peoples should be acknowledged and honored. A Hua He Inoa is a critical step towards integrating indigenous perspectives and place-based scientific research.”

The program’s genesis is credited to Hawai‘i Island businessman John De Fries, who in a 2017 memo asked the Kahu Kū Mauna or “Guardians of the Mountain” advisory council for the Maunakea Management Board that Hawaiʻian language names be used when naming local discoveries to the International Astronomical Union (IAU), the governing body that officially approves celestial names.  As chance would have it, the first known interstellar object was discovered by UH’s Pan-STARRS observatory on Haleakala, Maui, on October 19th of that year, altering the trajectory of the pilot program started that same month.

“It was an entirely new class of object that would require an entirely new type of name from the IAU,” said Doug Simons, director of Canada-France-Hawai‘i Telescope on Maunakea and a member of A Hua He Inoa.  “It was a chance that we didn’t know we had been waiting for.”

Artist’s impression of the first detected interstellar asteroid `Oumuamua discovered on October 19, 2017 by the Pan-STARRS 1 Observatory. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmessier

Renowned cultural practitioner Larry Kimura, who is also an associate professor at the Ka Haka ‘Ula o Ke‘elikōlani College of Hawaiʻian Language Graduate Programs at UH Hilo, suggested the name ‘Oumuamua or “a messenger from afar arriving first.” It was adopted fairly quickly by the astronomical community, media and public—and marked a radical departure from the standard practice of using alphanumeric labels to name objects. It also helped to propel the use of Hawaiʻian language in mainstream media coverage. Most recently, Kimura was once again called upon to name the first image ever captured of a supermassive black hole in the galaxy M87 some 54 million light-years from Earth. He named it Pōwehi or “embellished dark source of unending creation.” The Maunakea-based James Clerk Maxwell Telescope and the Submillimeter Array, part of eight telescopes around the world linked virtually to create a powerful, Earth-sized telescope known as the Event Horizon Telescope, played a key role in the discovery announced in early April.

The A Hua He Inoa program began with a gathering of Hawaiʻian language experts, educational leaders, top astronomers from the state’s observatories and Hawaiʻian language students from Maui and Hawai‘i Island. The group learned about the discovery of two unusual asteroids, visited the summit of Maunakea and deepened their understanding of the vital relationship and role of tradition and culture in modern science. The program hopes to be able to create Hawaiʻian names for celestial objects on demand.

A Hua He Inoa students display the names they created for one of two major astronomical discoveries.

The collaboration culminated in the selection of Hawaiʻian names for two major astronomical discoveries discovered earlier by Pan-STARRS. Kamo‘oalewa and Ka‘epaoka‘āwela will serve as the official names for 2016 HO3, an asteroid that orbits the Sun like the Earth but in a slightly different orbit, and 2015 BZ509, an asteroid near the orbit of Jupiter that moves in an opposite (retrograde) direction to Jupiter’s orbit. Kamo‘oalewa alludes to “a celestial object that is oscillating.” Ka‘epaoka‘āwela means the “mischievous opposite-moving companion of Jupiter.” Both names have been approved by the IAU.

As the opening keynote at the 223rd meeting of the American Astronomical Society (AAS) conference in January 2019, Kimura shared her background on the origins of the A Hua He Inoa program and the story behind the naming of ‘Oumuamua. In an unusual departure from normal conference protocol, Kimura received a loud ovation during the middle of her presentation by the over 2,000 attendees. “I think it showed on an organic level how culture and science can be mutually supportive of each other,” added Simons, who also attended the AAS conference.