The Fight for Dzil Nchaa Si An, Mt. Graham: Apaches and Astrophysical. Development in Arizona
In the Sonoran desert of Arizona, Dzil Nchaa Si An (also know as Mt. Graham) rises, and island in the sky. It is contested land, traditionally Apache territory, a fundamental sacred site. The Apache wish to protect it from astronomical development. An international consortium of astronomers composed of the Vatican, the Arcetri of Italy and the Max Planck Institute of Germany led by the University of Arizona has proposed multiple telescopes in the old-growth forest summit of Mr. Graham. Never before has a small tribe faced such international adversaries determined to inflict fundamental damage upon an indigenous religious in the name of the science. The conflict over Dzil Nchaa Si An, "Big Seated Mountain," pits Apache religious freedom against "bit science." It is a case of David and Goliath. The astronomers have the resources of the scientific establishments of four nation-states on their side, and the best lobbyist and layers that money can buy. They have the support of many politicians in each country, and receive millions of dollars in research grants. The Apache opposition survives by donation and a spiritual conviction of the rightness of their cause. Environmentalists have also opposed the project because of their concerns with the damage it will cause to the unique ecosystems and endangered species on the mountain.
Mt. Graham, with its multiple peaks, is a part of Pinaleño range. It has the greatest vertical rise of any mountain in Arizona, a significant factor in its incredible biodiversity. Mt. Graham is the fourth highest mountain in Arizona after the San Francisco Peaks, Mt. Baldy, and Escudillo Peak, in that order. The top life zone is boreal with an old-growth spruce-fir forest, while the base supports typical desert flora and fauna. Moving up the mountain, five distinct ecological life zones have been identified, more than any other mountain in the United States. because of its diverse characteristics, more than eighteen unique plant and animal species and subspecies thrive there. It is home to one of the most endangered mammal species in the United States, the Mt. Graham red squirrel. It is only mountain of its size in southern Arizona and has an enormous imprint on the landscape, a factor which probably gave rise to its Apache names. A home to the clouds-with springs and wetlands at its peaks, flowing streams, and hot springs welling at its base-it is always associated with water and life in the extremely arid desert. Cultural Survival and Religious Freedom
After more than decade of controversy and opposition by Apaches and environmentalists, two telescopes (the Vatican and the German) have been built upon Mt. Graham, and the only American partner in the first telescopes is the University of Arizona. All other American institutions have withdrawn from the project for scientific, financial or political reasons. The battle for the mountain has been a bitter one, and a yet, it is not clear what the outcome will be. For the Apache who oppose the project, it is seen as a fight for cultural survival, for the fundamental right to practice traditional religion. A right supposedly guaranteed by the United States Constitution, it is a right which many Native American have been denied. The free practice of many Indian religions requires privacy and undisturbed access to culturally and religiously significant sites and their resources. It is irrevocably tied to specific places in the world which derive their power and sacred character from their natural undisturbed state.
Indian nations have fought frequently without success to preserve these holy places from logging and development which desecrate and injure those sites which must be protected. The Navajo and Hopi nations, often at odds on other issues, joined forces in an attempt to prevent ski resort development on the San Francisco Peaks near Flagstaff without success. Only the White Mountain Apache Tribe has succeeded in the protection of Dzil Ligayi or "Mt. Baldy." Arizona's second highest peak, it has been off limits for hikers or development because the last mile to the top is owned by the Tribe. Most tribes, however, have lost control of their lands. Their former territory has been declared in the public domain, passing into Federal control often as National Forests or passing into private hands. As development increases its pace, these sites are being destroyed at alarming rates.
Courts in the United States have generally been hostile to American Indian religious freedom, and there are no laws which can be sued to protect it. The American Indian Religious Freedom Act was held to be merely a non-binding policy statement in a 1988 Supreme Court decision (Lyng v. Northwest Indian Cemetery Protective Association, 485 U.S. 439). This was also confirmed in the Havasupai Tribe v. United States (752F. Suppt. 1471 (De. Ariz. 1990), aff'd. 943F.2d32 (9th Cir. 1991) decisions. This has left only handful of environmental laws such as the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the National Forest Management Act, (NFMA), the Endangered Species Act (ESA), and legislation protecting cultural and historic resources such as the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA), which can be sued to protect endangered Native American holy places. At the present time, all of these laws are under attack by Congress, and their specific provisions may be circumvented by special exemptions. Property rights and the desires of federal agencies far outweigh the right of Indian people to traditional forms of religious practice. The Apache
The Western Apache were the most settled and the most agricultural of all Apache peoples. because they did not build permanent living structures, there is difficulty in recognizing Apache sites. Most scholars place the Apache in the Southwest by about 1450, prior to documented Spanish contact in the late 17th century with Apaches in Arizona. Some hold more controversial views which would place both Apaches and Navajos there much earlier. Oral traditions of both tribes indicates their origins as distinct people in this area. Western Apache mythology, cosmology and holy places are all centered in the Southwestern region of the U.S. in the state of Arizona, New Mexico and northern Mexico. The Apaches were a mobile people, planting crops in their home farming sites and journeying on a seasonal round which involved gathering and hunting with periodic returns. They preferred to live on or near the mountains for the water drainage which gave them good farming sites. The location also provided access to the large numbers of plants and animals which are found in the different life zones created by elevation changes.
Historical factors leading to the loss land and autonomy for the Apache set the stage for the conflict that was created in the Apache fight to preserve Mt. Graham. (It has not been under Apache control since the early 1870s.) The Western Apache bands which had been independent and autonomous-with no centralized political structure-were forced off their traditional territories onto reservations beginning in 1870. The bands and local groups inhabiting the Mt. Graham area initially had a reservation which respected their traditional territory, but this was soon abolished. They were forced north onto the San Carlos Apache division of the White Mountain Reservation, a barren, open, arid area chosen for good surveillance of a concentration camp population.
After a series of presidential executive orders, Mt. Graham was declared public domain in 1873. It eventually came under the control of the U.S. Forest Service under whose administration it remains today. Mt. Graham is a major presence in the landscape as seen from the southern and eastern areas of the current reservation. Given the remoteness of the area, however, Apaches have continued to visit and to enjoy the resources of the area when and where possible. The Apache were under military control until the turn of the century. In 1935-36 a Tribal Constitution and a Tribal Chairman and Council (11 members) form of government was enacted. Today, these positions are elected by direct vote of the tribal members. The present descendants of the Apaches who once inhabited the Mt. Graham area live primarily on the San Carlos Apache Reservation. The Apache were heavily "missionized" as part of the policy of cultural assimilation and there are a number of religious faiths on the reservation. As in many communities, there is a diversity of spiritual understanding and practices at San Carlos. Some Apache practice Apache religion exclusively; some are exclusively Christians; and some practice both. Those who practice Apache religion are naturally the most concerned with the preservation of Mt. Graham. The Sacred Character of Dzil Nchaa Si An
For the Southern Athabaskan people of the U.S. Southwest, the Apache and the Navajo, sacred mountains define the boundaries of the know Indian world. While there are aspects of the sacredness of Mt. Graham which cannot be revealed to outsiders, there are many reasons for its significance which the Apache have publicly shared. Certain mountains figure prominently in the stories of the Creation and the songs which tell of the beginnings of the Holy People and of humans. The peaks are particularly important shrine areas that are associated with sacred stones or jewels, colors, directions, and critical events and persons which are significant in the traditional history of each people. The mountains are an outer form, assumed by living sacred beings: the rich vegetation, their hair. They are alive. They create the rain clouds. They bring life a the animals and the plants which people with the proper reverence and ritual may harvest to continue their own lives. They provide healing waters, curing plants, sacred animals, a home to the eagles whose feathers are sacred, and an uplifting and joy to the spirit. They are a pathway for prayer. The Apache pray through them. The sacred headdresses of the Gaan, the Mountain Spirits, are deposited there to return naturally to the earth after ceremonial use. The Gaan come from the mountains to cure and to remove evil. They appear in healing ceremonies and are especially important in young girl's coming-of-age rituals. The mountain is important in the spiritual leaders, healers, and counselors of the Apache. Mt. Graham is mentioned in the 32 sacred songs passed on through oral tradition, as well as many other historical songs and stories. It contains burials of Apache people.
The controversy is a fundamental conflict between those who respect native American understandings of the world and the cosmos and those who denigrate such views. This also reflects the age-old conflict between science and religion. The Apache have fought a long hard battle on two continents, Europe and the United States, just to have their voices heard. The public discourse in the controversy clearly illuminates the chasms separating the defenders of the mountain and the proponents of the telescopes. For the Apache defenders, this mountain is a living being which must be protected at all costs. It is site most important for the practices of Apache religion. It is unique. Without that site, Apache practices is irrevocably impaired and the Apache case to be who they are. The historical relationships to the mountain and historical continuity of that relationship are broken.
For the astronomers, it is a good enough, high enough peak and in "good driving time" from the University of Arizona campus in Tucson to conduct world class astronomy and demonstrate new mirror technology. Religion should not stand in the way of science. This is a new set of tools to peer into the heavens, and the mountain is merely a convenient dead platform. The construction needed, the tree clearing, the road cutting, the concrete pads, the visitor center, the waste and water trucks, the snow plows, the electric lines, the increased traffic-all these thins are just means to an end. For the Apache these alterations are intolerable violations, both symbolic and physical rents in the fabric of the cosmos. The mountain must be respected. The telescopes "must go" or something unimaginable will happen. This information and more was known to Forest Service officials from the earliest planning stages of the telescope project. The Apache were initially reluctant to comment publicly, but in 1989 before any construction had begun, these sentiments were made public. They were communicated repeatedly to the astronomers, to the University of Arizona administration, to the Forest Service and to representatives of the governments and agencies involved (wherever possible), but the Apache were never heard. For this reason, a lawsuit was finally field. It was estimated that the existing telescopes could be removed for a few million dollars. The site could then be returned to a more natural state. However, further construction to project completion would carry a price tag of at least $60 million. Transfer of the existing facilities would be costly, but leveling the existing sites inexpensive.
For the astronomers, science is a kind of religion, and one whose importance outweighs any other claims. The universe is governed by physical laws and there is no room for spirituality. In heated exchanges, during a recent meeting between a delegation of two German astronomers and Apaches opposed to the telescopes, these views were expressed. Astronomer Gunther Hasinger, Director of the Astrophysical Institute of Potsdam, said in this August 18, 1995 meeting with Apaches, "We look differently at the stars. I know this is a different type of religion but this is our religion. Scientists have to go our there and do things that are inconsistent with the Bible. Every improvement we have has to do with science." Brad Allison, an Apache, responded, "This is where we pray. This is where our ancestors are. It's looking into the womb of a woman. We don't do that. Why don't you go somewhere else and do it? This is our home."
The conflict exposes truly fundamental difference in religious understandings and practices. Apaches live in a vibrant living world charged with power. There is no distinction between the natural and supernatural, and culture and religion are intertwined. Father George V. Coyne, the Jesuit Vatican representative and Director of the Observatory see nature as deadand insignificant, and takes a missionary stance toward extermination of indigenous practice: "Nature and the earth are just there, blah! And there will be a time when they are not there." further, "[I]t is precisely the failure to make the distinctions I mention above [nature, earth, cultures, human beings] that has created a kind of environmentalism and a religiosity to which I cannot subscribe and which must be suppressed with all the force that we can muster." Apache Voices and the Nature of Evidence
The nature of "what counts" as evidence and the need to hear native voices is also at issue in this conflict. Apaches rely upon oral tradition passed down over centuries and face-to-face contact. The only formal contact made with the San Carlos Tribe when the project began was a form letter. It was allegedly sent by a research associate to the Tribe in 1985, stating that rock cairns had been found on Mt. Graham and asking about these particular sites. Tribal Councilman Ernest Victor later searched tribal correspondence files, but found no letter. Even a Draft Environmental Impact Statement seems to have gone to the Bureau of Indian Affairs office and not to the Tribe. It contained a letter nothing Apache concerns. No attempts to speak to tribal leaders or to spiritual leaders were made until after public Apache protest against the project began in 1989. Although there was Apache concern prior to this, they were unable to find a lawyer to help them and were told that nothing could be done to stop the project. This, of course, was not true.
In December of 1989 after work had already begun on road and tree cutting, the Coordinator of Indian Programs for the University of Arizona and astronomers from the Steward Observatory finally visited San Carlos. They were told by Tribal Council Members that the mountain was sacred and that the project should not proceed. On February 5, 1990 the Tribal Council authorized Ola Cassadors Davis, an elder who has higher education in the Apache way, the sister of a noted singer and medicine man, to work in opposition to the construction. She organized a non-profit foundation (The apache Survival Coalition) to solicit Funds for the effort to coordinate the Apache protest, working with elders and traditional spiritual leaders or medicine people.
Some of the reasons Mt. Graham is sacred are known only to the San Carlos spiritual leaders. These matters are not spoken of in public so this was very difficult work. Apaches have been reluctant and they are among the least known tribes ethnographically. Still virtually all of the active spiritual leaders at San Carlos signed a petition opposing telescope development. Some did interviews and made declarations in court cases. Their words had no effects.
Keith Basso and I (who had worked previously with the Apache) were asked by Mrs. Davis to use our expertise as anthropologists in documenting the Apache case. We were able to find and document a considerable amount of written evidence from various time periods-from military officers, from early observers of the Apache and from later ethnographers-to make a good case for Mt. Graham. There is historic evidence in Spanish documents that show Apache people living in the Mt. Graham area until they were forcibly removed by the U.S. military in the 19th century. There are ethnographic and historic accounts from that time period, reporting Apaches on Mt. Graham through the late 1930s. Some of these sources speak of burials and shrines on the mountain. Museum records show that Gann wands and headdresses were collected there in the 1930s. The foremost ethnographer of the Western Apache, Grenville Goodwin, collected a number of oral histories from Apache elders in the early 1930s. The elders mentioned that Mt. Graham was sacred, and they recounted military engagements and other activities taking place there. These are given both his published and unpublished work.
Goodwin's papers were not consulted by the University of Arizona until after Keith Basso and I made a University aware of them. However, they were in the same building on their campus as those researchers who were charged with an examination of the cultural resources. The response of the telescope proponents was to hire an expert-who never worked with the Apache and who never spoke to a living Apache-to downplay the evidence. Even physical evidence, such as the presence of the Gaan paraphernalia and of two shrine types fitting characteristics of Apache shrines, has been discounted. Telescope proponents have been biased toward the "built" environment, wanting to see extensive ruins, a temple or a church, or perhaps a burning bush as evidence of "sacredness." To the country, Apaches build impermanent structures for ritual purposes and use holy grounds not demarcated except during activities. They view the natural form themselves a powerful and deserving of proper respect. It is worth recalling, also, that Apaches have had to spend much of the last three centuries hiding from people who wanted to kill them.
The San Carlos Apache Tribal Council passed resolutions opposing the project in 1990, 1991, 1993 and 1995, and wrote numerous letters to the University, to the Forest Service, to the astronomers in each country and to the governments involved. Delegations visited each of the countries involved on several occasions. On one occasion the meeting of an official Apache delegation, which had traveled to Italy after official Apace delegation, which had traveled to Italy after being granted an audience with the Pope, was canceled on only a twenty-four hour notice.
Apaches have had tremendous difficulties with project proponents in having their voices heard and in being consulted. This led the Apaches Survival Coalition to file a federal lawsuit against the project in 1991. Because the court was unable to differentiate between the Tribe an traditional people, and because of laches (the case was filed too late), the suit was unsuccessful. This was in spite of the fact that former Coronado Forest Supervisor, Robert Tippeconic, the highest ranking Native American in the Forest Service who had been raised on the White Mountain Apache Reservation, admitted that the "knew the mountain was sacred the whole time." His office had never solicited Apache views in contrast to the legal representations of the Forest Service and the University of Arizona/Arizona Board of Regents.
The telescopes have been opposed by resolutions coming from all the major Indian organizations in the Unites States and by many indigenous rights groups in Europe. After a lengthy examination of all the issues, and site visits with telescope opponents and proponents, the Racial Justice Committee of the National Council of Churches passed a resolution in Spring 1995 opposing the project. The National Congress of American Indians also passed a resolution opposing the project. In spite of this, opposition to the project is characterized by the telescope proponents as the work of a few individuals.
Ironically, there has been a fundamental lack of scientific consideration in this case. Mt. Graham is plagued with adverse conditions including cloud cover, monsoon storms, lightning strikes and turbulent wine, which create poor visibility and make astronomy difficult. An investigation by the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of the U.S. Congress, revealed that scientific fraud had been committed in the biologists had been coerced to alter their opinions. Methods used for counting squirrels and initial counts either were not made or are questionable. Maps submitted to Congress have been altered to misrepresent the on-the-ground locations of facilities. Initially, in order to speed along the project and prevent the discovery of embarrassing data, without hearings, a rider attached to the Arizona-Idaho Conservation Act in 1988, an innocuous sounding bill. The bill granted permission to build three telescopes in a specific location, exempt from all applicable U.S. environmental and cultural protection laws. Four additional telescopes could be built only if all applicable laws were observed. The Situation in Late 1995
In 1992 and 1993, four years after they had lobbied for a specific location on Mt. Graham, the University of Arizona discovered that they had made an error in sitting the Large Binocular Telescope (named "Columbus"). This error showed the exempt area was unusable. The controversy has intensified because the University of Arizona no longer wants to build on the specific site which qualified under the Congressional exemption, but on a new non-exempt site. Registered letters asking for comment on the new site were sent to the Tribe, to Councilmen, and to the Apache Survival Coalition asking for comment in a scant few days. Unfortunately, almost everyone was attending The national Congress of American Indians in Reno, Nevada. Before any response was possible at 5:00 am on December 7, 1993, the University clear-cut the new site of trees in order to preempt a court challenge prohibiting such action. Concerned Apaches returned home to Tuesday to find not only the waiting letter asking for comment, but also another portion of the mountain destroyed.
A suite was filed by a coalition of 18 environmental groups to compel the University to abide by the law. Although the University attempted to say that "east was west," the judge did not agree and ordered construction halted. On August 23, 1994, a Federal District Court ruled that the University must perform the necessary biological, environmental, archaeological, historic and ethnographic studies at the site they had clear-cut. This open was not acceptable to them, and although it was appealed, the decision was upheld. Further construction has been temporarily halted by the order of a federal judge, pending completion of the studies require under current U.S. law. By September of 1995, the University had found a Congressional sponsor, U.S. Representative Jim Kolbe. He has introduced a new rider once again exempting anew illegal site from the requirements of existing law. (Four more telescopes can be built, but these are subject to normal environmental and cultural laws.)
Currently, all environmental laws and historic preservation laws are under attack in the U.S. Congress, as are budget supporting regulations and studies in these areas. These laws are not suited nor designed to protect Indian religious freedom, but they are currently all that exists. In July 1995 the Tribe notified the Regional Forester that it considered Mt. Graham to be Traditional Cultural Property and Sacred Site. The Tribe requested that it be nominated to the national Register of Historic Places, which is possible under the National Historic Preservation Act. Under existing law, studies must be undertaken to determine the evidence for such a nomination and the Forest Service must pay for it. There are bills before the current Congress to eliminate the National Register and to prevent Traditional Cultural Properties from being added to the Register if they lack significant historic or archaeological remains.
Significant organized opposition exists from the Apache and from a number of religious, environmental, scientific and human rights groups in the United States and Europe. Ad Robert A. Williams, Jr., former Director of the Office of Indian Programs at the University of Arizona States, states: "...[T]he Mt. Graham controversy demonstrates how our environmental law perpetuates the legacy of Eruopean colonialism and racism against American Indian peoples. Historically, Indians have been required to conform to the dominant society's values, without any recognition of the values that might govern Indian social life. There are no alternatives by which the great diversity within Indian communities and across Indian country can be recognized and reflected in our environmental law."
The San Carlos Tribal Council reconfirmed its opposition to the project in 1995 and Apache tribal members went to Europe and to Washington to lobby against the project. In November of 1995, the Cultural Resources Director of the White Mountain Apache Cultural Center wrote to the German astronomers to eliminate any confusion about the Apache position regarding the telescopes. He said, "Mt. Graham is sacred to the Apache people and the observatory project has significantly harmed our already damaged culture in a profound and almost unforgivably way." Significant political opposition continues against the governments funding the telescopes in Europe. It is universal concern that these struggles for fundamental human rights still exist as this millennium comes to a close. This is a case of willful, obstinate, unrelenting cultural destruction and religious desecration which would not be tolerated if it were happening to members of the dominant cultures and religions. The struggle continues with the outcome still uncertain. Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.