Apaches in the West, particularly those of the San Carlos and White Mountain tribes, have considered Mount Graham (known as Dzile Nchaa Si’An or Big Seated Mountain) as one of their sacred mountains since time immemorial.
Once a part of the original San Carlos Apache reservation, the mountain was taken from the tribe by the federal government in 1872, notwithstanding the fact that Apaches considered it a portal to the spirit world with the belief that spirits known as Gaahn, guardian spirits of the Apache, reside there and provide health, direction, and guidance. The mountain is also an ancestral Apache resting place, a ceremonial site, home to native medicinal plants and a species of endangered squirrel.
Despite the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, the University of Arizona and the Vatican selected the mountain top as home to a complex of 18 telescopes under the Vatican belief that the mountain was not sacred because it lacked religious shrines. The then-director of the Vatican Observatory said he was unable to find any “authentic Apache” who thought the mountain was sacred and he would not accept Apache oral history on the matter.
The Vatican rejection came in the face of a San Carlos Apache tribal resolution stating that Mount Graham was sacred to them and the tribe supported efforts of the Apache Survival Coalition to protect the religious and cultural beliefs and save the mountain from desecration by the telescopes.
The tribal council reaffirmed resolutions opposing the telescope construction saying it constituted a profound disrespect for a cherished feature of their original homeland and a violation of traditional religious beliefs.
Support came from the National Council of Churches who called for removal of the scopes and the President’s Advisory Council on Historic Preservation declaring the observatory project to be a violation of the National Historic Preservation Act because of harm to Apache cultural and spiritual life. Even President Bill Clinton showed his displeasure by vetoing federal funding for operation of the telescope project.
Telescopes in the old growth forests of the Sky Island ecosystem sit on land leased from the U.S. Forest Service and those leases must be renewed regularly. The observatory appears to be operating without a valid special use permit as its 20-year federal authorization expired in April 2009. Roger Featherstone, president of the Mount Graham Coalition, says, “The University of Arizona has asked the Coronado National Forest for a new permit, but as of mid-June 2012, a decision on granting the permit had not yet been made with attorneys from the university and the Forest Service in discussion about the final form of the permit renewal process. I suspect the Forest Service, probably for budgetary reasons, sees no reason to jump into the fray, but can take its sweet old time concerning permit renewal.”
The web page NativeAmericanNetroots.net reports on the unresolved conflict over the sacred site with this dichotomy: “On one hand, it can be viewed as a conflict between two cultures. On the other, it can also be seen as a conflict between science and religion.”
The Mount Graham Coalition believes a number of reasons exist to deny a new permit. “Conditions on the mountain have changed substantially since the permit was first granted and the observatory is even less compatible with the ecological and religious importance of Mount Graham,” says Feathersone in a news release. “The Forest Service has acknowledged that the mountain is a Traditional Cultural Property to Western Apache people and has taken steps to consult with traditional Apache about the sacred nature of the mountain and how to protect it. The Forest Service is urged to deny a new permit and require that existing telescopes be removed.”
In recognition of National Sacred Places Prayer Days, the coalition leader acknowledges: “It’s a wait and pray status at the moment, thinking good thoughts and hoping for the best. Prayers are needed now more than ever before and we can use all the support we can muster. The sacredness of Mount Graham continues to be challenged and while the mountain can protect itself, prayers from its supporters can help in that effort.”