25. University of Arizona Desecrates Sacred Native American Site

by Project Censored
Published: Last Updated on

Sources: Action for Cultural Survival, Cultural Survival, Inc., 215 First Street Cambridge, MA 02142, Date: July/August 1992,  Title: “Apaches Protest Observatory,” Author: Jennifer Rathaus; Huracan, PO Box 7591, Minneapolis, MN 55407, Date: Summer 1992, Title: “Vatican Denies Sacred Ancestry of Mt. Graham,” Author: Sal Salemo; Northern Sun News, PO Box 581487, Minneapolis, MN 55458-1487, Date: Fall 1992, Title: “Native American Sacred Lands in Crisis,” Author: Sal Salemo; National Catholic Reporter, 115 E. Armour Boulevard, Kansas City, MO 64111, Date: June 16, 1989, Title: “Astronomy Versus Red Squirrel on Arizona Sierra,” Author: Tim McCarthy

SSU Censored Researcher: Judy Bailey

SYNOPSIS: While few Americans know about this issue, protesters in Brussels, Belgium, drove a bulldozer to the basilica of Scherpenheuvel to dramatize the fierce battle between Native American Apaches and the University of Arizona (UofA).

The University of Arizona is the lead agency in an international project to build a $200 million observatory on Mount Gra­ham, Arizona, a site considered by the Apaches to be sacred. Partners in the massive UofA project, which reportedly has connections with the Defense Department’s Star Wars effort, include the Max Planck Institute in Germany, the Vatican and Italy’s Arcetri Astrophysical Observatory.

Seven other original partners, such as Harvard University and the Smithsonian Institution, have withdrawn their financial support.

Fighting the project is a coalition of groups including the San Carlos Tribal Council, Friends of Mount Graham, the Apache Survival Coalition, Native Ameri­cans and their supporters.

Mount Graham is host to varied plants, insects and animals found only in this 615­acre national forest. The Apaches have used the site for hundreds of years for worship and burials and as a source for herbal medicines. In 1988, Congress ap­proved a rider to the Arizona-Idaho Con­servation Act exempting UofA from the National Environmental Act without pub­lic hearings or debate. An appeal to Con­gress resulted in exemption for the project from the Endangered Species Act and the National Forest Act.

Ignoring the history of the site and its extensive documentation, Father Coyne, S.J., director of the Vatican Observatory, cites the lack of title, written records and burial grounds as evidence the site is not sacred, and said that he “cannot find any authentic Apaches that consider the moun­tain holy.” He adds, “This land is a gift from God to be used with reason and to be respected. We believe our responsible and legitimate use enhances its spiritual char­acter.” He denied the project’s involve­ment with SDI research and funding.

One UofA anthropologist, Elizabeth Brandt, says “sacred sites are hard to record, but I have worked in this area for 20 years and I’ve never seen so much evidence detailing a sacred site.” Despite the massive effort against the project, investigative reporter Sal Salerno warns, “The powerful collusion of science, the military, the church and industry con­tinues to trample on the rights of Native American people.” Ironically, the center­piece telescope for the observatory is named the “Columbus Project.”

Though this story was first nominated in 1992, an earlier article on the issue (see the following “Comments” section) ap­peared in the June 16, 1989, issue of the National CatholicReporter, written by Tim McCarthy, NCR foreign news editor.

Despite the numerous intriguing na­tional and international aspects to this story and the fact that it is a cause celebre in Europe, America’s mainstream media have yet to put it on the national agenda. The media’s spotlight on Mount Graham might help illuminate the conflict between an American university and Native Ameri­cans.

 COMMENTS: The failure of America’s news media to cover this story defies logic. It has nearly all the ingredients the press could want in a “big story”-international intrigue, a major U.S. university versus environmentalists, Native American reli­gious rights versus the Pope, an interesting mountain-top setting and even the De­fense Department’s exotic Star Wars Pro­gram! Although these ingredients have attracted major international media atten­tion, they have failed to interest much of the U.S. mainstream media.

Jennifer Rathaus and Sal Salerno, two of the investigative authors who have ex­plored the issue, comment on this enigma and other issues involved in the Mount Graham Observatory story: “National news coverage of the Mount Graham Observa­tory has been insufficient in that it has consistently neglected the group most di­rectly affected by the project, the San Carlos Apaches,” says Jennifer Rathaus. “The New York Times and Wall Street Journal ran a few stories about opposition to the observatory because of the threat it posed to the endangered red squirrel and other potential environmental hazards.

“Only local Arizona and Native American newspapers have focused on the threat that the observatory poses to the San Carlos Apaches’ sacred site and the implications it would have for them.

“In order to obtain permission to build the observatory, the University of Arizona, the Vatican and a few local politicians were able to circumvent, without public approval or knowledge, such laws as the Endangered Species Act, the National His­toric Preservation Act and the American Indian Religious Freedom Act. Federal Agencies were pressured to accept hasty and flawed biological studies, and legisla­tion was passed to exempt the project from environmental laws.

“The way in which the project has proceeded without appropriate legal regu­lation and with little public exposure sets a damaging precedent for future misuse of federal lands. Construction of the Mount Graham Observatory is a violation of Na­tive American religious and cultural prac­tices, and it also has serious ecological ramifications. Wider exposure of this sub­ject can help give the general public an understanding, and perhaps an empathy for Native peoples whose religious free­dom is being obstructed. If the San Carlos Apaches’ constitutional rights are being violated, all Americans are threatened.