The Heart of Genuine Sadness - Astronomers, politicians, and federal employees desecrate the holiest mountain of the San Carlos Apache

The Heart of Genuine Sadness - Astronomers, politicians, and federal employees desecrate the holiest mountain of the San Carlos Apache

By Peter Warshall

Reprinted with permission from Whole Earth No. 91, Winter 1997.

In the early 1980s, the University of Arizona sought a special permit to construct seventeen telescopes on the Pinaleño Mountains. The Pinaleños are sometimes known for their highest peak, Mt. Graham; sometimes for the site of the present contested forest, Emerald Peak. The proposal ran head-on into concerns about the ecological value of the high elevations of this "sky island ecosystem," a mountain range isolated from others by desert in a manner similar to oceanic islands isolated by salt water. The project upset the San Carlos Apache medicine practitioners who emerged for the first time since internment to defend the sacred peaks and prevent further desecration. The Vatican and Max Planck (Germany) telescopes have been built. A third telescope site has been cleared and awaits full funding. The "Heart of Genuine Sadness" is a small piece of the much larger story.

In a grove of elder Douglas firs, at about 8,500 feet, the ga’an dancers of the San Carlos Apache performed the songs and purifications that will help protect their people from illness and danger and consecrate the boundaries of Apache homeland. No dancer nor medicine person among them will ascend the next 1,500 feet. The peaks have been desecrated. Starting in 1990 and continuing today, the University of Arizona, the Vatican, and Germany’s Max Planck Institute clearcut and bulldozed Emerald Peak for astronomical observatories. The wounded peaks—for the Apaches consider the mountains alive and filled with powers greater than the human imagination—can no longer serve as the medium to carry the prayers of the ga’an to heaven. The prayers have been drained of power and meaning. Just as light pollutes the sky for astronomers, the violence, barefaced cement, and steel structures in the destroyed forest have polluted the ceremonial sites.

Instead of the ga’an, Gary Holy Bull, a Sioux medicine man, agreed to try to perform a healing ceremony for the Apache on Emerald Peak. About fifteen of us filled out Coronado National Forest Service forms. In assigned vehicles, followed by a County sheriff and rangers, we drove to the well-secured astrophysical area, elevation: 10,228 feet. The excavated pit for the Vatican telescope, the cement walls of the German submillimeter telescope, and various pre-fab steel buildings sunk and sprouted among the ruts and patches of dirty snow. We were gathered in the exact center of the clearcut.

The pony-tailed forest ranger lectured us: "It’s illegal and insensitive to bother or feed federally endangered Mt. Graham red squirrels. It will lower their chances of survival. We know that sounds funny. You are standing in the center of a clearcut of 1,000 old-growth spruce and fir which naturally supply seeds and shelter to the squirrels. But the Forest Service has performed many studies and the lost trees will have no significant impact."

We ushered ourselves beyond the orange plastic tape and into the snow. I was lost. The bear trail that I had followed to inventory squirrels as a University biologist had been bulldozed. The topography felt foreign. I flashed: so many Indians had felt this bodily dislocation. Elders glided in slow motion in the thin air over fragile snow crust. Coldness crept between my Patagonia and my skin. Chills of history, not weather. We stopped near a familiar granitic outcrop. Gary Holy Bull arranged the group with an opening to the west. Singing, he built the tiny ceremonial Sioux teepee of twigs, lighting the kindling. The smoke rose, hypnotic time-curls. Jerry Flute carried the pipe, offered the sage, the smoke of sweetness. Each of us inhaled and spread smoke with our hands over our chest and around the head. The anger and pain, the hardened mindset honed to resist power players, the endless tiresome energy spent reining in greed, the insanity and confusion of the world began to ebb away. A simple vivid heart of sadness emerged, a heart that these warriors-for-holy-places, each in their own way, had strong-boxed for survival.

The sadness emerged first in Henrietta Mann, a brilliant Cheyenne professor and activist. Shaky, she sat on the snow on my jacket, softly keening. The first tear dropped from a Navajo mother’s chin to her moccasin and stained the hide; the next slid off and caused a tiny puff of steam as it met the snow. I can only guess at each person’s thoughts/ visions—dead grandmothers, starvation winters, relatives fucked up by alcohol, brothers in the Armed Services. Here in this now-consecrated place, these spiritual warriors could find sanctuary, relax their guard, and let be the world as it is. Sobs, losses from cruelties. From a palpable recognition of human frailties—of greed, ego, ignorance—in a place both conducive and blessed, a sense of the sacred emerged.

Stable and still, amid soft song and judicious smoke, the mountain’s presence intensified, brightened detail. Nothing out of the ordinary—a glitter on an iced branch, the smoke’s grayness entangling the pink of snow algae—teased the mind’s eye. Each detail reversed the chaos, persuading by its doubtless beauty, a gift believable, created by and magnanimously given, here on Emerald Peak, on the planet. The mountain had evoked memories and histories, now it evoked its own stories. As the Apaches say: the mountain stalked us with stories. Without Will imposing percepts or concepts, the mountain re-placed our attentions, our spirit. The hearts of sadness moved themselves to a trusting holy ground of beauty.

As we left, Ola-Cassadore Davis—the sister of a great medicine man and great-grand-daughter of Chief Cassadore, an Apache leader who had tried to forge peace—turned to John Ratje, the field-coordinator for the Mt. Graham astrophysical project. Her voice was high: "Why this mountain? Why have you done this?" The question, in all its dimensions, boggles the mind.
The Long View

Galileo, of course, found evidence that separated the Catholic establishment’s image of the moral cosmos from its image of the physical solar system. 350 years later the Pope apologized for Galileo’s house arrest. Simultaneously, the Vatican financed the construction of its 1.8m optical/infrared telescope on Emerald Peak—subverting, by a violent act against a mountain and its forest, the moral/ physical cosmos of the Apache. The Vatican Observatory originated in the late 1800s, in part to avoid the embarrassment caused by Galileo-like findings. It needed Emerald peak because the Vatican’s own observatory in Rome had become unusable from smog and light pollution. Rather than purify Rome’s environment, the Vatican joined with the University of Arizona to build on someone else’s cleaner home.

In the early 1600s, when Galileo built his first telescopes, he sold them to the City-State of Venice for military purposes. Venice desired telescopes for their strategic defense initiative—spying enemy warships an hour to two earlier. The heart of the Vatican telescope built for Emerald Peak is a US Air Force mirror. When the Strategic Defense Initiative ("Star Wars") was popular, the mirror was one tool in a grand scheme to help focus laser beam cannons. If needed, the Vatican scope could still detect and track enemy satellites. The stated present purpose for the "Pope’s scope" is to help find extraterrestrials. As the Vatican’s leading astronomer and representative in Arizona, Father George Coyne, says: "The Church would be obliged to address the question of whether extraterrestrials might be brought within the fold and baptized. . . . One would need to put some questions to him [sic, the alien, of whatever sex or form], such as: ‘Have you ever experienced something similar to Adam and Eve, in other words, original sin? Do you people also know a Jesus who has redeemed you?’"

This telescope is neither at the cutting edge of astronomy nor does it require the image clarity attributes found exclusively on Emerald Peak. According to Vatican astronomers, the telescope will perform well on many other peaks, but the University offered the best deal. The mirror is underpowered to survey for extraterrestrial life. Its efficacy rests on the weird idea that there are multiple civilizations with giant power stations or million-mile-wide bubbles that trap energy for massive industrial use, somewhere out there. The heat images from these mega-power bubbles, according to infrared mirror astro-boosters, can be most efficiently spotted by the infrared telescope. The scope does not work in radio or submillimeter wavelengths that might receive broadcasts from ETs.

The Apaches wonder just how far the Vatican will go to save allegedly impure, extraterrestrial souls. As at the time of first contact, are Apaches still to be treated as extraterrestrials?
The Authority of Knowledge

In 1987 in Phoenix, Pope John Paul II received an eagle feather for the Vatican collection. "I encourage you," he said, "as native people belonging to different tribes and nations in the East, South, West, and North, to preserve and keep alive your cultures, your languages, the values and customs which have served you well in the past and provide a solid foundation for the future." Five years later, Father Coyne: "Nature and the Earth are just there, blah! And there will be a time when they are not there. . . . It is precisely the failure to make the distinctions I mention above [between Nature, Earth, cultures, human beings] that has created a kind of environmentalism and religiosity to which I cannot subscribe and which must be suppressed with all the force that we can muster." Under heavy pressure, Coyne later backed off—eliminating the statement from his missive.

Keep in mind that the whole astro-project never would have occurred if it had been a proposal for a ski resort or hotel. The project has been able to get this far by implying that it operated in a manner superior to steamrollering corporate powers or federal agencies; by using its "authority" and image as a university to blunt or undercut the public’s concerns; by plugging the overriding importance of their quest (astronomical science, spin-off technology, and the mysteries of the universe); by dredging up allegedly countervailing "facts" and rebuttals from pseudo-independent expert biologists or historians as well as unscientific opinion polls; and by dismissing the opposition as if it were all an angry mob. The University of Arizona’s action has been a classic case of how not to deal with a concerned and frustrated public. The University replicated the style of Three Mile Island, Disney’s theme park in Virginia, or Exxon’s Valdez administrators by never admitting they could be wrong, denying there’s a real problem, dismissing all dissenting comment as if it were the most extreme, and confusing themselves into believing that political power is wisdom.

Dr. Keith Basso, the leading anthropologist on the Western Apache and greatly respected by them, asked: "Would the University of Arizona and its affiliated institutions know more about the heavens or would they rather know they have affirmed the religious integrity of a people who have worshipped for centuries at a sacred place beneath them? What will it be? Better science or human justice?"

What the University underestimated was the moral power catalyzed by a synergy of Apache and environmentalist world views. Their common moral ground is simple: desert dwellers fall in love with the wetness of the Pinaleños. They adore this mountain range, which receives more rain, snow, and cloud cover than any other Southwestern series of peaks. They hold dear the nine perennial streams and high elevation springs, unique features among the Southwestern desert ranges. Apaches and most non-astro scientists feel the mountain range nurtures all kinds of special life, power, and wisdom. Its creatures populate Apache moral and historical stories as well as scientific journals. Biologists, in particular, have found that the living species (many endemic or Pleistocene relicts) have inspired them to advocate protection of the upper elevation habitats. In six weeks of field work, biologists "found" eighteen unreported or newly-appreciated rarities. With differing vocabularies, but similar gestalts, both the Apaches and enviros acknowledge their respect for the mountain’s intact foodweb, a web that still includes two most powerful mammals (the largest bear and mountain lion populations south of the Colorado plateau).

On the other hand, the astronomers are irked by the rain and clouds. They yearn for clear skies, low humidity, and a nearby water source to reduce costs. They chose the Pinaleños for its flattish ridge (more observatory sites), not its tectonic history. The observatory site is a convenient platform, close to their offices in Tucson. (Despite its elevation—a feature Apaches, enviros, and astros mutually admire—the shape of the ridge and forest cover create a turbulence that reduces image clarity compared to other nearby mountains.) The presence of Mexican spotted owls, northern goshawks, flightless beetles, Mt. Graham red squirrels, and even the Apache trout have been costly astronomical headaches.

Father George Coyne, better known in Tucson for his frequent ski trips and, when living at the Jesuit communal house, his reluctance to wash dishes, has attempted to portray Apaches who oppose the telescopes as Pagans, duped by Svengali-like, neo-Pagan enviros. The University and the Fathers have been enormously successful in slighting the authority of Apache medicine people, especially the validity of their "claims" to the Pinaleño’s holy grounds. Coyne often exaggerates the brainwashing powers of white enviros, insisting that enviros are manipulating Apache minds and emotions for their own purposes. Anything but admit that traditional Apaches have carefully considered the ethical and religious implications of the telescope project and, with great deliberation and courage, dedicated themselves to their own conclusions. One conclusion is that a coalition with various human rights and conservation groups would be more effective than opposing the telescope project alone.

This attitude that "Apaches-are-passively-manipulated-by-crafty-and-clever-white-guys" has been more egregiously promoted by Father Charles Polzer, the Curator of Ethnology at the Arizona State Museum. In a hopefully rare moment of paranoia and unscholarly outburst, he claimed that opposition to the telescope complex is "part of a Jewish conspiracy." The conspiracy "comes out of the Jewish lawyers of the ACLU to undermine and destroy the Catholic Church."

For the record, many Apaches are actually bi-traditionalists. Raleigh Thompson, a major spokesman against the scopes, follows both Apache and Catholic traditions. Ola-Cassadore Davis, the Apache Survival Coalition leader, is Apache/Mormon. The ACLU has never been part of this history. Specific priests, the Sisters of Maryknoll, and numerous Catholic individuals have spent considerable time trying to convince the Vatican to withdraw from the project. More than fifty astronomers petitioned to stop the project. Dr. Roger Lynd, the director of Kitt Peak, who wrote the peer-reviewed study demonstrating that Mt. Graham ranks only thirty-eighth in astro-quality among Southwestern peaks, has heavily criticized the project. All American universities, except Ohio State and Arizona, dropped out or refused to participate.

Yet, Coyne and Polzer are no fools when it comes to the intrigue of power politics. In order to obtain a Forest Service permit to the mountain peaks, the University of Arizona became the first university to legally question the sacrality of any Native American claim. Both priests submitted affidavits to Federal courts. Their affidavits contributed to the defeat of all Apache attempts to have their land use concerns reviewed by the Forest Service under the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) and the American Indian Religious Freedom Act (AIRFA).
The Ritual of Architecture

What happens when you cannot draw a surveyor’s line around a piece of landscape and clearly delineate the sacred from the profane, or when you claim that a piece of land is sacred but the land contains no shrine nor church nor other built structure to validate that the "property" of the land is yours? The Mt. Graham Coalition (the largest coalition of Native American, enviromentalist, human rights, and religious groups dedicated to one issue) solidified around "sacrality" from two different points of view. The enviros desired as much undisturbed old-growth habitat as possible to insure the survival of the Mt. Graham red squirrel and its spruce/fir ecosystem. The Apaches, whose ceremonies deliberately avoid any violence to the landscape, desired a peaceful space, with no built structures, in which prayers could come into a life of their own. These two lovers of life-filled "unbuilt" nature crashed into a solid wall of denial.

"Representatives of the University," Dr. Basso wrote, "have repeatedly questioned Apache opposition to the telescope project on grounds that only a few acres atop Mt. Graham will be disturbed. Why make such a fuss, when so much of the mountain will remain intact? The best way to answer this question is by analogy. Suppose a swastika was carved so deeply into the wall or door of a local synagogue that it could not be erased. Would the presiding rabbi claim that only the door had been desecrated? No. To desecrate a part is to desecrate the whole."

The concept that a whole mountain ridge might be sacred was too radical. A member of the Clinton administration told me that the inability of the Apache to exactly define where their holy grounds ended (and, thereby, permit the rest of the peaks to sprout observatories) persuaded the administration to favor astro-physical development. "We are not convinced," said Father Coyne, ". . . that Mt. Graham possesses a sacred character which precludes responsible and legitimate use of the land. There is to the best of our knowledge no religious or cultural significance to the specific observatory site."

Apache ceremonies do not leave traces or shrines, except perhaps a small fire area and scattered pollen. Even over centuries, there is no built evidence to prove possession. The Ninth Circuit Court echoed Father Coyne. The Apache had failed to show that the sacred locale first named by the Apache also included a second locale claimed by the astronomers. The second site was not proven to be sacred, in part, because it was 1,300 feet from the first. How could both be sacred? The more extravagant Father Polzer simply presented false information in courts: "Rarely did the Apaches use these heights, and the ‘sacredness’ is about as specific as references to the sky."

The fear that all land might be sacred runs deep in America. In twelve years, the University and the Forest Service have spent millions of dollars lobbying and in court to avoid all review of such a contention under NHPA and AIRFA. The Forest Supervisor refused to even include a discussion of the issue under the "Cultural Impacts" subsection in the Environmental Impact Statement. The University of Arizona published an entire book on Mt. Graham with fewer than five sentences on Apache concerns. For fighting the Apaches, Dr. Peter Strittmater, the director of Arizona’s Steward Observatory, became a member and a hero of People for the West, the largest conservative property rights anti-enviro advocacy group.

Apache and enviro hearts have been further poisoned by the University astronomers’ refusal to consider, inside a legally established context, a comparison of the ecological, cultural, and astronomical values of alternative peaks. Little by little, each year from 1986 on, the angers grew and the windows for peace talks darkened. The natural environment increasingly turned into a hodgepodge of roads and firebreaks. Mythic orientations were challenged and subverted. Events multiplied. Back in the early 1980s, during the testing period for sky clarity, the Forest Service allegedly forgot to search the highest peak for shrines. By the time a stray piece of turquoise was unearthed in a small rivulet, a Mimbres (a disappeared people from about 800 CE) shrine site had been bulldozed for the astro-testing apparatus. Soon after, a renegade astron-omer bounced his all-terrain vehicle up a trail (passed a "No ATV" sign) and illegally cut a spruce adjacent to another shrine in order to better align his instruments with a star. Small events but many, dozens, kept eating at the heart.
Speed, Power and the Sacred

Wolfgang Sachs, a world expert on technology, conservation, and development, has asked: How does speed impact ethics? Sometimes, the interaction of speed, the sacred, and power is obvious. In 1994, for instance, the University and the Forest Service sent a letter to the Apaches while the Tribal Council was away at a conference, telling them that they would cut the forest three days later. The Apaches returned to find the telescope site cut. "Desecrate first, then talk right-or-wrong" tilts the power play, limiting choices, forcing the enviro/ Apache opposition toward more extreme measures like non-violent actions, monkey-wrenching, or property destruction. "Sorry," said the Forest Service, "we did not exactly follow the ninety-day notice period, but it is not legally binding anyway." Forest recovery takes 380 years.

Sometimes, control of timing is more subtle. Essentially in cultural hiding since the internment camps, the traditional Apaches took their time to speak in public about their desire to keep the peaks freer of human artifact and disturbance. Various medicine people had to talk together and convince themselves to reveal basically private religious knowledge. Both the Tribe and traditionals took their time before entering legal frays. Apache time is not time-aggressive. The result: the courts twice cited "laches" arguments by the University. The judges wrote that the Apaches had waited too long. Claims must be made with a speed "reasonable" to American courts, even if foreign to Apache culture.

Perhaps the most spectacular strategy of speed occurred in 1988. The University spent $1 million to attach a rider to the Arizona-Idaho Conservation Act. The rider eliminated the first three telescopes from all laws, environmental or cultural. The lobbying effort caught the environmental and human rights communities by surprise, blitzed through both houses with no committee hearings, passed Congress with no mention of the Apaches, and established the first exemption for a project on federal lands since World War II.
Manufacturing an Authentic Double

The century-long subversion of the Apache sense of what it means to be human in a meaningful world—an attack aimed straight at the value of sacredness—attempted, again and again, to peel ethics and theology off the landscape. Ethics and theology were assumed to be Universal, not an embedded land-based practice. During the 1880s, forced internment with other bands of Apache disrupted links between San Carlos Apache lands and their world view. Internment camp inter-marriages and household relocations began to blur the integrity of each band’s traditional sacred geography. In distant boarding schools, forced to speak English, Apache kids lost contact with elders and missed opportunities to participate in the lengthy apprenticeships required for song sequences and ceremonials. Franklin Stanley, the ga’an leader, says that twenty of twenty-eight San Carlos ceremonies are completely lost. As property fell into Anglo-European and government hands, Apache opportunities to consecrate and re-consecrate specific peaks have been incrementally denied.

But the real crown of successful conquest is the manufacture of denial among the conquered people themselves. The astronomical consortium supported Apaches (e.g., non-traditional, non-religious, from mixed marriage with other bands, opportunistic) who would say publicly that the peaks were not sacred. The University and the local Chamber of Commerce, for instance, supported Buck Kitcheyan, a former tribal chairman who later served time for embezzling funds. As tribal chairman, he wrote a glowing letter on the sacredness of Mt. Graham. During his trial, he reversed himself. Other members of the Kitcheyan family then received funds to visit the Vatican. They were photographed with the Pope as the "real" Apaches who did not mind the leveling of the peaks. Tribal Chairman Harrison Talgo ran for office defending the sacredness of Mt. Graham, then lost his re-election. Disappointed, he accepted a University offer to become a crew foreman at the telescope site. The University had another Apache who proclaimed that "sacredness" was passé, an obsolete fossil of pre-modern Apaches.

In quiet moments, some traditionals will say that these individual astronomers and Apaches cannot, ultimately, desecrate the mountain. They primarily desecrate themselves. Hundreds, if not thousands of years can come and go, but sacred areas stalk humans, and the grandchildren will return to these ruined holy grounds to rejoin and rejuvenate them.
Clinton’s Sacred Cow

In 1996, it appeared that the Apaches and enviros finally had power. The University goofed up its astro-data and tried to switch the location of its biggest and only "cutting edge" telescope. This time the Mt. Graham Coalition prepared for the University’s second attempt to gain Congressional exemption from all federal laws. We met with the Office of Management of Budget (which reconciles House and Senate bills), the Council of Environmental Quality, and Leon Panetta (advisor to Clinton). Mt. Graham was now one of sixteen riders on the Appropriations Bill. After the meeting, aides told us we had been effective. Since we were only asking for proper studies, we were reasonable.

Leon Panetta’s major 1996 job was to get Clinton re-elected. Clinton needed California, Florida, and Arizona, which have substantial numbers of Catholic/Hispanic voters, enough to tilt the election in these states. The Congressman from the University of Arizona’s district, Democrat Ed Pastor, was also an Hispanic Catholic and was Panetta’s top choice to represent the President in Hispanic communities.

Pastor had promised the ambitious University president, Manuel Pacheco, also an Hispanic Catholic, that he would see that the telescope project achieved immunization from all procedural requirements. Panetta dealt his cards. Pastor became head of the Democratic Hispanic caucus and praised the Clinton administration for twenty minutes on the platform at the Democratic Convention. Panetta insured that the Mt. Graham rider was not challenged in committee by keeping the major pro-Apache congressman Sidney Yates (Democrat, Illinois) out of the negotiations. Clinton got his election and every significant rider was removed from Congressional bills except Mt. Graham.  Damage-control time: Panetta, with the tone of an exhausted compromiser, claimed it was Republicans who insisted on keeping the Mt. Graham rider, thus insuring Democrat "purity" among enviros and human rights advocates.

In the modern American context, power operates within two systems: the game of political electioneering and the game of specific issues. They have been largely isolated from each other. The Apaches and sacredness became a minor card in the bigger game of winning public office. The Apache see these priorities as a plunge into chaos. Dr. Basso again: "As the mountain is wounded, Apache people are wounded as well. For as they watch the mountain desecrated by those who know not, and apparently care not, what they do, there is no alternative but to prepare for the chaos that some day may follow. Indeed, by means of a series of traditional ceremonies conducted at intervals during the last two years, certain members of the tribe have done exactly this."
No End Game

The final cards have not been dealt. The University needs more permits to achieve its dream astro-physical complex. The Mt. Graham Coalition has fostered one of the most effective networks to fight the globalist nature of this very specific local project, a network transferable to other human rights and environment issues. A trust has been built between some Native Americans and the environmental movement, a trust badly needed to repair damage caused by Wannabe whites who adopted Indian practices solely for personal self-realization rather than a wider sense of community. Considering that the astronomers and federal agencies use taxpayer and alumni funds to prop up their PR, lobbying, and legal defenses, and that they have outspent the Coalition by at least ten to one, the results have been impressive.

The Clinton and Bush administrators, the University, the German and Italian astronomers, and the Vatican must live with their shame. And the sadness, an indelible mark on Native American hearts, has begun to scar those more recent immigrants who wished to inhabit this continent with respect. With these scars rise the first notions of how to heal both the historic legacy of genocide and the land itself. It is a knowledge combining experience and divinity, a knowledge unavailable inside the built structures of academic or religious power. Over the next century, should we escape the chaos envisioned by Apache medicine practitioners, a uniquely American sense of holiness and place may finally overwhelm the corruption and hypocrisy of present conquistadorial process.


Reprinted from Whole Earth, 1408 Mission Ave, San Rafael, CA 94924.