Vatican Observatory VS San Carlos Apache Sacred Land

Mount Graham, also known as Dzil Nchaa Si An, rises majestically from the Sonoran Desert in northwestern Arizona. This mountain is home to a large diversity of animals that have come up from the heat of Mexico and down from the northern mountains of the Pinaleño mountain range. Among other endangered species in the area is the Mount Graham Red Squirrel, which is found nowhere else in the world. This tall old growth forrest of spruce, fir, and corkbark not only provides a unique ecosystem, but is a sacred land for the San Carlos Apache Indians. To this Apache tribe the mountain Dzil Nchaa Si An, “Big Seated Mountain,” is a portal to the spirit world and home to their guardian spirits, Gaahn. On this sacred and ecologically diverse mountain the University of Arizona and other international scientists chose to build an astronomical observatory. This decision sparked a controversy of science, religion, and environment.

Mount Graham was the free land of the San Carlos Apache, and remained on their reservation until the United States Federal Government claimed it it 1872. Even with the claimed ownership of the land and the relocation of many Apache indians, the sacred mountain remained protected by the public park service. In the early 1980’s the University of Arizona, Germany’s Max Planck Institute, the Arcetri Observatory of Italy, and the Tucson-based Research Cooperation came together to prepose the development of a $200 million astronomical facility consisting of up to 18 telescopes, the largest of which was to be built on the San Carlos Apache’s sacred mountain. Mount Graham was selected for the Vatican observatory due to its exceptional location that would help humans to better understand the origins of the universe. In reaction to this decision, biologists, botanists, and environmentalists openly opposed the project, arguing that the Mount Graham ecosystem is extremely important to the species living there and that many of these species were already struggling to survive.

(Mount Graham Red Squirrel, Mount Graham Coalition)

As of 1965 the Mount Graham Red Squirrel was believed to have been extinct. Only a few years later, scientist began to see the squirrel reappear at higher altitudes on Mount Graham. Although the Mount Graham Red Squirrel is the most prominent concern of the species needing protection on Mount Graham and throughout the Pinaleño mountain range, it is only one of 18 species found no where else. The mexican spotted owl, Apache Trout, Pinaleño pocket gopher, long-tailed vole, and Northern Goshawk accompany the Mount Graham Red Squirrel on the endangered species list for animals residing in the area where the observatory was built. As the project went forward organizations including the Smithsonian Institute, Ohio State University, and the University of Chicago withdrew from the project in support of protecting the environment as well as the cultural and religious history of the San Carlos Apache.

By 1990, two telescopes had been build on near by mountains and a third, to be built on Mount Graham, was being strongly challenged for environmental reasons by the newly founded Mount Graham Coalition group. This group consisted of members from local Audubon chapters, the Sierra club, and students residing at the University of Arizona. In his support for the protection of Mount Graham, Terry B. Johnson of the Arizona Game and Fish department stated, “Management of Mount Graham must preclude anything that negatively impacts spruce-corkbark-fir forest and middens or impedes their development….If we protect the ecosystem, the individual species will also be protected.” (Mount Graham Coalition)

In addition to the argument to protect the ecosystem and endangered species of Mount Graham, Apache natives began to publicly protest the development of the observatory atop the sacred mountain by passing out flyers at the University of Arizona and filing a court appeal against the University of Arizona in 1992. Prior to the appeal, congress had passed an act that exemplified the telescope project from the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act, thus resulting in the failure to immediately and permanently halt the telescope project. (Mount Graham Coalition.) The largest of the telescopes, named the Columbus telescope was completed in 1995, on Mount Graham. (Stiles. Vatican Observatory.)

(“Protesters in the lobby of Ardrey Auditorium hand out fliers with information about their opinions concerning the observatory on top of Mt. Graham.” (Photo by Genevieve Clayton) (DiCosola, Maria.))

According to an online article by Lee Alen earlier this year, prior to the building the Vatican Observatory group claimed that Mount Graham could not be a sacred site due to its lack of religious shrines. This western view is very common, because fails to understand the San Carlos Apache’s understanding of the land as being sacred for its environmental and historical reasons. To the Apache the ecology of the area is what makes the land sacred and it is not related to the western idea of a physical shrine. In addition the director of the Vatican Observatory claimed  he was unable to find any “authentic Apache” who believed the mountain to be sacred, and who could prove the history of the mountains sacredness in any other form than orally. Although there is a possibility for the Director of the Vatican Observatory to have been confused by the different groups of the Apache, and thus unable to find believers of the mountains sacredness, it is unlikely for this to have been the case. Throughout the region of Arizona where the Apache lived, there are only two tribes that lived in territories that surrounded Mount Graham. These two tribes were the San Carlos Apache and the White Mountain tribe. The people of these tribes were mixed with other Apache tribes when placed on reservations in the 1800’s, but have slowly made their way back to their native lands and have distinct cultural and religious backgrounds. In reaction to the Director of the Vatican Observatory’s claim members of the San Carlos Apache residing in the area surrounding Mount Graham stated that, “the construction of the telescope constituted a profound disrespect for a cherished feature of their original homeland and a violation of traditional religious beliefs.”

(Telescope construction on the summit of Mount Graham, 1992. Photo by Claire Cummings.) (McLeod, Corbin)

Prior to the construction of the Vatican Observatory, Mount Graham was one of the last untouched monuments that embodied sacred energy for the San Carlos Apache. It served not only home to their guardian spirits, but also is an ancient burial site. The protection of the ecosystem remains crucially important to the San Carlos Apache because it is known as a place for collecting important medicinal plants, and preforming a variety of ceremonies important to their religious traditions. The environmental protection for the mountain as a place that holds immense sacred energy is crucial for the San Carlos Apache people as well as the biological science community.

(Mount Graham, seen from U.S. 191, south of Safford, Ariz. Photo by Ben Lund / CC BY-SA 2.0.) (McLeod, Corbin)

From the beginning of the Vatican Observatory project to today the existence of observatory and its location on Mount Graham has been a conflict of science, religion, and ecological protection. Regardless of support from the National Council of Churches, the President’s Advisory Council on Historical Preservation and the former president Bill Clinton on behalf of the respect for the Apache Cultural and Spiritual life the observatory still remains on Mount Graham. Currently the observatory remains as a working scientific research area that has been awaiting renewal for a permit since April of 2009.

The controversy over the sacred land and the protection of its ecosystem continues and now questions the legal state of the already build observatory. In a news report for a member of the Mount Graham Coalition, Freathersone, states,

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. 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 this same article the coalition leader concludes his thoughts by stating that there is not much more to do to protect the mountain, but to pray that it will be protected. Although this statement may be true, the San Carlos Apache are not alone in their fight to protect their sacred land. In fact, unlike many other indigenous groups who are in struggle to protect their sacred sites, the San Carlos Apache may have an advantage due to the unique ecosystem on Mount Graham. Due observatories prolonged struggle to obtain a new permit, and the rise in support from governmental groups, environmental groups, and the Apache people themselves this may be one struggle for sacred land that is not lost.

~ Hannah Freyer

Works Cited:

  1. “Mount Graham Red Squirrels.” Mount Graham Coalition |. Mount Graham Coalition, n.d. Web. 02 Nov. 2012. <>.
  2. Allen, Lee. “Pray for Arizona’s Mount Graham During National Sacred Places Prayer Days.” Indian Country Today Media Indian Country Today Media Network, LLC, 18 June 2012. Web. 03 Nov. 2012. <>.
  3. Brandt, Elizabeth. “The Fight for Dzil Nchaa Si An, Mt. Graham: Apaches and Astrophysical Development in Arizona | Cultural Survival.” The Fight for Dzil Nchaa Si An, Mt. Graham: Apaches and Astrophysical Development in Arizona | Cultural Survival. Cultural Survivor, 24 Mar. 2012. Web. 03 Nov. 2012. <>.
  4. Stiles, Lori. “VATT – The Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope.” VATT – The Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope. VATT, 2012. Web. 03 Nov. 2012. <>.
  5. DiCosola, Maria. “Protesters against Mt. Graham International Observatory.” Northern Arizona News. Northern Arizona News, 2 Feb. 2011. Web. 03 Nov. 2012. <>.
  6. McLeod, Christoper, and Amy Corbin. “Mount Graham Red Squirrels.” Earth Island Institute. © 1999-2012 Christopher McLeod, 1 Nov. 2003. Web. <>.

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