University should not invest in telescope

There is nothing especially unusual about confrontations between science and religion. History has witnessed a number of epic struggles, from Galileo’s battle with the church to the ongoing conflict between “creationists” and “evolutionists.” Typically, however, these confrontations have revolved around the nature of truth: What is it and who decides?

But not all battles between science and religion are of a purely doctrinal nature. In fact, the University is currently embroiled in a long-running dispute stemming from its potential investment in a telescope project the University of Arizona has vigorously and shamefully spearheaded for years.

Last January, Hubbard Broadcasting granted the University $5 million to purchase a 5 percent share in a Large Binocular Telescope being built at the Mount Graham International Observatory in Arizona. The co-ownership would give University astronomers approximately 17 viewing nights per year with what would reportedly be the world’s most powerful telescope.

At first glance this would appear to be a promising development for the astronomy department and one sure to enhance its reputation. However, there are several major problems with the project, which ultimately renders it fatally flawed.

Environmentally, independent biologists claim the observatory would gravely impact the habitat of several kinds of plants and animals, especially the endangered Mount Graham red squirrel. In order to build the telescope, a considerable portion of the mountain’s virgin spruce forest would be destroyed.

As Ojibwe writer and activist Winona LaDuke recently noted in The Circle, the University of Arizona, in order to avoid the legal checks that normally govern these and other issues, managed in 1988 to obtain “the first peacetime exemption of any developer from all U.S. cultural, religious, and environmental protection laws, successfully bypassing the Endangered Species Act, the National Historic Preservation Act, the National Forest Management Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, and the American Indian Religious Freedom Act.”

Pragmatically, the selection of Mount Graham is by no means ideal, as it is periodically subject to unfavorable weather conditions. Indeed, a 1984 study by the National Optical Astronomy Observatory concluded there were 38 sites in the United States better suited for such a project. However, as LaDuke pointed out, “no other site was within two hours of the (University of Arizona) campus.”

But the issue that has perhaps received the greatest attention from activists across the country is the telescope’s construction in an area of great religious importance to traditional members of the Western Apache community. Dallas Massey Sr., tribal chairman of the White Mountain Apache Tribe, pointed this out last month in a letter to University president Mark Yudof. Mount Graham, or what the Apaches refer to as Dzil

Nchaa Si’an “is one of our holiest and most sacred mountains,” Massey wrote. “Apache elders and cultural specialists have clearly and consistently advised all who have listened that this mountain should not be disturbed for research or commercial purposes.”

Massey’s is by no means a lone voice, as much of the American Indian community has inveighed against the building of the telescope, which would join two others already extant on the mountain. The tribal council of the San Carlos Apaches, whose reservation is closer to Mount Graham than any other, also wrote to University President Mark Yudof informing him of “the official position of the tribe,” which has passed “five separate opposition resolutions” during the last eleven years.

The authors enclosed a copy of a resolution passed in June 2001 that could not have been any clearer: “Any permanent modification of the present form of this mountain constitutes a display of profound disrespect for a cherished feature of the Apaches’ original homeland as well as a serious violation of Apache traditional religious beliefs.”

Locally, this past Jan. 15 the Indian Affairs Council of Minnesota, which represents all of the state’s federally recognized tribes, unanimously passed a resolution “request(ing) and urg(ing) the University of Minnesota and any university or other entity, foreign or domestic, to look elsewhere for their astronomical developments and to not join the University of Arizona and its collaborators in their Mount Graham telescope complex Ö”

The Western Apaches’ struggle to protect their sacred site has also received support from the National Congress of American Indians – probably the country’s most distinguished American Indian organization – as well as the Native American Rights Fund, a large number of national and international environmental and indigenous rights’ organizations, and numerous tribal members, politicians, scientists and intellectuals in the United States and abroad.

At the University, the American Indian Student Association and the American Indian Student Cultural Center have both announced their opposition to the project, as have a number of faculty members in the American Indian Studies department.

The departments pushing for the University’s involvement have been the Institute of Technology and, not surprisingly, the astronomy department. Ted Davis, dean of the Institute of Technology, maintains that the Mount Graham project is “extremely important to the University.” Apparently by this he means he and his closest colleagues, not American Indian students and faculty or the many non-Indian members of the University community concerned about the proposed observatory – and one from which it would “not lightly walk away.”

But probably the most vocal telescope supporter thus far has been Leonard Kuhi, chair of the astronomy department. Kuhi’s chief argument appears to be that “a mountaintop with as much space as Mount Graham has plenty of room for everybody.” One can certainly understand his and his colleagues’ desire for access to a telescope like the one planned in Arizona. But what Kuhi fails to appreciate is that – inconsistent with the telescope proponents’ expressed belief that “compromises” on this issue are possible – the demands of the Western Apaches and the astronomers appear at this point to be fundamentally irreconcilable.

That a debate about Mount Graham has persisted for over 10 years has less to do with the merits of the telescope supporters’ arguments than with the inability of a largely non-American Indian society to comprehend or value spiritual beliefs rooted outside of Judeo-Christian traditions. As Marissa Weiss presciently observed in the Daily in December, “It would be considered incredibly offensive to propose placing a telescope on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, or atop the Sistine Chapel in Rome, regardless of how little space the telescope would require and of what unparalleled scientific information could be gleaned by placing the scientific equipment there.”

The reason a similar standard does not apply to sites sacred to American Indians is because many of those reared in Judeo-Christian traditions have a tendency to devalue the religious cosmologies of traditional American Indian peoples. Put simply: Many non-American Indians in the United States cannot understand how natural environments and features can retain the same sort of spiritual power for some Indians that certain historical sites possess for, say, Christians or Jews.

Telescope proponents have suggested that some Western Apaches support the project. This is true. But it would be seriously misguided for the University administration to embrace the opinions of a small number of individual tribal members as an endorsement of the University’s potential involvement. Divisions in all communities – whether American Indian or not – always exist. This has been true in the past – for example, on the Pine Ridge reservation during the 1970s, when traditional Lakotas were subjected to a tribal-government-supported reign of terror – and it is true today.

That those Western Apaches not opposed to the telescope are far outnumbered by those opposed is significant. And the fact the most prominent Apache tribal member being touted by telescope proponents as a supporter of the project also happens to be on the developer’s payroll raises troubling questions that officials at the University must not ignore.

It is only a matter of time before the University will have to decide whether to proceed with its investment in the observatory. Justice and respect for indigenous rights – which represent an increasingly prominent area of international law – require the University to not only decline involvement, but also to issue a forceful statement in opposition to the Mount Graham development.

The astronomy department’s desire to boost its national and international profile is both understandable and commendable, but it must not come at the expense of the Western Apaches or, for that matter, the University’s reputation among indigenous communities and human rights advocates across the United States and around the world.

Scott Laderman’s column regularly appears alternate Tuesdays. He welcomes comments at [email protected] Send letters to the editor to [email protected]