Telescope sits high as cultural divide runs deep

Apache tribe members consider the mount graham site holy.

Kari Petrie

SAN CARLOS, Ariz. – From the Apache reservation, the Mount Graham telescope looks like a small, white box positioned on top of the green mountain jutting out of the sand.

But tribe member Sandra Rambler said the 16-story building looks more like a blemish than an observatory.

“It’s a pimple waiting to burst, and it’s filled with waste,” she said.

The University of Minnesota, University of Arizona and several other institutions are participating in the Mount Graham Large Binocular Telescope project. Since the early 1990s, the telescope has incited controversy among Apache tribe members because they consider the land holy.

Although the project began in the early 1980s, tribe members said they did not voice their concerns until 1990 because of the tribe’s apprehension of non-Indians.

“Older (American Indian) people are not familiar with talking to non-Indians because of the past,” said Wendsler Nosie, director of Apaches for Cultural Preservation, an organization that teaches young Apache tribe members about their traditional culture.

University of Arizona officials said they sent a letter to the tribe, which has 12,800 members living on the reservation, in 1985 asking for input about the project.

The Apaches never responded, said Peter Strittmatter, the University of Arizona’s Steward Observatory director.

“Man, that’s total BS,” Nosie said.

The past oppression of Apaches prevented them from responding to the letter, he said.

Language barriers might also have inhibited the tribe from responding to the 1985 letter, he said. Most elders speak Apache and probably did not understand the jargon-laden letter, he said.

In 1991, the tribe filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Forest Service for planning and approving the telescope project. The court dismissed the suit, stating the 1985 letter gave the tribe adequate opportunity to voice concerns, according to University of Arizona documents.

Patricia Albers, director of the University’s department of American Indian studies, said the past influences how American Indians interact with non-Indians.

“Racism creates bitterness where tribal peoples are suspicious of racism towards them,” she said. “It makes many native people highly suspicious of non-Indian people.”

When the U.S. government tried to move the Apaches into reservations in the late 19th century, government workers burned the Apache gardens and destroyed homes, Albers said.

The government eventually put Apaches into concentration camps, she said. Cultural genocide also occurred, Albers said, because the government put Apache children into boarding school so they could not learn the Apache language.

Until 1978, businesses in Globe, a city outside the San Carlos reservation, had signs stating, “No dogs or Indians,” Nosie said.

The practice, Albers said, was quite common in southwestern cities.

Also, until 1974, Nosie said each Apache had a case worker he or she had to inform if leaving the reservation for an extended period of time.

“You can imagine why Indian people didn’t do as much as they should have,” Nosie said. “Do you think we would be over it by the ’80s?”

Albers said the San Carlos reservation once included Mount Graham. But in the late 19th century, the U.S. government withdrew its treaty with the Apaches and took back certain land, including Mount Graham, she said. The government did not address Apache concerns, she said.

But Nosie said the current situation on Mount Graham has awakened the tribe.

“(The universities) don’t know what they’re dealing with,” he said.

Cultural differences

The tired buildings with trampled, overgrown front yards surrounding dusty roads on the reservation are a stark contrast to the strong, brick buildings and the neat, tidy lawns of the University of Arizona campus.

But both areas bustle with activity throughout the day. While students relax outside the student union, tribe members mingle outside the local grocery store.

Some said the two mindsets of the area are where real differences lie.

Although the two groups cannot be generalized, Albers said American Indians are more focused on the spiritual side of life and non-Indians are focused on material items.

This difference can create problems when the two groups try to negotiate the use of Mount Graham, she said.

“For the Apache people, a sacred place is non-negotiable,” Albers said.

Trying to join the reservation’s culture with the University of Arizona’s is like building a bridge of ice between fire and water, said Apache Tribal Council Vice Chairman Robert Howard.

“Either way it’s going to melt,” he said.

Each summer, the University of Arizona hires six Apache high school students to work at Mount Graham, said Buddy Powell, a member of the University’s outreach committee.

Students work 40 hours a week doing maintenance such as painting or cleaning, he said.

The Apache Tribal Council recommends which students to send, and the University interviews them before they are hired, Powell said.

“It prepares them for finding a job after school,” he said.

Nosie said the students who take the jobs are usually family members of tribal politicians.

Other students see the jobs as a bribe from the University, he said.

Problems at home

Although Mount Graham is still a hot topic for some Apache tribe members, drugs, gang violence and unemployment are higher priorities, reservation officials said.

Approximately 76 percent of the Apaches living on the reservation are unemployed, Howard said.

The unemployment creates a high poverty rate, and many rely on public assistance, he said.

Those problems can lead to drug use and violence, Howard said.

Methamphetamine use is a large problem and the reservation’s “archaic” laws are unable to help the problem, Howard said.

“It doesn’t acknowledge today’s crimes,” he said.

Howard called the U.S. District Attorney the tribe’s biggest hurdle because they only deal with methamphetamine labs worth at least $30,000.

Methamphetamine labs on the reservation are much smaller, he said. So the inadequate reservation laws must be used, he said.

Gang violence is also a growing concern for many reservation residents, said tribe member Daniel Miller.

“We have a lot of wannabes here,” Miller said.