University participation fails native peoples

Joel Helfrich

Last Friday, the University celebrated Columbus Day in a fashion reminiscent of times past. We were painfully reminded that institutionalized racism is alive and well; the decision to violate traditional Apaches for the Mount Graham International Observatory Project in Arizona truly undermines the work of many people and many relations here at the University.

The misconduct and deception by the University to appropriate Mount Graham is staggering. University astronomers uncritically republished inaccurate and deceptive information supplied by the University of Arizona. Arizona is the only university to fight American Indian religious freedom in court and to try to exempt itself from all cultural and environmental protection laws. As these facts threatened the political image of the University, the high priests of the Institute of Technology sat cloistered in silence, and more skilled administrators quickly took over.

University astronomers courted Stanley Hubbard long before he gave his $5 million donation in January 2001. Hubbard demonstrated recently that he was misinformed all along about the Apache opposition to the telescopes. When that information was about to become news, the University did emergency damage control, telling Hubbard about the planned incentives for the Apaches. The University never told Hubbard, however, that the traditional people have repeatedly said their religion is not for sale, that access to a desecrated sacred site is not an issue, and the only way to respect their culture is to stay off Mount Graham.

University officials said they were not informed about the controversies until December 2001. This begs the question: Why would the University enter a multimillion dollar, long-term relationship with a university that was dishonest about issues of such great consequence? Also, how can the University claim innocence regarding further desecration of Mount Graham? Leading people to believe that they are merely participating in manifest destiny, the reality is the University is financing the continued destruction of the mountain and legitimizing the effort underway to build four more telescopes. The University of Arizona has started to lobby for another exemption of all laws to build these telescopes on Mount Graham; this will have the effect of appropriating more forested peaks and denying the Apaches and the public any legal standing to stop it. Minnesota astronomers are undoubtedly delighted about the prospect of joining this mega astro-colonialist venture, but many here are ashamed.

While a University Relations lawyer paid lip service to investigating the issues, her actions reflected a predetermined objective of buying into the project with minimal public relations fallout. The letter written for interim University President Robert Bruininks’ signature imposed nothing short of a bribery program. It dismissed the deeply injured and irreconcilable relationship the Apaches have with the University of Arizona. When a traditional Apache came here last month to respond to the plan, crafted in secret negotiations between the universities, she was denied a meeting with Bruininks. The lawyer she did meet with was given official tribal letters condemning the University plan as a buy-off. These letters were promised to be delivered to the president, and yet 20 minutes later, the lawyer announced to the media a recommendation to move forward with the investment.

Consider the hypocrisy of the University’s suggestion that a cultural advisory committee be established between University of Arizona and the Apaches, while the University completely disregarded the position of its own president’s American Indian Advisory Board, the Senate Social Concerns Committee and American Indian studies department. The University’s involvement with the telescope project goes against everything for which those organizations stand.

The way that a University delegation went to Arizona in late June (and then slipped the contract onto the Board of Regents’ agenda the same week) is appalling. The University officials who visited Arizona spent three days meeting with the University of Arizona but only three hours meeting traditional San Carlos Apaches. The delegation did not even bother to meet with the White Mountain Tribe, likely because of the White Mountain Tribe’s uncompromising opposition to the telescope. No official report was ever made from this publicly financed expedition. Ironically, one member of the delegation, Yvonne Novak, co-chairwoman of the American Indian Advisory Board, told none of her board members she was going to Arizona. Although the American Indian Advisory Board remains resolved that the University not buy into the project, Vice President Sandra Gardebring used Novak’s presence to support her recommendation to the regents.

The board is responsible, she said, for “enhance(ing) the public image of the University.” Individual regents are admonished “to maintain an overriding loyalty to the entire University, rather than to any part of it or constituency within it.” In other words, a regent should not kowtow to the demands of astronomers or the Institute of Technology. Further, individual regents should “represent all the people of Minnesota and no particular interest, community or constituency.” A regent is expected “to foster openness and trust.” By killing public comment and not listening to the students, student representatives to the regents and the 11 tribes in Minnesota, the regents failed to adhere to their own responsibilities.

Ann Cieslak, the regents’ corporate secretary, forbade the student representatives to the board from speaking about Mount Graham on Friday. This gag order led the students to submit a tactful, diplomatic letter stating, “There seems to be a lack of resolve concerning the ethical implications of this project. Due to the conflicting nature of provided information and the strong underlying ethical issues, the student representatives recommend that the board table this issue to address these concerns.” Anxious to avoid further embarrassment to the University by allowing the overwhelmingly critical public debate to continue, the regents censored the only voice of the student body and showed the actual value they place on representing the University community.

No public comment would have been allowed if Regent Anthony Baraga had not broken the rules Thursday. His actions in response to public outcry during the Finance Committee meeting allowed four minutes for the Apaches to speak. It was enough time to convince him to reverse his position, printed in the Daily that morning, and reject the telescope contract. But still, only five regents heard testimony Thursday. They split the vote 3-2 to tentatively approve the project. Friday’s vote to move forward was secured by guns and money, without public input and quashing any chance for discussion.

Imagine if the Apache voice had been embraced all along, if advisory committees’ recommendations were honored, if the astronomers had to admit that there are non-destructive alternatives for their research and if the regents were to have voted with full and unbiased information. The rumbling of the foundation of lies on which this telescope is being built was felt strongly, and not just from the 200-plus supporters that gathered inside and outside of the regents’ headquarters. A deep tremor shook the power structure of the University itself last week and threatened to override the course of history.


Joel T. Helfrich’s columns appear monthly. Send letters to the editor to [email protected]