U ignores spiritual aspects of telescope

Which leg do you want me to cut off – the spiritual leg or the scientific leg?” queried Jim Rock, a traditional Dakota educator, to a University administrator during a press conference Wednesday outside of University President Bob Bruininks’ office. Rock’s words go to the heart of a controversy, the ugly effect of which is clear. The spiritual leg of the University has cancer. Will Minnesota officials’ preferential allegiance to science leave it spiritually crippled or will it excise the malignant growth and recognize the need to function more holistically?

For 13 years, Rock has taught math and science at the University’s Ando-giikendaasowin (“seek to know” or “hunt knowledge”) Native American Math and Science Camps. Recently the summer program has been offered money to recruit Apache youths from San Carlos, Ariz. This is a direct example of a “cash for culture” trade Minnesota administrators see as an acceptable trade-off for their participation in the Mount Graham telescope project.

For those reasons, Rock, whose love is integrating indigenous spirituality and science, is planning to resign at the end of this year’s camp. Rock said he will not be involved with a project that directly implicates him in the desecration of a sacred place. He feels the camp is now working to appease a group the University has deeply offended with offers of “blood money.”

Uncompromising ethical stands such as Rock’s are in contrast to Minnesota’s decision to buy into a controversial plan that creates and exploits community division of a sovereign nation. The University rationalized its participation in the desecration of Mount Graham with the notion that its money could help the Apache people. Thus they chose to implement a failed 13-year-old plan by the University of Arizona to buy public relations.

In 1991, the University of Arizona, amid international controversy over its insensitive handling of the Mount Graham affair, sought and bought, with $37,000 of taxpayers’ money, the advice of the Booz Allen Hamilton consulting firm. The resulting report was so condemning of the university’s handling of the issue that Arizona administrators suppressed parts of it from the general public and their own board of regents.

To be specific, Arizona suppressed the very strategy now embraced by Minnesota. The Booz Allen Hamilton report recommended that the University of Arizona abandon the Mount Graham site. The alternative recommendation chosen by Arizona was to offer cash and programming to the San Carlos Apache Tribal Council and make “isolated outliers” of those members of the tribe who remained opposed to the telescope project. The report also noted that the programs “must be done in the context of a renewed commitment and sensitivity to Indian needs, not as payment to be allowed to stay on Mount Graham.”

The University of Arizona’s implementation of this plan has failed to fool anyone, except for the few institutions that have over the last decade bought into the cash-strapped telescope project. On April 13, the San Carlos Apache tribe rejected the Northern Tribes Initiative, sponsored by the universities of Minnesota, Arizona and Virginia, calling it “deceiving and full of lies.”

At the same meeting, San Carlos Apache Chairwoman Kathy Kitcheyan distanced herself from a letter used by Minnesota astronomers to imply Apache consent. Whether the astronomy department forged the letter is not the issue. The chairwoman’s few words spoke volumes about the disingenuousness of Minnesota’s approach to the Apaches and their own American Indian community. This is a dangerous and often-traveled road this University has chosen to take in its colonial pursuits.

We live in a world made cancerous by greed and inhumanity. But, as we stride down a path of healing and forgiveness, we need not cut off any legs. What Minnesota needs is “a framework for how to make ethical decisions,” as Bruininks recently stated. What is also needed is an end to the lip-service that indigenous communities receive and a real commitment to respecting the spiritual values and scientific understandings of all peoples.

We wonder if the convictions of people such as Rock or traditional Apaches are irreversibly lost on those Minnesota officials who have chosen a less honorable path in pursuit of research dollars and academic rankings.

Dwight Metzger is a member of the Mount Graham Coalition. Send comments to [email protected]
Joel T. Helfrich is a history doctoral candidate and welcomes comments at [email protected]