American Indian Heritage Month: Commemoration vs. Exploitation
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Graham, Mount (Dzil Nchaa Si An), Controversy over

Mount Graham, at 10,720 feet, is one of the tallest mountains in Arizona; it is also a sacred pilgrimage and ceremonial site for the Apache Indians. Also known as Dzil nchaa si an, Mount Graham is the central source of Apache spiritual guidance and home to the Gaahn, tribal spiritual deities to whom prayers are offered. Atop the sacred mountain Apache Indians procure medicinal plants, bury medicinal leaders, and perform religious rituals.

Because of Mount Graham's unique height and location, its ecology possesses more life zones and vegetative communities than any other solitary mountain range in North America. Specifically, the sacred mountain is home to at least eighteen species and subspecies of plants and animals found nowhere else on the planet, including the endangered Red Squirrel. Yet, despite the unique ecosystem of Mount Graham, and its sacred and cultural significance to the Apache Indians, the site has been designated as a preeminent location for astronomy and the construction of a new astrophysical complex, which would contain the most powerful telescope multiplex in the world.

Beginning in the 1980s, University of Arizona astronomers and an international group of researchers proposed the construction of eighteen advanced-technology telescopes on top of Mount Graham. Characterizing the telescope construction as cultural genocide, the San Carlos Apaches immediately initiated a campaign to halt construction. Similarly, national and international environmentalists became involved arguing that construction of the telescope complex would destroy Mount Graham's unique ecosystem. Radical environmentalists staged road blockades and stole or destroyed equipment intended for the telescopes. Subsequently, lawsuits were filed and a public relations offensive was launched.

Although the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Draft Environmental Impact Statement recommended limiting the project to five telescopes, the University of Arizona demanded a new evaluation for a proposal of at least seven telescopes. In anticipation of project disapproval if a public hearing was conducted under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the University of Arizona lobbied and convinced Congress to grant exemptions from NEPA for construction of the first three telescopes.

Currently, construction of the Max Planck and Vatican telescopes has been completed and construction of the Columbus Scope has been started; however, due to relentless opposition from American Indians, grassroots organizations, and environmental groups, the University of Arizona is having difficulties in securing sufficient funds to complete the large binocular telescope. Controversy surrounding the construction has labeled Mount Graham a national symbol for religious intolerance and disrespect of American Indian spiritual practices and sacred sites.

J. Landon K. Schmidt

Further Reading "Making a Mountain into a Starbase: The Long, Bitter Battle over Mount Graham." Available at: servlets/hcn.Article?article_id=1149. Accessed March 29, 2005.; Minnesota Public Radio., "Commentary: Is it Sacred Enough?" Available at: feeatures/2003/08/18_gundersond_spiritladuke. Accessed March 29, 2005.; Student Environmental Action Coalition. "Mount Graham, Sacred Mountain, Sacred Ecosystem." Available at: Accessed March 29, 2005.; Taylor, Bron, and Joel Geffen. 2004. "Battling Religions in Parks and Forest Reserves: Facing Religion in Conflicts over Protected Places." The George White Forum 21, no. 2: 57–59.

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