Star Struck: The Astronomical Abuse Of Indigenous Sacred Sites


Unedited text of an article published as "Native Tribes Struggle to Reclaim Sacred Sites" in Pulse of the Twin Cities newspaper, June 1, 2005


Dozens of the largest astronomical research institutions gather this week in Minneapolis to laud and promote their endeavors at the meeting of the American Astronomical Society (AAS). Representing major universities, scientific foundations, and U.S. military-industrial interests, the astronomers will present to each other grand plans for future discoveries, conquests, and dreams for designs of ever-larger telescopes and telescope complexes.

What may sadly be lost to the AAS is the true impact of its privilege: the failure to recognize Indigenous knowledge, the desecration of sacred sites, and the inability to self-reflect on a profound disrespect that perpetuates harm to an imperiled earth and its peoples. At odds are divergent cosmologies and the power of uncompromising researchers' knowledge versus the strength of indigenous ways of knowing. A key component in these clashes is the willful disregard of Native sovereignty and ever-mutating forms of colonialism.

Minnesota is no stranger to these issues. When the University of Minnesota (UM) Board of Regents pledged $10 million to support UM's astronomers buying into the controversial Mount Graham telescope project in 2002, Minnesota was dragged into an international conflict. Identified by the United Nations High Commission on Human Rights as one of the most egregious examples of religious intolerance by government in the United States, the telescope complex on the Western Apache sacred mountain is the source of a profound disturbance.

Aligned with traditional Apaches in their on-going struggle for religious freedom and sacred site protection are two other Indigenous peoples fighting the astro-colonization in the form of expanding telescope complexes in their homelands. Mauna Kea, on the Big Island of Hawai'i, and Kitt Peak, in Arizona, are coveted by astronomical scientists for their excellent atmospheric conditions. Along with Mount Graham, whose humidity and atmospheric turbulence ranks it lower in astro-quality, those high mountains are also revered by their Native inhabitants as essential to their traditional ways of life.

The astronomers' unilateral desecrations of sacred summits such as Mount Graham, Mauna Kea, and Kitt Peak for expanding telescope complexes exemplify the dark side of mission creep and the pandemic expansion of the astronomy industry. The conflicts that arise between scientists and Native peoples regarding such desecrations are caused by the fundamental lack of respect by astronomers, their university administrations, and associated governing bodies, as well as their sidestepping of established laws and policies that were enacted to defend Indigenous peoples' human rights and protect their sacred lands. Today, continued and growing opposition, constant litigation, and persistent protests cloud the future for all three observatory projects and bring focus to the fundamental moral and ethical issues facing the astronomers and the funders involved.


According to its literature, "The American Astronomical Society…is the major organization of professional astronomers in North America." That the AAS would select Minnesota as its host site is clearly an indication, in part, of the spoils of UM astronomers' hard-fought efforts to buy into the telescope project on Mount Graham. The UM astronomers who lured billionaire Stanley Hubbard of Hubbard Broadcasting in 2001 to make his $5 million matching gift for the University's investment in the Mount Graham telescope project have again teamed up with Hubbard to sponsor this year's conference. Joining Hubbard to pay for the four-day gala at the Minneapolis Convention Center is the University of Minnesota, UM Institute of Technology, the University of Minnesota Foundation, UM Graduate School, and the UM Office of the Vice-President and Provost, as well as Denver-based Ball Aerospace, a corporation that designs surveillance and laser and other military systems.

The interdependence of military money and university science is becoming rampant in the field of astronomy. The lure of the lucrative contracts that led UM to opt into Mount Graham despite great opposition is the same attraction that drives the controversial "strategic positioning plan" by which UM proposes to eliminate its General College. It may be that UM is counting on their sponsorship of the AAS conference as a good investment. It may be a necessary one, as the astronomy department is still far short of coming up with the millions of dollars more needed to match Hubbard's $5 million gift. Maybe UM should take the opportunity to shop for a more suitable telescope project, as Hubbard said that they could do in 2002, when Hubbard was confronted with the implications of his donation in its harm to the Apache people. Hubbard revealed that he was deceived by UM astronomers who had stated to him that the Apache tribes approved of the observatory.

Mount Graham (known to the Apaches as dzil nchaa si'an) was originally within the boundary of the Fort Apache Reservation, but it was taken away from the Apaches by executive order in 1873. Its relative isolation and national forest and wilderness protection left much of Mount Graham's old-growth summit undeveloped until the University of Arizona (UA) invaded the pristine mountaintop to construct telescopes. Today, a towering 14-story metal box built to house the large binocular telescope (LBT) looms high above the forest on Emerald Peak, visible from both the San Carlos and White Mountain Apache reservations. Originally named the "Columbus Project"-a name that was changed after an international protest against the observatory was held in the U.S. and European cities on Columbus Day 1992-the LBT was to be completed in October of 1992. The LBT is already thirteen years late and is plagued by international scandal, major technological failures, and modifications to compensate for atmospheric turbulence. Chronically cash-strapped, the UA's big telescope endeavor is not complete. UA may be far from the number one astronomical research institution, but it has a notorious history for its extreme efforts in appropriating dzi? nchaa si'an for telescope development.

By the mid 1990s, UA became the first university to lobby against the listing of an endangered species. It became the first university to fight in court against the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, to arrest an American Indian for praying, and to demand permits be obtained by Apaches to pray on their sacred mountain. UA is also the first university to seek exemption from all U.S. environmental laws, which it chose to do twice to circumvent regulatory processes and court orders that blocked the construction of telescopes on Mount Graham.

Most bizarre of all, perhaps, is the combative stance The Vatican has taken as one of UA's partners in the Mount Graham project. The Vatican Observatory-through its Director, Jesuit priest Fr. Joseph Coyne-has gone even beyond UA's assertions, denouncing the Apaches' spiritual relationship with dzil nchaa si'an. Coyne stated in the first edition of his manifesto, Personal Reflections on the Nature of Sacred, published from the Pope's medieval Italian fortress retreat, Castel Gandolfo, that the perspective of the Apaches in defending Mount Graham "is a kind of religiosity that must be suppressed with all the force we can muster." Even more outrageous is that another Jesuit, former Arizona State Museum Curator, Charles Polzer, charged that the opposition to the LBT project "came out of the Jewish lawyers of the ACLU" as "an attempt to undermine and destroy the Catholic Church."

By forcing itself onto the mountain, UA lost many allies. In the 1990s, numerous major astronomical institutions abandoned consideration of the Mount Graham site, including UA's original partners Harvard and the Smithsonian Institution. Many of the institutions that spurned UA cited environmental and cultural considerations. More recently, Germany's Max Planck Institute decided to look for a better site for participation in a radiotelescope after years on the mountain, opting out of its contract with UA because of Mount Graham's poor atmospheric conditions for astronomy.

The loss of UA's would-be telescope subscribers could explain the desperate efforts used to secure new investment from the University of Minnesota. When UM was confronted by internal opposition to its plan to buy into the observatory, it followed the leadership of UA's well-developed public information team to fight it. All the way to the contentious 3-2 Board of Regents Finance Committee vote and the Regents' subsequent conditional approval, initiated and led by Regent Frank Berman, for joining the project in late 2002, UM chose a moral low road and decided to not value the needs of the Apache people to have their mountain respected.

Indeed, the actions taken by UM astronomers mimicked the UA's own historical tactics against the Apaches' defense of Mount Graham: deny, suppress, attack, and then circumvent. UM Department of Astronomy Chair Len Kuhi first claimed he was never told about the cultural controversy surrounding Mount Graham. Stanley Hubbard claimed that he was told that the San Carlos Apache Tribe supported the project. When the facts clearly contradicted assertions and grew to include resolutions from the UM Faculty Senate Social Concerns Committee and UM President's American Indian Advisory Board, the American Indian Studies Department, the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council, and others, UM's investment began to look shaky. At that point, UA and UM lawyers got together to move the collaboration forward at any cost. Ultimately, UM's Board of Regents voted to join the project, conditional on offering the Apaches money and subscribing to UA's proposal to convene an "Apache grievance committee."

To date, none of the UM Regents' conditions have been met. Working with the universities, UA Indian Law Professor Robert Williams created the "Northern Tribes Initiative," which was flatly rejected by the San Carlos Apache Tribe in April of 2004. Ola Cassadore Davis, daughter of the last traditional Apache Chief and founder of the Apache Survival Coalition, referred to the initiative as "offering cash in exchange for our Apache religion and culture." Another attempt by the universities in April of this year was also rejected. It would have paid lip service to UM Regents' intentions while trying to gain tacit support for at least four additional telescopes on Mount Graham.

Fortunately for UM, their contract allows them to withdraw and recover their entire capital investment as early as June 30 of this year, as the UA's telescope remains incomplete, behind schedule, and unusable, despite UA's showman's hawkings. Respected National Optical Astronomy Observatory scientist, Dr. Roger Lynds, obviously had it right years ago when he said UA's LBT project on Mount Graham "is all about 'self-aggrandizement…. It's got nothing to do with science, technology, and truth or the best use of taxpayers' money.'"

There are many people who say that UA should heed the warning signs it has ignored so far. As former San Carlos Apache Tribe Chairman and Apache Survival Coalition board member, Raleigh Thompson, explained in the aftermath of the gigantic forest fire that was started by lightning last summer on Mount Graham and threatened the observatory complex: "Lightning is the very power of God in Apache belief. This fire was not accidental, but a warning that the mountain can defend itself. We have warned the Forest Service and the University of Arizona time and time again that what they are doing up there is desecration, but they don't listen to us."

Another fire, this time within the coalition of Native peoples who are fighting for their way of life, is gathering fuel and threatens to end the desecration of these sacred places. Wendsler Nosie, a member of the San Carlos Apache Tribal Council and organizer of the annual Mount Graham Sacred Run, feels that Apaches and other Indigenous peoples have been tolerant for too long. "It once was necessary for survival," explains Nosie. However, Nosie feels that his people "need to start addressing the abuse that is happening to them. That abuse must stop, or we are not going to have anything for our children." Unfortunately, the abuse of Mount Graham is mirrored in struggles over sacred summits elsewhere.


At over 29,500 feet from the ocean floor to its summit, Mauna Kea is the tallest mountain in the world. The mountain dramatically affects wind and weather patterns and its oft snow-capped peaks collect water that feeds the aquifer for Hawai'i Island. So sacred is Mauna Kea that access was limited to only the most reverent of spiritual purposes. Today the mountaintop is dominated by a new order. Exploiting the 1968 state-issued lease to build a single observatory, the high priests of international astronomical research have commanded the construction of dozens of astronomical facilities and seek to build more and even larger telescopes.

Far from a "clean science," this astronomical project brings with it a garbage bag of environmental problems. On Mauna Kea, once untroubled by humans, over 1000 astronomer visitors per year now drive to its summit. They leave behind some half million gallons of human waste annually and introduce toxic chemicals such as ethylene glycol and liquid mercury into the fragile environment. Construction has damaged and leveled the peaks, spewing dust and facilitating human intrusion that is wreaking havoc on this fragile ecosystem. These impacts, coupled with the introduction of exotic predatory arthropods, are likely responsible for all but extirpating the Wekiu bug, one of 11 endemic and imperiled arthropods that call the mountain home.

Speaking to the impact of the loss of such creatures, and the hypocrisy of the astronomical community, Native Hawaiian Kealoha Pisciotta gives important perspective to Hawaiians' uncompromising opposition to telescope development. "In our worldview, we cannot support de-creation. It is against the law of the universe and creator to eliminate a species. Mauna Kea is vast, but it is also a finite resource. You cannot keep abusing it," she declares. Pisciotta, who spent 12 years working as a telescope systems specialist on Mauna Kea's summit, added that "scientists claim that they seek life in the universe. I don't think good science should threaten a species, offend the host culture, and contaminate the aquifer. To me, that is not good science."

The injustice is exemplified economically too, as thirteen of the richest nations in the world pay only $1 per year to use the mountain and exploit its natural resources." Like others who can never surrender their relationship to this holy place, however, Pisciotta denotes the deepest cost: "from our perspective, you are asking us to accept the desecration of our highest spirituality and our highest religion."


The Baboquivari mountains delineate the eastern boundary of the Tohono O'odham reservation outside of Tucson, Arizona. An artificial boundary line running the length of the range to the Mexico border does nothing to take away the connection of its native inhabitants to the whole mountain range. At the base of Baboquivari peak, one of the most majestic landforms in Arizona, Ernest Moristo shares his story. Moristo's family has been caretaking the mountain since the time of their medicine man ancestor, Standing Head. Moristo keeps the tradition by challenging numerous threats to the O'odham way of life and to their mountains. Accompanied by fellow "troublemaker" and long time friend, Dennis Manuel, the two are working with the Baboquivari Defense Council to protect their culture from continued exploitation.

In the beginning, Manuel explains, there was the coyote that protected the land, the buzzard that watched the sky (Manuel is from the buzzard clan, while Ernest is coyote clan); also there was I'itoi, the Creator. I'itoi brought the people to life and was the protector of the water that flows beneath the rocks under these mountains and connects everything. Moristo explains that "the whole mountain is I'itoi's. When you harm a part of it, it hurts everything." This interconnectedness of life, or himdag, is at the core of understanding the conflicts posed by the destruction of Kitt Peak. "This place is a source of energy, a place of healing. That is why it is important to take care of it. It is the source of our strength." Manuel explains.

Worried about the additional effects of intensified energy emissions, radiation, and pollution posed by a new telescope planned for Kitt Peak, the two caretakers lament the amount of loss that has taken place from the observatory to date. Medicinal plants and animals have been harmed, and the telescope complex stands as a staging ground for amplified encroachment on the Baboquivaris.

The most visible threat to this land is the Kitt Peak Observatory. Established in 1958 during the Termination Era, when the U.S. government was engaged in an official program of political and economic decimation of Indian tribes, the Observatory is on sacred ground within the Tohono O'odham reservation. The mountain was appropriated by astronomers against O'odham wishes. Astronomers developed the mountain extensively since then and it now holds 21 telescopes that were once cutting edge. Kitt Peak is eligible for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places and by law, any proposals for development there should go through a consultative process that requires avoidance before even considering mitigation.

A recent move by the National Science Foundation and the Smithsonian Institution to expand the complex and begin construction of a new four-telescope project, without permission of the Tribe and in circumvention of historic preservation law, has sparked great outrage and a legal challenge by the O'odham Tribe seeking termination of the observatory permit. The lawsuit initiated by the O'Odham comes after decades of resentment and opposition to telescope development. Construction has been halted by a federal injunction and the lawsuit goes to trial this week.


Throughout the world, Indigenous peoples have seen their sacred places threatened and abused by governments, mining and timber companies, housing developments, tourism industries, and research universities. In the U.S., some Indigenous peoples have struggled against scientists who desire to use their sacred mountains for astronomical explorations. Like other Indigenous groups, the Western Apache people have revered their land, as many community elders put it, "since time immemorial." By seizing sites such as Mount Graham, Mauna Kea, and Kitt Peak, astronomical institutions are overriding legitimate Native claims to their spiritual practices, eroding their sovereignty, and denying basic human rights. In the eyes of Native peoples who oppose the telescope projects on their sacred lands, the struggle for these summits is critical for their physical and spiritual health. Reconciliation must address major factors such as conflicts over use, competing worldviews, and opposing views of property, among others. Issues such as these are involved in restoring the sacred spaces where land and culture merge in order to restore Indigenous peoples' health and sovereignty.

Many astronomers who have worked on or continue to work on Mount Graham, Mauna Kea, or Kitt Peak have failed to respect Indigenous peoples' religious freedom and culture. In each of these cases, astronomers and their collaborators made conscious decisions to subvert environmental laws and legal processes, ridicule and disregard Indigenous knowledge that includes astronomy and physics, and inflict desecration and damages on sacred sites and fragile ecosystems and the people, plants, and animals who rely on those rare endangered places. The historical failure of those astronomers to fulfill their responsibilities to do no harm to an imperiled earth and its peoples is sad and disappointing, especially since there was a better way in which they could have pursued their research goals.

According to Jim Rock, a traditional Dakota educator who, for the last 14 years, has taught math and science at the University of Minnesota's Ando-giikendaasowin ("seek to know" or "hunt knowledge") Native American Math and Science Camps, "In respect and in reference to one another's perspectives, I would certainly have hoped that the astronomy community would have been willing to trade eyeballs with our elders and to see things from those mountaintops-through the eyes of those who have been to those mountaintops for millennia without the technology."

For more information regarding the struggle between astronomers and Native communities over sacred sites, visit (Mount Graham Coalition), (The Hawaiian Environmental Alliance), and (Sacred Land Film Project)