Most of us have places that, for us, hold a special sense of the divine-sacred locations where we go for prayer, meditation, and reflection. For Christians, these places are often in cathedrals, churches, or chapels. For some Native Americans, such sacred sites are found in the natural environment-in forests, mountains, and deserts.
For the San Carlos Apache of Arizona, the mountain Dzil Nchaa Si An is such a place. Mount Graham, as it is known in English, has been visited for centuries by Apache holy men and women who gathered medicines, soaked in the sacred springs, and received spiritual power from the mountain. Located 140 miles northeast of Tucson, the mountain is a place for the tribe to be strengthened in their traditional faith. Wendsler Nosie Sr. of the group Apaches for Cultural Preservation calls Dzil Nchaa Si An "a seminary for our people, a place for spiritual training."
Yet the holiness of the mountain for the San Carlos Apache began to be desecrated in 1988, when the University of Arizona began construction of an extensive telescope project on its highest peaks. Since then, the mountain has been the site of an intense struggle between developers, scientists, indigenous rights activists, and environmentalists. Funded by the Vatican Observatory and other investors in Italy and Germany, the $60 million facility was able-for a time-to get around existing environmental legislation through the political torque of the University of Arizona.
Though the Apache have no problem with recreational use of the mountain, many tribe members believe the commercial and scientific nature of the University of Arizona's project is destructive to the sacredness of Mount Graham. Broad-based opposition to the project began as the first two telescopes were being built, with a number of organizations, including the Racial Justice Working Group of the National Council of Churches, Greenpeace, and the Sierra Club, joining indigenous groups to resist the project.
The telescope project suffered its first major defeat recently when the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals stopped construction on the site of the third and most important telescope until additional cultural and environmental studies were done to determine its impact.
While focusing on the Mount Graham issue, a new group called the Mount Graham Sites Inter-Faith Alliance hopes to educate people of faith on the spiritual significance of all sacred sites. Marianna Neil, a member of the alliance, said that Christians "can do something to help Native Americans carry on their traditions and to have those respected. It's about rights and sites both," she said. For more information, contact the Mount Graham Sacred Sites Inter-Faith Alliance, c/o Southside Presbyterian Church, 317 West 23rd St., Tucson, AZ 85713.