Mt. Graham Telescope Project and the University of Minnesota

Social Concerns Committee Position Report

March 2002

Executive Summary:

The conflict between the interests of research science and those of indigenous culture centering on the Mt. Graham project are perhaps irreconcilable. Central to the complication is that the opposing groups bring incompatibly different systems of politics, knowledge, belief and history to bear, and as a result, are incapable of either understanding or compromise. And complicating matters further is the provenance of the protest itself: virtually all the opposition has been organized by one group, the Mt. Graham Coalition, whose background and interests are unknown. Having read an extensive body of material (much of it prepared and distributed by the Mt. Graham Coalition, other taken from web research and personal inquiry), taken testimony from Professor Leonard Kuhi, Chair: Department of Astronomy, members of the University's American Indian Affairs Committee, local activists, members of the Mt. Graham Coalition, and two native elders from the Apache Survival Coalition (brought here by the Mt. Graham Coalition), the Committee found the issue structurally irresolvable. We chose to outline the competing cases as clearly as possible and provide advice on a course of action. This advice is not a claim to a single truth in regard to the complex history of litigation and conflict around Mt. Graham. Rather, it interprets and presents the situation as we see it at this historical moment.

That advice: for the University to join the Mt. Graham Observatory / Large Binocular Telescope places us in clear danger of allying ourselves against the interests and beliefs of native people. This strikes us as a choice with clear consequences in regard to the University's ethical reputation—should we join the MGIO/LBT project, we need to be prepared for considerable, strong and organized opposition and a great deal of media attention. Thus far, the University has not managed its interests in this matter skillfully, has not articulated the case for the science involved, nor for its care in protecting the interests of native people, and as a result faces formidable public opposition. More to the point in the view of the Committee, we would explicitly reject a multi-vocal, passionate appeal from many groups of native people to respect their heritage—symbolic and material.

Significantly, what is at stake here is not historical, economic, scientific, or legal 'reality'; rather, this is a question of how we are to be seen, of the symbolic power and violence of actions, and of the relationships we wish to set with our communities in this particular moment in history.

Details follow.


• Thanks to a 5-million-dollar grant from the Hubbard Foundation, the University is able to buy a share in the nearly-completed Large Binocular Telescope, one of several now present at the Mt. Graham International Observatory complex in Arizona. This is a small share in terms of available time, but offers a significant research advantage to our astronomers.

• The legal record is complex and conflicted. The dispute ranges over decades of changing environmental law and policy, several changes in national government, changes in Bureau of Land Management policy, and changes in tribal government in the local Apache nations. The history of litigation and fact can be (and has been) read to support various conclusions. But we found no violations of law or procedure in the process that lead to approval of the telescope project.

• The claims for astronomy / science are not subject to reasonable dispute; while cases have been offered for other possible sites, this one seems the obvious choice on both economic and scientific grounds.

• The history of opposition is conflicted. Early opposition was on familiar environmental grounds, focused on the sub-species of the Mt. Graham Red Squirrel and its delicate relation to the high-altitude conifer forest atop Mt. Graham. Later opposition was mounted in the name of the Apache Nations, some of whom, at various times, have both acquiesced to and opposed the project. Current opposition takes both the environmental and native-rights positions. Charges and counter charges of lobbying, environmental policy and law violation, and appropriation and manipulation of the native people abound. In letters received by the Committee Chair, opposition was also raised in terms of anti-war sentiment (1 letter, suggesting the technology involved had military origins), and religious freedom (1 letter, claiming that the Vatican's involvement violated separation of Church and State).

• Mt. Graham is not a wilderness, nor is it virgin forest. Its long history is one of logging, settlement, recreation, summer-home building and road construction. It is not a protected area. It is large, accessible, and the telescope complex represents a small part of the summit ridge.

• The telescope complex and its access roads are complete, awaiting only the installation of the lenses for the Large Binocular Telescope. The University's commitment does not involve additional building or forest clearing.

• The project has been variously supported and rejected by other institutions. Status of current affiliations is singularly unclear.

• Science in regard to the Red Squirrel is inconclusive: its population naturally fluctuates, and is radically influenced by available food supplies—which are in turn affected by tree diseases and fire. Large, connected areas of forest seem to be important–thus having a relation to the patterns of clearing and construction around the telescope complex—but that evidence is mixed. Whether or not the squirrel is presently in danger (after the telescope complex is complete) is not clear. Certainly the long history of logging and development has affected the squirrel population, but details of that trajectory are uncertain.

• The place of native opposition is unclear. The history of protest against the project is a typical mix of American activism of the late century—largely initiated and led by non-native students. At various times different bands have tentatively supported and opposed the project. Since tribal governance is typically conflicted and not commensurate with Anglo systems of democratic process, we could not determine the source or support of the native opposition. Taken as a whole, there seems to be far more opposition than support, and allegations of complicity of the University of Arizona in soliciting native support abounds in the native press. But it is critical to recognize that Apache government is not Anglo government. There is no tradition of unified, univocal representation for these native people, so that they have not 'spoken as a whole' cannot be taken as either confusion or tacit approval (note below).

• That Mt. Graham is a sacred space for the Apache people is beyond question. Anthropologist Keith Basso, perhaps the world's foremost Anglo authority on Apache culture, has submitted a long essay / affidavit detailing the significance of the mountain, its plants and springs and its presence for the Apache people. He also details how the long history of development and exploitation by white culture has become a standing symbol of racism and oppression to the Apache. He further explains the epistemological / political incompatibility of the two nation systems.

Two Apache elders who visited Minneapolis and met with the Committee (Ola Cassadore Davis and Michael Davis, of the Apache Survival Coalition), confirmed this, point for point, in what our Minutes accurately describe as 'passionate testimony.' In their view, this is sacred space, still in use as a spiritual site, and seen as desecrated by the telescope project—by its very presence, and by additional support for that presence. They made clear that if the University allies itself with the project, they will take it as a direct affront to their culture—as a violence. The committee wishes to acknowledge, with respect, the information shared regarding Mt. Graham by Ms. and Mr. Davis. The perspective offered a valuable opportunity for the committee to hear oral history and the impact of decisions, past, present and future, that affect us globally as universal citizens. Their last words, tellingly, were 'we will not go away.'

• We do not know whom the Mt. Graham Coalition represents, nor do we know its systems of support or interests. Their efforts have been largely polite, careful, principled and helpful, but neither they nor their materials (printed or web-based) make clear where their interests lie. They are highly skilled at forming and directing public opinion, and simply said, they have taken over the narrative of Mt. Graham.

Our Committee Chair received 17 e-mail and paper letters of protest to University involvement. All but one contained identical language and structure. The Chair asked each e-mail correspondent to identify him or herself and to explain their interest in the project. One did, a retired Anthropology professor from the University of Maryland, offered detailed reasons for his opposition from 30 years of work with the Apache. His case confirmed Keith Basso's. The rest—some writing from academic e-mail addresses, but the majority from commercial servers—declined to say who they were.

Thus we have no reason to suspect the motives behind this very well-organized and somewhat costly opposition. But neither do we know where it comes from.

Discussion / Recommendation:

While it may have been possible early on in this dispute to present a principled defense of affiliation with the Mt. Graham / LBT project, it clearly is not now. We did not handle this well by simply repeating that the opposition had mis-constructed the facts, and that we met all legal responsibilities—true, but strikingly irrelevant. We failed to make the case for science, for the spiritual dimensions of science, for the service science can provide to all people, for our own stewardship, for our commitment to native culture and rights, or for ways in which we might work for compromise.

We argued the case for science and the fairness of our involvement in terms of facts and the truth. We are faced, conversely, with a situation that must be read in terms of meanings or symbols. Mt. Graham is sacred space for the Apache people, and the various violations of that space—summer homes, telescopes, road races, Bible camps and so on—are seen as part of a legacy of violence. Though the University is not proposing to build or change the landscape, our participation is clearly read as symbolic violence, and an alignment with a history of oppression. In the view of the Social Concerns Committee, symbolic violence is real violence. And it is out of keeping with the ethical stance the University tries to take.

Mt. Graham has long been sacred ground. It has now become a symbol of indigenous culture and a marker of the ugly history of native oppression as well. We lack the means to change these meanings, to alter that history. But we counsel that we do have a choice for ethical action in the present moment. On ethical, material, political and cultural grounds, we cannot afford to join the MGIO project.

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