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Excerpt from A Language Older Than Words

Mount Graham (p. 178)

From chapter "Insatiability"

Every day now I hear heavy machinery as it comes closer to my home: the clank of treads, the rumble of diesel engines, and the scrape of steel blades on volcanic rocks. I don’t know how much longer I can take it. I may soon flee, run down the path followed by so many before me—Indians and wolverines, buffalo and beavers, even my own ancestors, the indigenous of Europe: outcasts and refugees, each and every one. The dispossessed.

I don’t know how much longer we can keep running. For the indigenous of Europe, there was always north, and east, directions they could go to try to maintain their way of living for another generation before falling to a people bent on subduing the planet and all its members. No matter that my ancestors’ flight pushed them into the homes of others, disrupting and making refugees of community after community as each tried to avoid their inevitable extermination. For the first Americans to be contacted by Europeans, in the Caribbean, there were other islands to which they could escape, and for those met later there was always west. Never mind, again, that one dislocation leads to another, and an expanding wave of refugees thus always precedes the march of our culture. At least back then there was someplace to go.

Where can we go from here? There is nowhere left to hide. And where we do try to hide, there we will always be found. Found also will be excuses to continue to pick away at whatever autonomy and integrity—ecological and otherwise—remains, to grind away until we’ve nowhere and nothing left.

As if we need another example, we can find one without looking so far as the now-melting icecap in Antarctica, or the plummeting populations of krill and penguin, nor toward the other pole, where transnational oil companies melt the tundra and destroy caribou calving grounds to extract oil and make a buck. I can open my window, or simply listen with window still closed to hear the encroachment of bulldozers: the sound of money being made. Or to choose one more absurd and wasteful example among too many—one or more for every place and person and creature on earth—I can look at Mount Graham in Arizona.

For years the San Carlos Apaches have been staving off attempts by members of the dominant culture to build a huge astronomical observatory on one of their most sacred sites, Mount Graham. The mountain is also home to the gravely endangered Mount Graham red squirrel. Leading the fight to defend this mountain is an organization called, appropriately enough, the “Apache Survival Coalition.” Leading the fight to build the observatory are the University of Arizona, the Max Planck Institute, and the Vatican, the unholy trinity of academia, science, and Christianity, supported by the full power of the state.

The land originally belonged to the San Carlos Apaches, or rather they belonged to it. The San Carlos Apaches buried their dead there. They prayed there. They communed there with Ga’an, or spirits who also call this mountain home. The mountain is central to their moral and physical universe, which cannot be separated.

The land was not lost through immediate conquest: the Indians retained it when Congress formed their reservation in 1871. But the mountain was lost two years later as President Grant unilaterally abrogated the treaty, giving the land to Mormon settlers. Still the Apaches prayed there, and still the other residents continued with their lives: the Mount Graham red squirrel, Mexican spotted owl, Apache trout, twin-spotted rattlesnake, Sonoran mountain kingsnake, white-bellied vole, and so on, all now in danger of extinction (the mountain is home to at least eighteen species and subspecies of plants and animals found nowhere else on the planet).

After the Mormons came logging trucks: the land not taken by settlers was put under the care of the Forest Service, which led predictably to roads and clearcuts. Still some wildlife persisted, and still the San Carlos Apaches prayed.

Then came vacation homes and a Bible camp. Still the ecological, spiritual, and cultural backs of the mountain and its people had not been broken.

A new irrationale was conjured to justify the further burdening of the mountain and its people: the telescope. In 1984, the University of Arizona, the University of Ohio (which because of student pressure has since withdrawn from the project), and the Vatican came together to build a world-class observatory on Mount Graham. It hardly seems necessary at this point to go into the details of the last thirteen years: it’s a story we’ve heard too many times. It’s the story of study after study showing damage to indigenous peoples and to wildlife, and the suppression of these studies. It’s the story of men with money intimidating scientists to fabricate more studies—fraudulent but effective barriers to truth—that find precisely what men with money wish to hear. It’s the story of politicians waiting with open hands for their votes to be purchased. It’s the story of willful, fatal, and all-too-familiar ecological ignorance on the part of those who run the country: Manuel Lujan, Secretary of the Interior, said about protecting the Mount Graham red squirrel, “Nobody’s told me the difference between a red squirrel, a black one or a brown one.”

It’s the story of routine deceit by the government: when part of the way through the project, University of Arizona researchers realized the site where they’d already installed multiple telescopes was not optimal (thirty-eighth out of fifty-seven sites studied), they requested permission from the government to place more telescopes elsewhere on the mountain: at first federal bureaucrats demurred, but pressure and money convinced them to sign on, and so on December 3, 1993, the Forest Service sent a letter by regular post to several San Carlos Apache people asking for input on the proposed site addition. When those opposed to the observatory hadn’t responded by December 6 (they had yet to receive the letters) the Forest Service declared the public input requirement fulfilled and quietly issued permission for the University of Arizona to build on the new site. Before dawn the next morning, the University began cutting ancient trees. The documents do not record whether the trees screamed as they were felled.

It’s the story of the silencing of native voices: contrast the words of San Carlos Apache medicine man and spiritual leader Franklin Stanley, Sr—”We have listened to you tell us Mount Graham is not sacred. But those who say that do not know, and they have not talked to the spiritual leaders, like myself. . . . Nowhere else in this world stands another mountain like the mountain that you are trying to disturb. On this mountain is a great life-giving force. You have no knowledge of the place you are about to destroy”—with the words of Charles W Polzer, S.J., Curator of Ethnohistory at the Arizona State Museum in Tucson, brought in by the Vatican to dispute the sacrality of Mount Graham—”Had Mount Graham been a sacred locale for the Apache nation, military records would clearly mention it as the focal point for punitive raids.”

The story of Mount Graham is also the story of routine genocide: Father George V. Coyne, Director of the Vatican Observatory and former housemate of Polzer, stated that the Apache cosmology is “a religiosity to which I cannot subscribe and which must be suppressed with all the force that we can muster.” It is the story of absurd claims to virtue overriding all reason, ethics, and evidence: Coyne said the Vatican is involved in this project in order to seek out extraterrestrial beings which “might be brought within the fold and baptized,” and defined the protocol necessary on contact: “First of all, one would need to put some questions to him, such as `Have you ever experienced something similar to Adam and Eve,’ in other words, `original sin’? And then you would have to ask, ‘Do you people also know a Jesus who has redeemed you?”‘ Presumably if they do not, they will be given the same choice as has been given to countless indigenous peoples here on Earth. It is the oft-repeated story of the silencing of all dissenting voices, and the consistent, persistent, incessant wearing away at all that is not Western. It is the destruction of every vestige of ecological or spiritual integrity.

The name of the observatory, by the way, is the Columbus Project.