Indigenous Peoples and Human Rights

September 14, 2018

Vatican's Telescope Violates Sacred Mount Graham

Mount Graham Sacred Run

Center for Biological Diversity

September 14, 2018
Reverend Robert T. Kickham
Secretary to the Cardinal
Cardinal’s Office
66 Brooks Drive
Braintree, MA 02154-3839
Phone: 617-782-2544
FAX: +1 (781) 356-2451

Dear Reverend Kickham,

RE:  1. Ongoing mistreatment of the Apache by the Catholic Church

       2. Meeting request with Cardinal O’Malley

San Carlos Apache Tribal Chairman Terry Rambler and former San Carlos Apache Tribal Chairman Wendsler Nosie, Sr. have forwarded to me your attached correspondence, dated June 4, 2018.  Chairman Rambler and Past Chairman Nosie have requested my opinion regarding Cardinal O’Malley’s response to Chairman Rambler’s correspondence, dated May 18, 2018 (also attached for your convenience).

Chairman Rambler and Past Chairman Nosie have asked for my opinion because of my long involvement with the San Carlos Apache Tribe and because of my extensive experience in dealing with Catholic Church officials regarding Mount Graham.

Mount Graham is the highly controversial current location for the Vatican’s telescope.  Mount Graham, in southeastern Arizona, is very sacred to the traditional Apache. The Apache name for Mount Graham is Dzil Nchaa Si An.  Mount Graham is also home to the severely endangered Mount Graham Red Squirrel. Less than 30 individuals survive now owing to fragmentation and destruction of their only habitat on Mount Graham.

My involvement with the San Carlos Apache dates back to 1983, when I began supervising the education of San Carlos Apache Tribal paramedics as Medical Director of the Phoenix College Emergency Medical Services Program.  Beginning in 1987, I became involved with the preservation of Mount Graham.

As part of our efforts to protect Mount Graham, I personally met, on multiple occasions, with both Bishop Thomas O’Brien of the Phoenix Diocese and BishopManuel Moreno of the Tucson Diocese, and with countless other local and national Church officials, including Vatican Observatory officials.

For sake of brevity, ultimately, I met with Cardinal Roger Etchegary in Vatican City on two occasions.  Cardinal Etchegary arranged for me to meet with Pope John Paul II at the Vatican.

Unfortunately, at the last moment, my meeting with Pope John Paul II was inexplicably canceled.  Instead I was instructed to meet with Father Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, S.J., Superior General of the Society of Jesus.  Another priest was present at my meeting with Father Kolvenbach; however, I do not remember his name, only that he was a fellow American and that he identified himself as the Provincial Superior for the U.S.

The topic of these multiple meetings has been fourfold, (1) the Catholic Church’s and the Vatican Observatory’s disrespectful treatment of the Apache, (2) the precarious fate of the Mount Graham Red Squirrel, (3) the Vatican Observatory’s reliance upon legislative riders providing exemption from all religious, cultural and environmental protection laws as rationale for Vatican Observatory use of Mount Graham, and (4) withdrawal of the Vatican Observatory from Mount Graham.

As background,  please note the following:

The central sacred importance of Mount Graham has been known to the Mount Graham astronomers since 1968, long before the opening of the Vatican’s telescope in 1993.  On July 10, 1990, the San Carlos Apache Tribal Council passed its first of eight resolutions in opposition to use of their sacred site and of their sacred mountain by astronomers.  By April 1992, nearly every traditional religious leader of the San Carlos Apache Tribe signed a petition to stop the telescopes from interfering with their ability to practice their religion.  The Apache religious leaders say:

"We the undersigned spiritual leaders of the Apache people acknowledge the central sacred importance of Dzil nchaa si an (Mt. Graham) to the traditional religious practice of the Apache.  We oppose the Mt. Graham telescope project because it will interfere with the ability of the traditional Apache to practice their religion."

(Petition of the Apache spiritual leaders, April 1992.)

But still the Vatican Observatory and the other Mount Graham astronomers refused to respect the Apache.  The Apache were forced to go to court to try and stop desecration of their sacred site and of their sacred mountain.  In the trial, the Vatican Observatory director and another Jesuit priest where the primary witnesses against the Apache.

Vatican Observatory Director Father George Coyne, S.J., testified against the Apache:

"We are not convinced by any of the arguments thus far presented that Mt. Graham possesses a sacred character which precludes responsible andlegitimate use of the land...In fact, we believe that responsible and legitimate use of the land enhances its sacred character."

(University of Arizona Exhibit B, Statement of the Vatican Observatory on the Mt. Graham International Observatory and American Indian Peoples, George V. Coyne, S.J., Director, Vatican Observatory, Apache Survival Coalition, et al. v. USA, et al., University of Arizona, intervenor, CIV. No. 91-1350 PHXM WPC, April 6, 1992.)

Father Charles Polzer, S.J., testified against the Apache:

"...As an ordained priest and trained theologian as well as historian and anthropologist, I know that anthropological appeals to this court regarding the sacredness of Mt. Graham to the Apache is little more than a preposterous misuse of academic status and the poorest manifestation of sound methodology as I have witnessed in recent times."

(University of Arizona Exhibit C, Affidavit of Father Charles W. Polzer, S.J., Curator of Ethnohistory, University of Arizona's Arizona State Museum, University of Arizona, Apache Survival Coalition, et al. v. US, et al., University of Arizona, intervenor, CIV. No. 91-1350 PHX WPC, April 6, 1992.)

Then on August 30, 1997, the astronomers’ security officers arrested an Apache man for trespassing while “on the mountain to pray for his daughter.” (Trial before Court Transcript, State of Arizona, Plaintiff, vs. Wendsler Nosie, Sr., Defendant, Safford, Arizona, January 8, 1998.)

Regarding this requirement that the Apache need to secure a permit to pray on their sacred mountain, on August 15, 1998, the Arizona Republic reported,

"The University of Arizona [the Mount Graham astronomy operations are managed by the University of Arizona] is requiring Native Americans to obtain prayer permits before they cross the top of Mount Graham…The university established the permits in an effort to accommodate traditional-spiritual San Carlos Apaches and other native peoples who hold sacred the high peaks of the Pinaleno Mountains…

'There was some confusion about how you acquire permission to come into the area,' said Michael Cusanovich, UA vice president for research and graduate studies.

'We made a policy to make it clear to the public - or in this case, Indian people - that if they want to come in, we encourage that, but that we would make permits available to them,' Cusanovich said.

'It's not meant to be restrictive.  It's meant to be inclusive,' he said…

The policy requires that permission be requested in writing, at least two business days before a visit, and include a description of where on the mountain the prayers will take place.

The persons requesting the permit and all members of their party must be enrolled members of a federally recognized tribe.  In addition, they must receive permission from the U.S. Forest Service to enter…"

(UA requires prayer permits for Indians on Mt. Graham, Steve Yozwiak, The Arizona Republic, August 15, 1998)

Such disrespectful treatment of the Apache by the Church and the Vatican Observatory continues as the Vatican Observatory still operates a telescope on Mount Graham.

The Apache understand that Cardinal O’Malley “does not have any association or involvement with the Vatican Observatory.”  The Apache requested a meeting with Cardinal O’Malley because of the Cardinal’s well known friendship and special relationship with Pope Francis.

Your statement, that “[w]e trust that there is no intention on the part of the Observatory to create disruption or a sense of disrespect for the Tribe,” ignores the Church’s and the Vatican Observatory’s past and ongoing actions some of which are documented in this correspondence.  In addition, after decades of the Apache meeting and corresponding with Church officials, it is obvious that there has not been and nor will there “be mutual respect and beneficial counsel with those who have responsibility for the Observatory.” Only intervention by Pope Francis with an order that the Vatican Observatory withdraws from Mount Graham can remedy this tragic ordeal.

Now that Cardinal O’Malley knows of the specifics of the Church’s and Vatican Observatory’s past and ongoing treatment of the Apache, and given the Cardinal’s special relationship with Pope Francis, will Cardinal O’Malley offer the Apache more than “an assurance of a remembrance in our prayers”?

Please kindly ask Cardinal O’Malley to answer the following questions:

Will Cardinal O’Malley meet with San Carlos Apache Tribal Chairman Rambler?

Will Cardinal O’Malley consider asking Pope Francis to stop the Vatican Observatory’s disrespectful treatment of the Apache by withdrawing from Mt. Graham?

Hopefully, Cardinal O’Malley will answer these questions directly to Chairman Rambler.  If Cardinal O’Malley or you have any questions, or need hard copy documentation of the Catholic Church’s and the Vatican Observatory’s ongoing abuse of the Apache, or if I can be of any help in anyway, please do not hesitate contacting me via mail: Robin Silver, M.D., Center for Biological Diversity, P.O. Box 1178, Flagstaff, AZ 86002; via phone: 602-799-3275; via FAX: 928-222-0077; or via Email:

Thank you, Reverend Kickham.

Sincerely, Robin Silver, M.D.
Co-founder and Board Member

cc: San Carlos Apache Tribal Chairman Terry Rambler

Past San Carlos Apache Tribal Chairman Wendsler Nosie, Sr.

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