|Running to protect sacred Mount Graham. Photo courtesy Apache Stronghold.|
|SUNY Geneseo College's morning bulletin was shown today on Twitter.|
"Located on 220 acres in the historic Village of Geneseo, and a short drive from Rochester and Buffalo, Geneseo offers a warm environment for learning and discovery."
Guy J. Consolmagno, SJ, is an American research astronomer, physicist, religious brother, director of the Vatican Observatory, and President of the Vatican Observatory Foundation.
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College scrapped an honorary degree for an astronomer over an Apache land dispute. Here's why
Rochester Democrat and Chronicle
SUNY Geneseo this week quietly scratched its plan to award an honorary degree to a Vatican astronomer after realizing the Arizona observatory where he works was built despite the fervent opposition of the Apache people on a mountain they consider sacred.
That realization came through an apparently remarkable coincidence: One of the key Apache leaders in the unsuccessful fight against the Mount Graham observatory, Wendsler Nosie Sr., will be on campus in Geneseo later this month to give the keynote address at a major annual college event. He is coming after being nominated by Joel Helfrich, a Geneseo history professor who happens to be the world's foremost non-native academic expert on the controversy regarding the observatory.
"I told them, you couldn't have picked a worse astronomer to give a degree to," Helfrich said. "And if this were in Arizona, you'd be seeing protests outside."
The astronomer in question is Guy Consolmagno, who serves as director for the Vatican Observatory. A trained scientist and Jesuit brother, he has written numerous books about the intersection of science and faith and spends much of his time giving speeches around the country. He gave one such address in Geneseo in 2017, speaking at GREAT Day, the same college event that Nosie is headlining this year.
The college announced in mid-March that it would be giving honorary degrees to Consolmagno and the playwright Molly Smith Metzler. In a follow-up message a week later, though, it said it had learned of the siting controversy in Arizona.
"The College acknowledges that the historical and contemporary issues regarding native lands are complicated and painful to some in our community," it said in a statement. "Given our commitment to the value of belonging and the importance of ensuring that the accomplishments of our students are clearly centered in our GREAT Day and commencement celebrations, after informing Consolmagno, we have decided not to proceed with the conferral of an honorary degree."
In an email, college spokeswoman Monique Patenaude said Consolmagno, like all honorary degree recipients, had been nominated by someone on campus and then held in consideration for three years.
"The timing of the two is 100% coincidental," she wrote. "After learning of the issue, members of the President's Cabinet made the decision to not proceed with the conferral of the honorary degree."
Consolmagno did not respond to a request for comment.
A sacred site
Much of Consolmagno's source material comes from observations made atop the 10,700-foot Mount Graham at an observatory known as the Pope Scope, operated by the University of Arizona, the Vatican and the U.S. Forest Service. The observatory website describes Mount Graham as "probably the best astronomical site in the Continental United States."
In Western Apache, the mountain is known as Dzil nchaa si an, or Big-Seated Mountain. It is considered a sacred place, the home of mountain spirits known as gaan and a place to gather herbs and medicine for ceremonial and practical uses. Nosie described it as "one of the really ancient sites of the Apache religion," and a buffer between heaven and Earth.
"It’s a place of prayer; it’s a place elders go and collect power," Nicholas Laluk, an archeologist and member of the White Mountain Apache tribe, said on a recent podcast. "It’s a place where the deities reside, where historically folks went for refuge or gathered food or medicine or other natural resources. There's just so many connections we as Apache folks have to Mount Graham."
The Apaches campaigned vigorously against the placement of the observatory from the early 1980s until it opened in 1993. Nosie was among many who were arrested during protests, or in his case, praying on the mountaintop without the so-called "prayer permit" he needed.
"That really totally changed my life, because it made me realize what the United States really meant," he said. "There really were no promises."
The mountain is also home to several endemic species of plants and animals, including the highly endangered Mount Graham red squirrel. It is among the mountains known as Sky Islands, where relatively small increases in altitude make for dramatic biotic changes.
Desecration or honor
Consolmagno was not yet director when the Mount Graham observatory was built, but he has defended its construction over Apache objections.
"To me it‘s not a desecration at all. It‘s honoring a sacred site," he said in a 2000 interview, cited in Helfrich's 2010 doctoral dissertation. "It‘s part of our philosophy that God reveals himself through creation, and studying creation in a scientific way is a way of coming closer to God."
The Apache objection to the Vatican telescope, meanwhile, is not just a matter of physical disruption but also the meaning behind it: the Catholic church displacing an existing location of religious practice to seek higher meaning on its own terms.
Nosie is the past chairman of the San Carlos Apache tribe and leads an organization called Apache Stronghold dedicated to preserving sacred native land. The organization is now fighting to block a copper mine from opening in another culturally significant location.
He said he was "stunned" to hear Consolmagno would receive an honor shortly after he was to speak at Geneseo. But his speech April 26 will go on as scheduled, and he said he is honored and eager to visit the college.
"To have this opportunity, I feel like the voices of the people of the past, the Native American people, are being heard," he said. "The fact that I’m able to go to a place to speak to many diverse people about how important this country and its sacred places are — that was really crucial to me.
"They need to understand what precious lands they live in, especially the younger people. They’re going to need to make some moral decisions and those are going to be critical if they’re going to be our next leaders."