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UA, American Indians remain at odds about prayer permits

By Thomas Stauffer
Arizona Daily Wildcat
August 24, 1998
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Arizona Daily Wildcat

Photo courtesy of medusa.as.arizona.edu/lbtwww/lbt.html This artist's rendition of the Large Binocular Telescope is part of the facility on Mount Graham. American Indians are now required to obtain a permit before they can enter a sacred site only accessible by a UA-owned road.

American Indians say a UA policy requires them to have a permit to pray, creating the latest issue in the ongoing dispute over the construction of telescopes on Mount Graham, near Safford.

The policy requires American Indians to submit written requests to enter the telescope site two days in advance and to specify the area to be visited. The proposal, sent in October by University of Arizona officials to District Ranger George Asmus of the U.S. Forest Service, was obtained by the Southwest Center for Biological Diversity through the Freedom of Information Act this summer.

"It is a classic example of man's inhumanity to man," said Dr. Robert Witzeman, a member of the Mount Graham Coalition, a group opposed to the telescope construction. "It is me-first institutional arrogance and the rest of the world be damned."

Buddy Powell, associate director of UA's Steward Observatory, said the policy was designed to accommodate American Indians who wish to gain access to high peaks in the Pinale–#241;o Mountains via the one-lane road on the 8.6-acre plot set to become the Mount Graham International Observatory. He said the policy is also designed to increase security and ensure the safety of those visiting the site.

Powell said the actual permit has nothing to do with the UA, and is authorized by the Forest Service in accordance with the Endangered Species Act.

"The university does not require any permit, the forest service does," he said. "Everybody needs a permit to get up there because it's a red squirrel refugium."

"It's the feds that have created this thing," said Michael Cusanovich, UA vice president for research and graduate studies. "We are all for doing away with the refugium and then everybody could go where they want."

Opponents of the observatory have a different view.

"What they are doing is buck-passing, pretending that the university does not control completely the summit of Mount Graham," said Dr. Robin Silver, of the Southwest Center for Biological Diversity. "Asmus will do what Mike Cusanovich says, period."

A near-standoff between San Carlos Apaches and Forest Service officials was resolved Aug. 16 at the base camp where permits are issued.

Wendsler Nosie, of Apaches for Cultural Preservation, led 15 Apache youths on a traditional 95-mile relay run from the nearby San Carlos Reservation up to a campsite in the Pinale–#241;o Mountains. Nosie, who did not plan to get a permit, was met by Forest Service officials.

William Foreman, one of three attorneys that accompanied Nosie that afternoon, said that initially, neither party was willing to give in.

"The Forest Service said, 'We don't want a precedent set that someone would go up without a permit,' and we said, 'We don't want a precedent set that we would be required to have one,'" Foreman said.

Foreman said Nosie's group then offered Forest Service officials a list of everyone going up the mountain - as a good-faith acknowledgment - and that Asmus accepted the list and unlocked the gate to the road.

Asmus said he treated the list of names as a de facto permit and that UA officials had given permission to the group to use the road.

"That policy is what they [the UA] would like to see happen, but the reality is they will deal with each request on a case-by-case basis," Asmus said.

"All that stuff [the policy] was waived by the U of A," Foreman said. "We were not going to get a permit."

UA police arrested Nosie on a trespassing charge last year near the telescopes while he was praying for his daughter's passage into womanhood. He was acquitted in April.

Witzeman said that to Apaches, the idea of a permit is "utterly insulting." Nosie said the Apaches have been going to the sacred sites in the mountains for as long as they can remember.

"I think the important thing is we're going home, we're going back to our ancestral lands," he said. "God blessed us with these places. It's our identity, and that's been taken away from us for so long."


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