The Apache community running to rescue its holy mountain

High Country News
2 min readAug 10, 2021

Indigenous spiritual leaders say the Vatican’s observatory is searching for something it doesn’t understand.

Dził Nchaa Si’an in present-day Arizona is a mountain where the deities live. That means it must be approached through the proper corridors, geographically and mentally. Elders teach younger generations to approach prayerfully, through suffering, remembering the ancestors. Wendsler Nosie Sr., who is Chiricahua Apache and enrolled in the San Carlos Apache Tribe, says the mountain is a fixture in Apache religion. “If we were to write the Bible,” he said, “this would be in there.”

Mount Graham, the colonial name for Dził Nchaa Si’an, was part of the San Carlos Apache Reservation until 1873, when the federal government seized it by presidential executive order, deeming it public lands and subsequently placing it under the management of the U.S. Forest Service. Access to the mountain, however, fell under the control of the University of Arizona. In 1990, George Coyne, director of the Vatican Observatory in Italy, who was at the time also a professor at the university, broke ground for a new observatory on Mount Graham. Neither the Vatican, the Forest Service, the university, nor any of the observatory’s other collaborators ever sought the Apache people’s approval. Coyne himself was dismissive of the objections that were made.

Portrait of Wendsler Nosie Sr. at Treasure Park on Mt. Graham. Nosie said, “It’s always amazing when I’m on Mt. Graham to think about the history of our people and what they knew as freedom, remembering over 30 years of this particular struggle against religious discrimination. Knowing in this current generation that we’re coming home to what is holy and sacred, our church, is powerful.” | Molly Peters

“After extensive, thorough investigations by Indian and non-Indian experts,” Coyne wrote in a statement, “there is to the best of our knowledge no religious or cultural significance to the specific observatory site.”

In response, starting in 1991, Nosie and about a dozen others, including his daughter, Vanessa Nosie, ran to Dził Nchaa Si’an from the San Carlos Reservation — a distance of more than 100 miles. The runners took turns, relaying the distance, to protest the desecration of the holy mountain. They’ve been running every year since.

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