Indians, the Government and Stars

First, I know the term “Indians” is not politically correct. Nor is it accurate. However, the latest scientific evidence leads us to believe that the term “Native American” is not correct, either. Indeed, outside of Africa, no continent’s inhabitants can be accurately described as “native”. All the earth’s human population seems to have wandered out and away from its origins in Africa, long before any written human chronicals of time began.

The Tohono O’odham live in a nation appoximately the same size as Connecticut, in the Sonoran desert, spanning the boundaries of both the United States and Mexico. The “Desert People” have a very long and rich history, including terrible struggles against the Apache tribes, the US Government, Spain and Mexico. Shortly after helping the US Government force a peace with the Apache in the 1860’s, the Tohono O’odham were “granted” their land by executive order.

Almost 100 years later, around 1958, the Tohono O’odham were approached by a group of scientists interested in observing the stars. These scientists had searched over 150 mountain ranges within the United States, seeking the perfect site to build their new eyes upon the heavens. The Tohono O’odham refused them. The site the scientists chose was the second most sacred mountain to the Tohono O’odham.

Centuries before, the O’odham were approached by a Jesuit missionary from Spain who brought to the O’odham goodwill, kindness and mutual interest. The O’odham respected this holy man. However, they did not respect the Spanish soldiers. The O’odham recognized the individual distinctions within people.


NOAO/AURA/NSF

Hoping to once again benefit from the wisdom of the O’odham people, and knowing the intimate role that the heavens played in the lives of the O’odham, the astronomers invited the tribal council to view the stars from the Steward Observatory at the University of Arizona. There the astronomers gained the trust and respect of the Tohono O’odham people and were subsequently granted a perpetual lease to build and study the heavens at Kitt Peak National Observatory. Their only requirements were a promise that no military nor any other undertaking except the observation of the heavens takes place upon Kitt Peak and that the Tohono O’odham people would always be allowed to work and sell their tribal wares upon the land.

From Tuscon, where Kim is the most wonderful person, the drive to Kitt Peak is fairly long – about an hour and a half. It’s an interesting drive, heading East of Tucson, on a long highway out into the desert and surrounding hills. The landscape seemed so barren at first, but later, a subtle richness started to appear, not by any change in the landscape, but rather the change in the way I perceived the nature around me.

Strangely, along the highway, off past the shoulder, quite frequently, a Christian cross rises up from the ground, decorated in flowers or shiny wreaths. Still I am not certain what these represent.

I arrived at Kitt Peak around 9:30 in the morning. The last 12 miles of the drive being utterly nerve wracking – it was up a long, winding, very narrow road – higher and higher, with a vast, sprawling desert floor just off to your right, to which you could so easily tumble. All the way up, brief glimpses of the many telescopes that rise from Kitt Peak appear in the distance. Frustratingly, looking up at them while I was driving made my stomach leap for fear of the cliff that I might drive off accidentally at any moment.

Mike is probably chuckling to himself right now as he reads this, shaking his head at my lack of fortitude. He was completely unperturbed by the ascent.

Finally, the last turn in the road is marked by an almost completely circular turn, and this turn has a sign posted that says “no left turn”, pointing to the left, with an ‘X’ through the arrow, which points off a sheer drop from the 7,000 ft high cliff. Scientists and their sense of humour…

After I parked, one of the docents offered to guide me outside of the regular tour. He was a wonderful old physicist, exceptionally knoweldgeable in the history as well as the science of Kitt Peak. We also observed for some time a wounded tarantula making its way toward one of the Near Earth Objects telescopes.

Later, I’ll tell some stories about the science that actually goes on there.



My Sister Did It!

It happened at last. My sister met an actually really good man and they were married yesterday after a two day long event.

Jon and Kim. I have no idea what they’ll be doing with their last names, but it was really interesting, and a little strange, having the families all together for this.

Kim had her life-long friends, Tina, Keri and Linda as her bridesmaids. Jon had, well, I’m not really sure who they were, but they seemed like good people.

A lot of very confusing family things in the works, at least to me, but it was a wonderful thing – and I say that after dreading it.

A conspicuous absentee was Tanner, Jon’s most excellent canine. But I still managed to do some socializing.

Relatives I haven’t seen in years, old friends from all over — maybe Kim didn’t have such a bad idea. 🙂

I have no doubt they’ll be very happy together. They both have been through many situations and have taken the time to really know each other very well before making this commitment. I’m very proud of, and happy for my little sister. And I even like this new brother-in-law. He is sincere. Thoughtful. Strong. And just dorky enough. Just like my sis.

Ach, but it’s good seeing this!



Above and Below – or All Around

Every once in a while you decide something, or just do something that changes your life. Two days ago I returned from an exploration of astronomical facilities across Arizona and New Mexico, the equipment they use, the technologies they integrate, and the people whose passion it is to utilize them for their celestial studies.

I approached this journey as a superficial sampling of that which comprises the astronomical community to gain a better understanding of their topology from which to identify facets requiring deeper inquiry from my own predominant information systems perspective.

I learned far more than I expected. I felt far more than I imagined.

There is a rugged and passionate aspect to astronomy. Of the passion I had no doubt, but the ruggedness surprised me.

I suppose that space bourn observational platforms are truly the ultimate in ruggedness. Unfortunately, our shortcomings in developing technologies that allow people to live and work realistically in space have abstracted astronomers from these distanced tools. This seems to me a pity when considering the intimacy that is so beneficial between the observer and their instrumentation.

Earth bound observatories, though historically limited by the nature of celestial light passing through the atmosphere that sustains us, provide a hands-on, tangible and immediate connection between the astronomers, their instrumentation, and their distant object of interest. Even some of these are operated entirely by remote control; the observer collecting information in some far-away location. But you can easily recognize the facilities built with a more grand purpose in mind – the facilities built to accomplish something greater. They are built with human interaction in mind, hands-on, solid, with all the love and hate required for any passion.

All the observatories I visited require a journey to distance ourselves from our civilization so we might see the things beyond our current understanding and explore them. From the perspective of the scientist, we are too dazzled by our own light to see beyond. From the perspective of the poet, well… yes.

Along the way I met many very interesting and wonderful people. I reunited with some dear old friends, and I had the greatest fortune to discover a few new ones.

More than anything, I realized that I had forgotten myself in many ways. And in even more ways, rediscovered.

I’ll be writing more specifically about this journey in the days to come. For now, it is good being back where the sea fills the air.