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.