Yoli Ngandali: A sky island is more than a mountain. Ecologically, it’s a peak elevated above the desert, sustaining life for thousands of years. In the Pinaleño Mountains, just south of Tucson, Arizona, there’s one sky island called Dzil Nchaa Si’an. Meaning big-seated mountain in the Western Apache language. It’s over 10,000 feet above sea level, and while other mountains in its range are made from lava deposits and covered with grasses and small shrubs, this mountain is different. It’s taller. Its origins start deeper in the Earth, and it has trees, massive ones dating back hundreds of years.
Dr. Ora Marek-Martinez: Just like to make a little note that in advance, I apologize to my Western Apache cousins for my Navajo accent in the pronunciation of their sacred places. Spiritually, for Western Apache tribes and Native communities, including four O’odham tribes in southern Arizona that have ancestral and contemporary ties to the mountainscape through the region, the sky island of Dzil Nchaa Si’an is a significant landmark, a place where medicinal plants, ancestors, deities, burials, and ceremonies date back older than the trees. But as the tallest oasis in the southern Arizona desert, Dzil Nchaa Si’an attracted attention from beyond the Western Apache peoples. In the 1800s, settlers came to harvest lumber, and during the U.S. war against Mexico, the site was mapped by the Army Corps of Topographical Engineers.
Yoli: Dzil Nchaa Si’an was part of the San Carlos Apache Reservation until 1873, when the U.S. government broke their treaty and seized the land by presidential executive order. The sky island is now called Mount Graham in English and was placed under the U.S. Forest Service’s management.
Ora: And then in the 1980s, another group sought to claim this mountain.
Yoli: Non-Native astronomers came without recognizing or requesting access from the tribe. Given its relatively dry air, high altitude, and distance from Tucson, Mount Graham became a top pick for the University of Arizona and its partners to build a 3,500-acre complex, including one of the world’s biggest binocular telescopes.
Ora: And one of the major supporters of the project is the Vatican, earning the project a nickname “Pope Scope.”
Yoli: The university, the Vatican, and the U.S. Forest Service came to this site with specific agendas in mind. Despite the Indigenous ancestral claim to the land, settler institutions continue to occupy this space.
Ora: And certainly, the mountain is home to our animal relatives too.
Yoli: Like squirrels. A specialized subspecies known as the red squirrel was once considered extinct. But when conversations about the telescope began, biologists identified a population of 400 red squirrels found only on Mount Graham, which are now included in the conversation on conservation.
Ora: The world is full of stories like this one. There are places like Mount Graham or Dzil Nchaa Si’an with more than one name and a multitude of stories and connections.
Yoli: And each of these claims is tangled up in colonial legacies and expressions of power.
Ora: In this episode, we talk about Indigenous sovereignty in contested spaces.
Yoli: What happens when places like Mount Graham become sites of resistance?
Ora: Because as Native and Indigenous people, we are still here. We are still connected to the land, to our ancestors, to our animal relatives, and to the spirits who occupy these places. We are always in ceremony, and the peak of Dzil Nchaa Si’an remains a holy place.
Yoli: So, how do we, as Black and Indigenous people, hold our ground? How do we maintain our relations with these unprotected holy places? Here’s episode 5, More Than a Mountain.
Ora: I’m Ora.
Yoli: And I’m Yoli. In this season on the SAPIENS podcast, we explore how Black and Indigenous archaeologists are changing the stories we tell.
[SAPIENS introduction and music]
Dr. Nicholas Laluk: We really wanted the footprint of the telescope to be removed forever, basically. But the Forest Service would never, never, never budge. And it’s still an ongoing issue.
Ora: This is Dr. Nicholas Laluk. He also goes by Nick. He is a citizen of the White Mountain Apache tribe and a professor at the University of California, Berkeley. He’s talking about Dzil Nchaa Si’an or Mount Graham.
Nick: It’s a place that defines us. It is, you know, such a powerful, significant landscape for us and remains that way and will be in perpetuity as well. I think it’s really hard to convey unless you actually feel it. And, you know, and that’s a huge problem, right?
Yoli: He’s also talking about one of the stranger tensions around Mount Graham.
Nick: The Vatican, University of Arizona, and Coronado all work together to establish this telescope. Right in the heart of Apache homelands. They’re going to do what? Look for something else out in the galaxy or even deeper that, our sense of the universe, I guess, of why we’re here.
Yoli: From Nick’s perspective, these religious and scientific communities are drawn here for a reason. But by razing the forest to see the sky, they are missing the point.
Nick: Apache people already know why they’re here. That’s one of our sacred holy mountains, and it’s a place that’s, you know, has been with us since time immemorial that provides Creation Stories, guidance, strength, knowledge, gives us direction.
Ora: And Mount Graham is not the first place Nick has experienced this kind of tension, where outsiders have come in looking for answers, answers that Indigenous communities already have.
Nick: We had a legacy of field schools on our reservation going back to the 1930s, and a lot of prominent archaeologists in the Southwest got their training on White Mount Apache trust lands.
Ora: These trust lands are located northeast of Phoenix, Arizona, and span 1.7 million acres across a region referred to as the Fort Apache Indian Reservation. On this land sits one of the oldest archaeological field schools in the country, run by the University of Arizona. Within my own homelands of Dinétah or the Navajo Nation, we have our bounded reservation of 17 million acres. However, we also recognize our Aboriginal and accustomed places that exceed the Four Corners area and include areas in California and Nevada. And we see those areas as being a part of what we consider our own homeland or Dinétah.
Nick: That bounded landscape is only one part of how I identify my homeland, because I don’t really agree with the boundaries. That’s something that was imposed on us as Indigenous people a long time ago. And we unfortunately have to live with it right now, but I recognize our territories way beyond that.
Ora: These boundaries Nick speaks of are both the physical borders of the reservation and the problematic methods of archaeology.
Nick: I think archaeology to us as Apache people is really invasive in terms of excavation and extraction, those types of things. A lot of folks on my reservation are really hesitant to even allow kind of traditional archaeological work to happen on a reservation.
Yoli: Given Nick’s early experiences with archaeology on the reservation and the reality of exploitative practices across the U.S. Southwest, the odds of him working in the field were pretty low. Except, something happened when Nick’s family moved away from Arizona for the year.
Nick: My father actually moved us to southern Ohio. He had a girlfriend who broke his heart, and he thought the best way to handle that was take his two boys and move to southern Ohio to an apple orchard farm with his ex–college roommate. So, getting out there, you know, I dealt with, you know, racism, the sense of not belonging, of bullying.
Ora: That year in Ohio, Nick navigated his new context as an outsider, and his dad went to work.
Nick: My dad was a psychiatric nurse, and he did a lot of graveyard shifts, and so we had this elderly couple who would babysit us. They would take us for walks in the evenings in the plowed-up cornfields, and we’d walk around, and what he was doing basically was looking for arrowheads, you know, out there in Ohio. I got really fascinated by that. I think, you know, it’s kind of interesting, this Apache kid from Arizona, you know, looking for arrowheads in, you know, in the cornfields of southern Ohio. But that’s what happened.
Ora: Searching for arrowheads in golden Ohio cornfields stuck with Nick.
Nick: I see it as something calling me back from my own Apache identity and blood.
Ora: And so, after the year spent in Ohio, Nick’s family returned to Arizona. And years later, he attended community college, where his course schedule included introduction to archaeology. Soon enough, Nick pursued an education and position in the field of preservation.
Nick: And then I went down to Arizona State University in Tempe. Luckily, I was still interning with my own tribe at the historic preservation office.
Yoli: Nick had more responsibilities on top of completing a Ph.D. program in archaeology.
Nick: I was a tribal liaison for the Coronado National Forest, so I dealt with the 12 tribes who had ancestral ties to the lands managed by Coronado National Forest. I got thrown into a lot of contentious issues right away.
Yoli: That included Mount Graham, a site that Nick considers not just sacred but holy.
Nick: The term sacred is something, you know, I guess I’ve always kind of dealt with and played with in my mind in a sense. But what I heard from my elders and fellow community members is, you know, they don’t really want to use that term. In a lot of ways, they want to use holy sites, because these are areas where Creator interacted with us as human beings and other entities within the world to, you know, instill within us our Apache values, our ways of knowing.
Ora: And this holiness has many expressions.
Nick: It’s a place of prayer. It’s a place that, you know, elders go and collect, you know, power. It’s a place where the deities reside. It’s a place where historically, folks went for refuge, utilized to gather traditional medicines, food, other kinds of resources. There’s so many, I guess, connections that we have as Apache folks to Mount Graham. In the 1980s, there was a federal rider passed through Congress that allowed the development of telescopes on the top of Mount Graham, and these telescopes were through the University of Arizona, through the Max Planck Institute in Germany, and the Vatican had a little bit of share in that as well.
Yoli: The Vatican participation in the occupation of this particular holy site is nothing new.
Ora: There is a long legacy of religious violence against our communities. For instance, did you know that Native Americans were not allowed to practice their spiritual beliefs until 1978 with the passage of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act? That means that my parents grew up attending illegal ceremonies. In fact, they were not able to access ancestral and sacred places on federal land such as forests or national parks until they were parents and were able to take my siblings and I to these places without hiding or taking our ancestral shortcuts. Unfortunately, there are so many examples of this sort of land theft and desecration of our sacred places.
Nick: The establishment of a manmade structure, you know, on top of an Apache religious system already set in place speaks a lot to the problems with, you know, the world these days.
Yoli: The project has baffled many, both its critics and the broader, more sympathetic scientific community. From all of the sites surveyed, Mount Graham was the 37th most suitable site on the list, and the winds that habitually blow on the mountain were initially miscalculated, meaning even after the building and breaking of ground, the site was deemed unsuitable, and the campus needed to be moved. This required clearing more than 250 old-growth trees, covering about three-quarters of an acre on East Emerald Peak.
Ora: But this still didn’t stop the project.
Yoli: Over the years, Nick saw that the telescopes were prioritized over other resources or holy places on the mountain.
Nick: I was a wildland firefighter for a number of years, and I was actually a resource adviser, too, for looking at the cultural resources, and there was a fire that burned through the top of the Pinaleños, which is where Mount Graham is at, near the telescopes. And I was assigned up at the top to try to advise folks to stay out of areas, you know, flag areas.
Ora: Nick asked the firefighters to call him if they were going to back burn. That is intentionally burn part of the mountain to eliminate fuel in the path of the wildfire. It turns out, it wasn’t communicated to Nick that the team was going to back burn to protect one specific spot.
Nick: All efforts were going in to protect that manmade structure on top of an Apache holy site, and that was really sad to me. I was, you know, down the hill a little bit, and I didn’t realize that the folks decided to back burn, so they were trying to make the fire not reach the telescope.
Ora: Although he asked to be informed of the process, Nick did not know that the holy mountain was intentionally being burned, all in an effort to protect that telescope.
Nick: And so I came back up the hill and saw these areas where, you know, these beautiful ciénegas were at that Apache folks came since time immemorial to pray to, to leave offerings, to collect power, to collect spring water. And, you know, it was just turned completely black by the back burn, and everything was pretty much decimated. And so, you know, that really got to me and kind of instilled in me, you know, why can’t we just respect Indigenous folks’ conceptions of how they came into being and their own ways of tying themselves back to Creator and their religious wants and needs?
Ora: Why can’t we just respect Indigenous folks?
Yoli: If Mount Graham was still recognized as an active holy site, as Dzil Nchaa Si’an, maybe any burning that needed to happen would have been done with care and concern for the well-being of all beings and for the history of the place. The community would be considered in decision-making. And, of course, the telescope would have been built somewhere else.
Ora: These decisions are not random. Nick reminds us that they are based on value systems and a settler colonial logic.
Nick: Why is research so focused on kind of that perception of a reality, right? And not Apache perceptions of reality? Why not sink that money into better understanding how Mount Graham ties to Apache folks and, you know, their own religious values and spiritual values, rather than kind of doing something that was, you know, really against tribal wishes and goals and what they see for moving toward the future for protection of holy places.
Ora: But there are other ways of relating, knowing, and seeing the world. Other ways to make decisions about land.
Nick: How we are as Apache people and our methodologies and our practices of looking at the world and how we protect places within our landscape, in our traditional lands, go beyond any kind of Western method, because those don’t always usefully comport with our Apache ways of knowing, and they don’t really always work. And why would they, right, you know, it’s constructed from a totally different mindset on a landscape that’s way far away from us. And so how is that useful?
Ora: And existing in this capitalist colonial landscape means that well-funded institutions often win the day, like the settlers in the 1800s who saw Mount Graham as a source for lumber. In the 1980s, a university and the Vatican saw a place for profit and progress.
Yoli: But Nick was working for another way. Nick remembers a recent experience he had as a consultant to mining companies like BHP and Resolution Copper teach-in, where some members of his tribe came to try and teach the Resolution Copper staff how they feel and interact with the landscape. During this meeting, Nick discovered they wanted to mine on Apache holy ground.
Nick: I really wanted them to understand who we are as an Apache people and how we relate to the landscape. They were still, I think, missing the point. And during that consultation, I had one woman actually say, “Well, the world needs copper,” and I was like, well, that’s the problem right there, you’re not seeing, you know, the issues at hand here. You’re not seeing why putting an open-pit mine on an Apache holy place is extremely offensive and bad. Some of my fellow colleagues say like, you know, “What if it was, you know, the world’s richest copper deposit under the Vatican, you know, would that be destroyed?”
Yoli: The answer is no. If copper deposits were located under the Vatican, it wouldn’t be destroyed—not only because the Vatican’s holy places are regarded as holier than the Apaches, but because here in the United States, our legal framework is designed to favor resource extraction.
Nick: Even the 1872 Mining Act that is still intact and used by copper companies to exploit and desecrate and destroy these areas that are, you know, finite and irreplaceable to Apache people.
Ora: The 1872 Mining Act is a federal law that grants any U.S. citizen authorization to prospect and mine for minerals on public land and placing mining claim on federal lands once a discovery has been made.
Yoli: And yet Nick continues to lean in; he looks to elders like Mae Burnette for support.
Nick: And she reminded me, she always is able to, you know, make me see the bigger picture with little examples, I guess. And so, we’re sitting there at Fort Apache and, you know, the wind’s blowing. It’s a nice day, and we’re sitting on the porch at the Arrowhead Café, and she, you know, starts talking about the wind, and it’s like, “Well, listen to the wind. You know, every time you’re asking me a question, it’s talking to you.” Just those little things really helped me, I guess, move forward and in my own research and instill within me as a person who is still learning, always learning from my elders, what really needs to be done to protect the landscape and protect our holy sites.
Ora: Nick’s advocacy is grounded in his home: Apache lands, and his vision has been cultivated by his work at Mount Graham.
Yoli: And did we mention he ended up becoming an archaeologist and an academic?
Nick: I am currently an assistant professor of anthropology at University of California, Berkeley.
Yoli: He kept his job as a tribal liaison too.
Nick: And I’m also still acting as the deputy tribal historic preservation officer for my own tribe, the White Mountain Apache tribe in east-central Arizona.
Ora: And Nick center’s Indigenous knowledge in his research and teaching.
Nick: My research centers around, you know, types of social justice, heritage management, and utilizing tribal tenets to guide archaeology. And I guess, demystify and decolonize it in ways that I feel are appropriate as an Indigenous person.
Yoli: And these perspectives are far from abstract. Nick’s research has a real impact on how archaeology does and does not happen.
Nick: Being from my own tribe and seeing the issues and the problems kind of created by the legacies of archaeological work on our reservation lands, I really wanted to foreground Indigenous perspectives. We have a set of established guidelines that were put together a number of years ago, which help us protect and preserve places and materials within our Apache culture and history.
Yoli: The first guideline means letting parts of the past remain in the past.
Nick: I try to get beyond, OK, what can we do besides excavation? When you work with the past as an Apache person, harm can happen to you. When you go around an archaeology site and disturb certain things, that that can come back on you. That can come back onto your family, come back onto, you know, the community and have these really lasting sociocultural effects if you don’t approach it in the right way, right? And so it’s something that, you know, I don’t think a lot of folks who come to work on a reservation really take to heart or even consider. It’s a part of us that we understand that the past should be left alone in a lot of ways.
Ora: Nick has modeled Indigenous archaeology in his own research. For example, he asks for formalized letters of support and permission from tribal representatives to better contextualize the tribal heritage of each site. He conducts interviews and roundtable discussion and at homes, centered more on listening than on formal questionnaires. This is a way that Nick practices Indigenous archaeology within Apache homelands. But this changes with, for, and by other Indigenous communities. The future of practicing archaeology is changing. We are looking at an inclusive and multivocal future archaeology that shares power in creating the story of our collective past with descendant communities. This future, to me, also includes bringing in ancestral cultural knowledge to understand and enrich our understanding of the past.
Nick: So, it’s about that sense of giving back and really coming and opening your heart with that community and trying to do that respectful research together.
Ora: Ni is an Apache methodology describing the inseparable relationship between the land and mind. It’s a word that signals a depth of connection in the Apache world. Nick discusses Ni in an article he writes about Apache archaeology.
Yoli: You can find a link to it in the episode notes of this show.
Ora: Ni compels a researcher to go beyond the material remains of a site to better understand and identify its historic significance as an Apache landmark. Which brings us back to Mount Graham.
Nick: As an Apache person, as an archaeologist, and trying to get these folks to understand why it’s so important not to decimate and destroy a place because it will really affect Apache religion and the way we are as Apache people and how we relate to Creator and the ceremonies we have at that place, it’s, and the whole surrounding collective landscape, it’s going to affect everybody.
Yoli: From this methodological approach, Mount Graham will be valued according to the relationship of the people with the land. As Nick said, it’s a holy place for prayer and plants, a home for the deities.
Ora: Seeing Dzil Nchaa Si’an in this way, with the perspective of Ni, requires that archaeologists pay attention to relationships. It’s actively resisting colonial legacies of land and resource management, and tapping into Apache ways of knowing for guidance.
Yoli: But these shifts are hard, as you know, Ora.
Ora: It takes collective effort and demands for respect, and for academic institutions, it means investing in Indigenous researchers and communities.
Nick: I think we’ve really got to move beyond just, you know, universities will hire for an Indigenous person, and that kind of settles our inclusivity needs. No, let’s nourish that hire. Let’s nourish their research more, expand that to back to the reservation, see what we can do for the folks as well too. And how do we dismantle a lot of these structures set within a kind of Western gaze of anthropology?
Yoli: Hire Indigenous archaeologists, fund Indigenous research, harness archaeology toward recognizing and protecting holy places, reclaim critical spaces like Mount Graham.
Nick: How do we preserve places for the future, for our children, for the future? Anthropology is I tell some of my students, take on that fight as well too.
Ora: And as I have seen in my career, students are a powerful force. Throughout the construction of the Mount Graham International Observatory, students from the University of Arizona stood in solidarity with Apache tribes and protested. Due to the protests, the telescope construction was delayed for years, and some funders backed away from the project.
Nick: Not just one site. Instilling in students how we need to change policy too. Keep working at trying to dismantle these set structures and these check-box mentalities of these Western governmental systems that still drive what is significant. Look at how, you know, what is legitimate and what is significant for the tribes and try to push that forward as archaeologists.
Ora: Contested space and desecration of holy places like Dzil Nchaa Si’an, or Mount Graham, continue in other parts of the U.S. The 30-meter telescope is a project in Hawaii delayed by protests for decades. The telescope is on a holy mountain for local tribes, and their permission has not been granted.
Yoli: Nick has another core Apache concept that guides his work.
Nick: Gózhó, in Apache, which we call beautiful, balanced, and harmonious way. And so that’s why I strive in a lot of my research to get to as well too. And so that’s a big question, right? How could I do that? You know, how do I achieve balance in my own research? How do I build harmony? How is this creating, you know, beauty in the Apache sense, in terms of bringing certain benefits back to my own community as an Apache person, as an archaeologist, and trying to get these folks to understand why it’s so important not to decimate and destroy a place because it will really affect Apache religion and the way we are as Apache people and how we relate to Creator and the ceremonies we have at that place. And the whole surrounding collective landscape. It’s going to affect everybody.
Yoli: Gózhó at Mount Graham, Dzil Nchaa Si’an, means protect the trees and prayer sites and squirrels. There are other sites for telescopes and other ways to pursue knowledge and perspectives beyond our home here on Earth. This sky island and the Apache have so much to teach archaeologists and astronomers and universities.
Ora: If we listen and learn from the land and Indigenous peoples, if we seek to incorporate other vast, expansive, diverse Indigenous ways of knowing and being, maybe the future of archaeology and anthropology, will get into spaces of Gózhó.
Yoli: This episode of SAPIENS was hosted by me, Yoli Ngandali.
Ora: And me, Ora Marek-Martinez.
Ora: SAPIENS is produced by House of Pod. Jeanette Harris-Courts is our lead producer, alongside producer Juliette Luini and story editor Rebecca Mendoza Nunziato. Jason Paton is our audio editor and sound designer, and Cat Jaffee and Dr. Chip Colwell are our executive producers.
SAPIENS is an editorially independent podcast funded by the Wenner-Gren Foundation, which has provided vital support. Our thanks to Dr. Danilyn Rutherford, Maugha Kenny, and their staff, board, and advisory council. This season was also created in collaboration with the Indigenous Archaeology Collective and Society of Black Archaeologists, with special help from our advisers Dr. Sara Gonzalez, Justin Dunnavant, and Ayana Flewellen.
Yoli: This episode was made possible by our guest, Nick, as well as the generous financial support of the Fiske Center for Archaeological Research at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. Additional funding for this series was provided by our friends at the Imago Mundi Fund at Foundation for the Carolinas. Thanks always to Christine Weeber and everyone at SAPIENS.org. Please be sure to visit the magazine for the newest stories about the human experience.
Ora: SAPIENS is part of the American Anthropological Association Podcast Library. For more information, visit SAPIENS.org and check out the additional resources we offer in the show notes on our website or wherever you’re listening to this podcast.
Yoli: And did you know that the Archaeological Center’s coalition is partnering with us to go deeper on what you just heard with companion episodes? You can find these extended discussions with academics and students about reshaping archaeological practice on their website and any podcatcher by searching for Cornell University’s Radio CIAMS. That’s Radio C-I-A-M-S.