Could I see your permit to pray?

  Anxious about protecting its $200 million telescope complex, the University of Arizona recently required a "prayer permit" for Native Americans who want to visit the summit of Mount Graham.

San Carlos Apaches and other native peoples who hold sacred the high peaks of the Pinaleno Mountains, 120 miles southeast of Phoenix, say the permits attack their religious freedom. And in the first test of the new permit policy, they were allowed to pray without interference near the summit of the 10,700-foot mountain.

Wendsler Noise, head of Apaches for Cultural Preservation, led more than a dozen Indians to the top of the mountain Aug. 15, to pray and protest the university's telescopes, which they contend interfere with their spiritual rites.

"I don't think I should have a permit. We are the original inhabitants of this land. We are not going to vandalize their telescopes. They know that for all these (hundreds) of years, the Apaches have gone there to pray."

Noise was arrested last year for trespassing when he ventured near the telescopes. After the former tribal council member was acquitted in county court, he said he hoped that the University of Arizona would liberalize its visitation policies.

Instead, the university began requiring permits. "We made a policy to make it clear to the public - or in this case, Indian people - that if they want to come in, we encourage that, but that we would make permits available to them," said Michael Cusanovich, a university vice president. "It's not meant to be restrictive. It's meant to be inclusive."

In the end, the university deferred any permit requirements to the Forest Service. Wanting to avoid a confrontation, the Forest Service allowed the Native Americans to observe their prayers in peace.

*Steve Yozwiak