The Apache community running to rescue its holy mountain

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.”

"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.

  • Wendsler Nosie Sr sits in the back of his truck on the San Carlos Apache Reservation following one of his daily runs to train for the Mt. Graham Sacred Run, with smoke in the air from the Mescal Fire raging nearby.

  • The ceremony at the Old San Carlos Memorial to launch the 30th annual Mt. Graham Sacred Run included singing and praying.

  • Naelyn Pike, Wendsler Nosie Sr.’s oldest grandchild, has been participating in the Mt. Graham Sacred Run for the past 20 years, since she was 2 years old. When it was time for her sunrise dance, the Apache girl’s coming of age ceremony, she chose to have it on Mt. Graham because of her spiritual connection with the mountain. She was the first Apache girl to have her sunrise dance on Mt. Graham in over 150 years, ending a long period of exile from their ancestral home.

  • Morgun Frejo was the last runner of the first leg of the 30th annual Mt. Graham Sacred Run. On July 20, the first segment of the run took place between the Old San Carlos Memorial and Noline’s store on the San Carlos Apache Reservation.

  • The second and final day of the Mt. Graham Sacred Run began around 5 a.m. on July 21 at Noline’s store on the San Carlos Apache Reservation. Wendsler Nosie Sr. speaks to runners to explain how the run is structured and go over safety precautions.

  • Thomas Nosie Jr. crosses the San Carlos Apache Reservation line on the 30th annual Mt. Graham Sacred Run. Through the run, the Apache are returning to their ancestral home, breaking the barriers of the reservation where Wendsler Nosie Sr. says they’ve been held for over a century as prisoners of war.

  • Vanessa Nosie speaks to the runners who are about to start another segment, as the final runner in the last leg approaches. Between the San Carlos Reservation and the base of Mt. Graham, the run is structured with five people running simultaneously, before they trade off with the next five runners. Once the runners begin to climb the mountain, it transitions into a relay of short segments due to the mountain grade and elevation.

  • A runner waves from the lead truck as others are dropped off to begin the relay up Mt. Graham. Cousins Wendslyn Hooke and Lozen Brown-Lopez, both age 7, ran together. Many children have been raised in the run over the years, including some who began participating as young as 2 years old.

  • Cousins Waya Brown and Lozen Brown-Lopez ride along with other runners as they climb Mt. Graham, waiting to be dropped off for their next run.

  • Gouyen Brown-Lopez rides with other runners in the back of one of the trucks between segments of running towards Mt. Graham.

  • Runners ride in the bed of a truck as they leave the lunch break to begin the relay run up Mt. Graham. Each runner remains focused on their own personal spiritual journey throughout the day.

  • Runners participating in the Mt. Graham Sacred Run carry eagle feathers to bring their prayers with them along the spiritual journey.

  • Vanessa Nosie speaks to the runners when they reached their destination on Mt. Graham. She has helped coordinate the run for most of her life, but this year was the first time she took the lead in managing the run, which was started by her father, Wendsler Nosie Sr. She is holding her youngest daughter, Shayu Frejo, and at her feet are two of her daughters, Baase Pike and Nizhoni Pike, and her nephew Philippe D’Avignon.

  • Dylan Sloan ran the final leg of the Mt. Graham Sacred Run. This year was his fourth time participating in the run. He ran three years in a row before missing a few due to work conflicts but returned to participate for the 30th anniversary.

Nosie Sr. says the Vatican won’t leave because it has tapped into something. “They found something spiritual there that they don’t quite understand yet,” he said. “We Apaches already know what it is.”

This July was the 30th anniversary of the original Dził Nchaa Si’an run. It was also the first year Vanessa led the event, under her father’s guidance. Starting before dawn, the runners completed one-mile stretches, followed by a truck carrying water and the relief runners. After nine hours, the team reached Dził Nchaa Si’an. There, they rested, prayed and drank the holy spring water, which Nosie Sr. likens to “the breast of the mother.”

 “The one thing that we don’t want to ever give them is our spirit.”

They run along the highway rather than on trails for greater visibility. “In order to educate the people, we’ve got to be seen,” said Nosie Sr. “Physically, we are all captives of America,” he added, speaking not just of the Apache community but of other Natives and non-Natives alike. “The one thing that we don’t want to ever give them is our spirit.”

The run is a way to heal, to teach the youth religion, and to tell the truth about what’s happened. “All people need this,” says Vanessa Nosie, who is carrying on the three-decade tradition for the children, including her 10-month-old daughter. “Will there be change in her favor?” she wondered. “Our future generations have a right to live and a right to pray.” – B. Toastie (they/them) is an editorial intern at High Country News and a member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma.

Waya Brown, who is Apache and Pomo, runs towards the Bylas district of the San Carlos Apache Reservation. It was his fourth time running to Mt. Graham. His first time participating in the sacred run was when his cousin, Baase Pike, had her sunrise dance on Mt. Graham following the run that year. Baase was only the second Apache girl, after her older sister Naelyn, to have her sunrise dance on their sacred mountain in over 150 years.

Molly Peters is a Los Angeles-based photographer and visual storyteller whose work often deals with spirituality, memory and human connection to the natural world. She completed a BA in photography and Italian studies at Bard College in 2010, and she earned an MFA in photography from the Hartford Art School in 2018.

Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.