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Know the West

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.


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.

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