Molly Peters

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30 Years Running - High Country News
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Location: Tucson
Nationality: American
Biography: Molly Peters is a photographer and visual storyteller based in Tucson, AZ. She was born and raised on Martha’s Vineyard and has lived in Rome, Boston, New York, and Los Angeles. Molly completed a BA in Photography and Italian Studies at Bard... MORE
Public Story
30 Years Running - High Country News
Copyright Molly Peters 2022
Updated Aug 2021
Location Mt Graham, AZ
Topics Activism, Conservation, Culture stories, Documentary, Editorial, Environment, Essays, Faith, Indigenous Rights, Journalism, Oppression, Photography, Photojournalism, Religious minorities, Spirituality
Lightning flashed across the mountains surrounding Old San Carlos in the evening on July 20, 2021, as a prayer ceremony, songs, and dancing launched the 30th Annual Mt. Graham Sacred Run. Old San Carlos is the location of the prisoner-of-war camp where the US military held the Apaches, chosen for its harsh desert climate and surrounding mesas, which housed snipers who would shoot any Apache who attempted to leave. The conditions in the prisoner-of-war camp created a cycle of fear and trauma lasting through generations that Apaches are now breaking and healing through participation in the run.

Today, remnants of military barracks are still visible, and a memorial erected in 2009 commemorates the 100th anniversary of the death of Chiricahua Apache warrior Goyathlay (known in English as Geronimo) as a prisoner of war in Ft. Sill, OK. Prior to his imprisonment in Oklahoma, Geronimo successfully escaped from Old San Carlos multiple times and evaded 5,000 US troops for months with only 35 Apache men fighting with him. The monument depicts a family of four, mounted on horseback with their arms raised in prayer, representing all Apache people. The area around Old San Carlos is no longer inhabited, with tribal members now living in other parts of the reservation.

Dził Nchaa Sí'an ("big-seated mountain" in Apache, named Mt. Graham by Lt. William Emory after his fellow officer Lt. Colonel James Duncan Graham) is the home of the deities and highly sacred to the Apache. For over 30 years, telescopes have desecrated its summit, which were built with disregard for the environment and despite the objections of native communities.

The Mt. Graham International Observatory consists of 3 telescopes - the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope, the Heinrich Hertz Submillimeter (Radio) Telescope of the Arizona Radio Observatory, and the Large Binocular Telescope, the world's most powerful telescope. Though there were plans for more than 30 telescopes originally, the presence of even one is one too many.

Dził Nchaa Sí'an is part of the Coronado National Forest, yet environmental law was bypassed in the telescopes' construction when Congress granted an exemption from the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). The area surrounding the summit, which houses the telescopes, is a refugium for the Mt. Graham Red Squirrel, an endangered species. US citizens are forbidden by law to enter this area, their own public land, but telescope traffic is permitted.

For over 30 years, Dr. Wendsler Nosie Sr, former chairman of the San Carlos Apache Tribe and spiritual leader of the Apache Stronghold, has led the fight to protect Dził Nchaa Sí'an from desecration and destruction. Dr. Nosie is a Chiricahua Apache, descended from the same clan as Geronimo. The monument at Old San Carlos was erected during his time as tribal chairman, the culmination of his extensive efforts to honor Geronimo's legacy. He has worked tirelessly for decades to hold the US Forest Service and, by extension, the entire US government accountable for their infringement on Apache religious freedom, forcing them to recognize and honor the right for the Apache to freely practice their religion on their sacred ancestral homeland.

Despite America's foundational principle of theoretically offering religious freedom for all, the Apache face religious discrimination that is recognized by faith leaders of many ethnic backgrounds and denominations. Rev. Dr. John Mendez, who served as pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church in North Carolina for 36 years and worked alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, among other civil rights leaders, has supported the Apache fight to freely practice their religion for decades. When discussing the religious discrimination the Apache face, he identified it as "another form of genocide, which is cultural genocide, where you take or rob a people of their beliefs, their traditions, and their way of life."

Vanessa Nosie, Dr. Nosie's daughter, spoke as well about this cultural genocide and the need for change, saying, "the trauma, the continued genocide of our religion still exists today, but we have to acknowledge it. Those people that are in power [need] to start making moral decisions so that our future generations have a right to live, and have a right to pray, and have a right to believe in who they are."  

In 1991, Dr. Nosie began the Mt. Graham Sacred Run, which covers the roughly 120-mile distance between the San Carlos Reservation and Dził Nchaa Sí'an in under 10 hours. Over the years, hundreds of both native and non-native runners have participated; some run only once, others return year after year. Many of the adults running today were raised participating annually, including Dr. Nosie's eldest grandchild, Naelyn Pike, who has run to Dził Nchaa Sí'an for 20 years now, beginning when she was just 2 years old.

This anniversary year was one of transition, as Vanessa Nosie, who had helped her father organize the run for many years, took the lead in managing it for the first time. They both described this transition as bittersweet, but essential to ensure the run continues while Dr. Nosie is still able to act as a reference in guiding it forward.  

Tying the ramifications of history to the present-day circumstances, Vanessa said, "the government has used pretty words to hide the actual truth of what’s happened to our people. So as a federally recognized tribe, we are still awarded to the government. I am still property of the government. And where we sit, it is the concentration camp. Like I said, the government used pretty words, so it’s the 'San Carlos Apache Reservation.' This is where they originally held us as prisoners, when they exiled us and took us from our homeland."

She continued, "That’s where this run is so important, and... why I wanted to take the lead [this year]. I didn’t want my dad’s work and all his sacrifice to end. Because our people need this, all people need this, because of telling the truth of what happened. What people don’t understand or even acknowledge is that historic trauma... This run has brought healing to our people."

Dr. Nosie elaborated, saying, "The one thing that we don’t ever want to give them is our spirit, our connection to the creator... So [by] getting to the mountain, we’re breaking those barriers... That’s one thing that the mountain does. It releases us from being a prisoner of war, spiritually. Physically, we’re all captives of America... But spiritually, we cannot give that to them, nobody should."

The run is structured in mile-long segments, with runners trading off to conserve energy and cover distance quickly in the blistering heat of midsummer in the Arizona desert. Upon reaching the base of Dził Nchaa Sí'an, it transitions into a relay of very short distances, as runners ascend to an elevation of roughly 9,000 feet. Prayer and the individual spiritual journey of each participant are central to the experience, as the Apache believe sacred places must be approached properly, through the appropriate corridors and with respect, in order to be granted entry to holy land.

The route was chosen for maximum visibility, as the run is also symbolic. As Dr. Nosie put it, "We want to be seen. If we’re seen, we can be heard." After over 150 years of exile from DziÅ‚ Nchaa Si’an and their other ancestral land, held as prisoners of war by the US military when they refused to give up their territory and ancient life ways, the Apache are coming home.

Legal and judicial precedent to this point unfortunately do not favor indigenous rights regarding their religion, which directly contradicts the supposed right of religious freedom for all Americans. Even when presented with undeniable evidence that proposed activities (construction, extractive industry, etc) on land considered sacred by indigenous people would result in the destruction of their religion, courts tend to side against the native people, as was recently outlined by The Arizona Republic.

Dr. Nosie considers this to be the last battle - the fight for indigenous religion and holy places - and it’s one they cannot afford to lose, particularly after having lost so much already to colonization and genocide. Through the current ongoing legal fight for another Apache holy place, Chi'chil Biłdagoteel (Oak Flat), the Apache Stronghold, led by Dr. Nosie, is taking aim at the Constitution to force the US government to extend the freedom of religion to include indigenous religions. They hope to set a new precedent, to protect places that are sacred to tribes across the country that are currently under threat of destruction and desecration.    


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