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Tales From the Outskirts: Kitt Peak 

The daughter of astronomers returns to 'The Mountain' to see what others see

My childhood could only be considered "normal" using very generous standards.

While other kids were watching movies with plucky heroes and Disney princesses, my parents put on 2001 and The Twilight Zone. Our dinner-table conversations were full of acronyms like NSF, AAS and WIYN, and peppered with theories about the origins of the universe. When my friends wanted to ride bikes or play outside, I yearned for the air-conditioned, science-filled haven of the Flandrau Planetarium.

My parents are astronomers, but they wouldn't use that word. My mom works in education and outreach for the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope project (LSST), and my dad is an astrophysicist who spent many years as the director of the WIYN Observatory on Kitt Peak. He would observe on Kitt Peak for days at a time. We called Kitt Peak "The Mountain." It wasn't just another place; it had become another world, separated from mine by more than miles.

On the few occasions I went with my dad, I remember it being pretty boring. Sure, the Visitor Center and Museum has some interesting exhibits, but mostly I remember sitting around computers waiting for the giant metal machines to do something. But The Mountain was still exciting, if only because I couldn't understand what went on there.

The only view of the observatory I ever got was from behind the scenes. I never had the chance to experience the real show, so I assumed that all The Mountain had to offer was behind the curtain. I knew how life at the observatory worked, but never got to see what that meant.

So, I decided to find out.

This summer, I came back to Tucson from college in Oregon and decided to return to Kitt Peak as a tourist. I was headed back to The Mountain to find out what everyone else sees.

The first thing I learned was something I had always known, but never fully understood: I am not the only one who has a history with The Mountain.

Kitt Peak National Observatory (KPNO) is situated in the Quinlan Mountains, but that's not the mountain's original name. Kitt Peak actually sits in an area of extreme importance to the Tohono O'odham Nation. Kitt Peak, within the Shuk Toak district, is an area regarded by the Tohono O'odham as I'itoi's Garden. I'itoi is also known as Elder Brother or Earth Maker—the creator. In the distance, Baboquivari Peak is also visible. According to the Tohono O'odham, I'itoi resides in a cave just below Baboquivari.

Kitt Peak is nearly ideal for astronomy research, but it sits on lands that were leased to the National Science Foundation (NSF) in the 1950s that are at the wounded heart of sacred tribal grounds. (Buell Jannuzi, the current director of the Kitt Peak Observatory, warns that each district of the Tohono O'odham Nation seems to have its own set of stories, meaning that variations in what I've just said are inevitable.)

Unlike other Native American tribes, the Tohono O'odham were allowed to remain in most of their original—albeit divided and diminishing—home.

"This is their ancestral lands," says Jannuzi. "They actually are connected to the land."

He explains that the lease—which allowed the National Science Foundation to build KPNO—stipulates that only astronomy research is to be conducted on Kitt Peak. However, he also notes that the lease was created at a time when the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) had the final say, meaning that the actual districts of the Tohono O'odham did not have the autonomy they have today.

This has, in turn, created controversy between the NSF, KPNO and the Tohono O'odham Nation government. Most recently, the proposed construction of the VERITAS (Very Energetic Radiation Imaging Telescope Array) facility was halted and relocated due to a situation of misinformation and animosity that Jannuzi was understandably hesitant to discuss. The relationship between KPNO and the Tohono O'odham Nation is a necessary one, and both "sides" are looking to the future.

"I want to keep rebuilding," says Jannuzi. "There was a time when they were proud to have us there. Fifty years ago, the Tribal Council did want us to have the lease."

This relationship has come a long way, and now that both groups are making a real effort, it can continue forward. Through the search for common interests, considerable strides have been made toward repairing and maintaining that relationship.

"On our end," says Jannuzi, "we're making sure there's good communication, that we plan in advance, and find things we have in common—especially education."

Education programs headed by Katy Garmany and John Glaspey have given astronomers a chance to learn more about the Tohono O'odham culture, and in turn, they have given the Tohono O'odham a chance to understand the mission of KPNO.

On The Mountain, it's easy to see where the two cultures have combined—it's definitely not seamless, but it's there. For instance, there's one section of the Visitor Center dedicated to the history of the Tohono O'odham, and another that displays the traditional woven baskets for which the Tohono O'odham people are known.

On the day my friend and I visited, there weren't any guided tours, so we gladly took brochures and maps from the Visitor Center and made our own way around the monolithic white telescopes. Pictures can't capture how giant these hunks of metal are, or how insignificant they make you feel. Trying to get a good number of them in a shot means you have to step back so far that you lose any sort of comparative proportions. They become pebbles on an anthill.

As a Tucson native, I do as much as I can to forget that I'm living in a desert, but on The Mountain, there's no escaping it. Beyond the dirt and rocks is ... more dirt and rocks. It's easy to think otherwise when you're in the city, even though the weatherworn faces of the mountains glare down at you on all sides.

Annoyed at the dust collecting on my jeans, I found it hard to believe that this mound of dirt could be sacred to anyone—but after one look over the railing, it all made sense.

The view from above is straight into I'itoi's Garden, with the rising Baboquivari Peak as a backdrop. The dark-green dots of the desert plants and the moss on the gunmetal gray boulders combine like a Seurat painting until you can see the whole picture. As we looked around, the white silhouette of the telescopes began to blend into the monsoon clouds gathering behind them, forming a bridge between our world and the one above it.

It became clear to me that even though we may have different names for The Mountain, it's sacred to all of us. It may not be sacred in the same way or for the same reasons, but it means something significant and awe-inspiring.

It is this respect and sense of true connection to the landmark that will keep the relationship we have with The Mountain a constant issue—one that requires input, energy and a desire for understanding from everyone.

For more information, visit www.noao.edu.

More by Sarah Jacoby

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