Mauna Kea and the Thirty Meter Telescope are in the news frequently. However, it is far from the only observatory embroiled in controversy or on a contested mountain. Kitt Peak, which is on Tohono O’odham land, is another notable example of this. Kitt Peak is obviously a settler name; the Tohono O’odham call it Iolkam Du’ag. This mountain is of tremendous spiritual and cultural significance to the Tohono O’odham, who regard it as the garden of the creator and the second most sacred peak in the region.
The Kitt Peak National Observatory is on Tohono O’odham land which has been indefinitely leased to the National Science Foundation (NSF) since 1956. However, this agreement was never as conflict-free as some astronomers have presented it. The tribe rejected the first two versions of the agreement, finally accepting the third. Recent scholarship shows that the Tohono O’odham were conflicted about whether to agree to the NSF lease, which goes against the traditional narrative that it was unanimous, and that financial incentives were involved.
In 2005, the Tohono O’odham sued the NSF, saying that they had violated the National Historic Preservation Act on multiple occasions. For this reason and for dishonest and unfair representation of their interests in the 1956 meeting, they also sought to void the lease agreement. Partial victories for the Tohono O’odham followed. The observatory continues to operate, with increased outreach to the tribe and educational and employment opportunities.
While the most active contention seems to be past, it seems unlikely that this dispute is permanently resolved. There must be honest and open communication that accounts for the differences in power between the Tohono O’odham and NSF, the history of colonialism, and the meaning of the mountain for the region’s original inhabitants.