Ola Cassadore Davis, an outspoken defender of the Apache Nation’s sacred Mount Graham in southeast Arizona, walked on Sunday, November 25. She was 89.
Davis, known for her activism both at home and on an international level, fought the installation of high-powered telescopes on top of Mount Graham. She was the last traditional chairperson of the Apache Survival Coalition, the entity that fought the federal government in a series of legal cases during the 1990s to preserve the mountain.
“Ola was one of the great leaders of our time,” said Andrea Carmen, the Yaqui executive director of the International Indian Treaty Council (IITC). Carmen worked with Davis since the 1980s, she said, and credited Davis with inspiring her to work to preserve sacred and religious sites.
“She is known in many countries, as well as in her home land,” Carmen said of Davis. “That’s a great gift among the indigenous: to be known and respected internationally and in their homes, on the ground in their home communities.”
The 10,700-foot Mount Graham, known to the Apache as Dzil Nchaa Si’ An, or Big Seated Mountain, is believed to be a portal to the spirit world. Once part of the San Carlos Apache Reservation, Mount Graham was taken by the federal government in 1872.
In the 1980s, the University of Arizona and the Vatican selected Mount Graham as the site for an observatory, including a 3,500-acre astrophysical study area and a collection of 18 telescopes. The decision ignored the sacred nature of the mountain to Apache people, including the San Carlos Apache Tribal Council’s vote four different times to oppose the observatory.
Mount Graham was selected over 280 other sites for the observatory, partly because it already was highly developed, with 53 miles of road, more than 90 cabins, two man-made lakes and a Bible camp. Construction on the observatory began in 1989 with the first two telescopes operating by 1993.
The Apache Survival Coalition lost its appeal in 1997 when the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the government.
Davis traveled internationally to speak on behalf of Mount Graham, giving testimony in 1999 to the United Nations’ Sub-commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities. She urged the United Nations to acknowledge the disrespect and suffering caused by developing Mount Graham and asked that the mountain be considered as a World Heritage Site.
“We Apache wish to bring to the people of this world a better understanding of Indian people in order that we are able to preserve and freely live by our traditional culture and religious beliefs,” Davis said in her 1999 speech.
The Mount Graham International Observatory now sports three telescopes, including the Large Binocular Telescope, one of the most powerful in the world.
Davis’s husband, Mike Davis, accompanied his wife on her travels and worked with her as she defended Mount Graham.
“She was a very influential person,” he said of his wife. “She believed in the Apache way and she touched many people’s hearts.”
Davis earned respect from many people in Europe who supported her mission to protect the sacred sites of the indigenous.
“She was very dedicated to her job,” Mike Davis said. “She worked really hard to change people’s hearts. She was the last warrior of the Apache Nation.”
Members of the Apache Nations and other tribes remember Davis as a great leader who stood up for “freedom of religion and elimination of discrimination based on religion and belief,” Carmen said.
“Her perspectives were so grounded in the traditional way of life and the Apache people,” Carmen said. “The telescope was considered to be an act of desecration, to harm the spirit people, something that should not be messed with. … [Davis’s] gift was to be able to express that in a way to inspire indigenous and non-indigenous to take a stand and protect sacred sites. She was able to put into words what was the meaning, what was at stake.”
Davis’s death is being felt by activists across Indian country.
“I am saddened to hear of the passing of one of the great traditional elders of the San Carlos Apaches,” Lenny Foster, Navajo, and board member for the IITC, said in a statement.
“In the tradition of the great Apache warriors she stood up to the University of Arizona and the Vatican and other multi-national corporations as she spoke up for the generations,” Foster said. “History will be kind to her for her steadfast determination and loyalty to the sacred lands.”