The annual weeklong San Carlos Apache Mount Graham Sacred Run—up from the Arizona desert reservation to the spirit people living on a mountain top more than 100 miles away—has entered its third decade. As he greeted dozens of tired trekkers of all ages at the end of the journey, event sponsor and former tribal chairman Wendsler Nosie Sr., told them: “You are indigenous. This is your home—where you belong—and here in the woods you need to exercise your rights as an Apache. We want this place back.”
Once a part of the original San Carlos Apache Reservation, the 10,720-foot-high landmark known as Dzile Nchaa Si’An (Big Seated Mountain)—portal to the spirit world—was lost to the federal government in the late 1800s. Now managed by the U.S. Forest Service, it is also home to the Mount Graham International Observatory, a complex of telescopes built on land leased from the U.S. government. Several organizations, including the Vatican, the Max Planck Society in Germany and the University of Arizona use the site.
The San Carlos Apache peoples originated the running event in 1991 to protest the building of the observatory. Tribal members considered construction on the holy mountain a desecration of their sacred site.
As it has in years past, the 2012 sacred run began with a sweat lodge blessing at Oak Flat campground in the nearby Tonto National Forest. Activities moved the next day to Old San Carlos Flat on the reservation for a holy ground blessing. This year’s event began on July 18 and the run was made over three days, Friday to Sunday. The actual start of the run was on Friday, July 20. That’s when this reporter arrived to file this report.
It’s three o’clock in the morning, and I’m outside Noline’s Country Store in Peridot, Arizona. Not much moves here at this hour except night security man Dudley Dewey. We sit on wooden benches watching tarantulas do whatever it is that arachnids do in the darkness, and talk about the run and the weather. Dewey shares some history about the sacred mountain, and adds that when Apache firefighters have responded to woodland blazes deep in the tree-filled wilderness, they have found hoops in those trees—vestiges of ancestors past.
But that was then and this is now, with early birds starting to show up at 3:30. By four a.m., their numbers increase to 100 or more and Nosie gives the group their instructions, and then the first runners set off. The journey will be made in relays, with tiny tots assigned quarter-mile runs, half-mile bursts reserved for older youths, and mile-long segments for teens and adults. Trucks transport runners up the line to keep the relay going, which allows runners to come and go, either taking multiple legs or dropping out after one.
Less than two hours later, runners have covered nearly 25 miles along the Old West Highway. They make a brief pit stop at Bylas, then run on to (and past) Fort Thomas, Pima, and Thatcher—towns all founded in the late 1880s, according to highway markers. Along the way runners pass fields of alfalfa and world-famous Pima cotton, the Peyote Way Church of God, Eastern Arizona College—home of the Fighting Gila Monsters—and fields of cattle and horses.
It’s a month into summer and the blossoms of orange ocotillo and white saguaro cactus plants are long gone, replaced by the golden glow of the now-blooming agave Americana or century plant. Despite valley temperatures approaching the triple-digit mark, the sweaty but enthusiastic Apache youth whoop and holler encouragement to their fellow runners.
At the bottom of Swift Trail, about 75 miles into the run, the runners take a 90-degree right turn and kick into a different gear for the incline ahead—a 25-mile climb to the top of the mountain. Before beginning this final leg of the run, 21-year-old Joycelyn Bread tells me this is her second run. “I enjoy the exercise and take satisfaction out of fighting for something sacred,” she says. A 10-year-old girl tells me this is her first sacred run, while a nearby 9-year-old boy brags that this will be his fourth time.
Rested and rehydrated, runners start off again, now attacking the steep incline and the 24 torturous switchbacks that lie ahead. It’s a long ascent to the pine trees and blue skies, but they make good time.
Waiting for them at the top is Anthony Logan, a 56-year-old tribal member who has been a holy man since he was young. He stands along the gravel road leading to the journey’s end as thunder rumbles somewhere in the distance and a light sprinkle begins to fall. The holy man says the hot and dusty runners coming toward us are being greeted with the moisture as a gift of delight and welcome from the spirit world. The trees are towering, the air is clean and fresh, and the views of the valley below are magnificent—exhilaration of nature’s resplendency tempered by posted signs warning that: this is bear country.
The crunch of gravel can be heard in the distance as the first of the weary runners arrive at the entrance of their overnight campground, which serves as the unofficial (and unmarked) finish line. The first runners wait for the others, and then they all regroup so that they can finish as one. And then Nosie tells them about the Ndeh Nation—One People, One Nation—“We’re a family, and I’m proud of you.… Usen [God] called you here [to] this place, where you came from, to touch you.”
En masse, the runners then descend into a meadow filled with golden yellow daisies where they will spend the night. Some slept in the relay trucks, others in sleeping bags, some pitched tents. Volunteers manned a cooking station, where supper was served. More prayers and holy ground blessings would follow on Saturday, a day filled with reflections of the past two decades of Mount Graham Sacred Runs. The Sunday morning portion of the 2012 run began with an opening prayer and a holy ground blessing and concluded with a journey to the actual top of the mountain for prayer and gathering of sacred water.
“This is a journey we will never forget,” said Nosie. “The sacred run provides the opportunity for all people to learn the fundamentals of how all creations came to be, with a clear understanding of where and what we need to do to sustain the spirit of life. It is a journey to keep the ways of our people alive, a journey of participation to a sacred unity, and a journey to ensure our children will have a rightful place where they can embrace that spirit.”
Already planning next year’s run, Nosie says it will conclude with the placing of a rock shrine at the top of the mountain to commemorate those who have walked on.