American astronomers have a moral obligation to support O’odham land defenders

Kitt Peak National Observatory (KPNO), the beloved observatory which “supports the most diverse collection of astronomical observatories on Earth” is in turn supported by – that is, resides atop – a sacred mountain of the O’odham people. The observatory, which has provided smaller institutions and the public an equal opportunity to conduct and publish astronomy research for over half a century, represents a more accessible, public, and approachable ground-based alternative to the miriad observatories owned and operated for exclusive, elite institutions.

1/2 of Kitt Peak National Observatory, as seen from the WIYN 0.9m looking north (my photo)

As the KPNO website explains,

“…the Tohono O’odham have a significant relationship with the stars because they figure prominently in their religions and ancient stories. The astronomers invited the tribal council to visit Steward Observatory at the University of Arizona and observe the stars through the 36-inch telescope. The impressed tribal council granted permission for the observatory to be built on the mountain and remain “as long as only astronomy research was conducted.

“In a signed agreement, the O’odham Nation received a variety of concessions. Kitt Peak National Observatory continues to benefit the Tohono O’odham nation today. The top 200 acres of the mountain are leased by the National Science Foundation and all electricity is purchased from the tribal utility authority. The observatory provides many jobs, and sales of arts and crafts in the Kitt Peak National Observatory Visitor Center, such as [baskets]… support O’odham traditional culture.”

—AURA/NOAO, “Tohono O’odham,” The Kitt Peak Virtual Tour, Retrieved 4/28/2020

Even if you believe this most generous appraisal of KPNO’s history, and wherever you stand regarding more recent protests (where the Tohono O’odham nation won a history victory against the attempted VERITAS telescope construction on the mountain) the observatory is quite literally supported and maintained by O’odham land and people.

“Eleven out of 40 staff members on the mountain are Tohono O’odham. They maintain the buildings and grounds, cook or man the visitors center. A very few, such as [Hector Rios (Machine Operator at KPNO)], offer specialized skills. A smaller number of Kitt Peak employees work out of the Tucson offices of the National Optical Astronomy Observatory, which operates Kitt Peak and a number of other star-watching sites. None of the 13 Tucson-based employees, who handle most of the engineering and development work for the observatory telescopes, is O’odham…

“‘Historically, Kitt Peak has hired tribal members for lower-level positions and not for middle- or upper-management positions,’ said O’odham Chairwoman Vivian Juan-Saunders” reads a 2005 article in the Arizona Daily Star.

You can read a great treatment of similar topics in this astrobites article by Mia de los Reyes.

Over the entire timeline of colonial occupation, O’odham land has been divided by borders between various settler-states. The Tohono O’odham nation rests along the US-Mexico border, but other O’odham people live north and south of the border. Border patrol and militarization has further threatened the free movement of O’odham people, with families and communities held on either side of the arbitrary boundary. As you might imagine, NAFTA, the construction of Trump’s Border Wall, and continued resource extraction threaten O’odham people’s land, water, and sacred sites, in addition to inhibiting their free movement.

Instagram post from Defend O’odham Jewed

This post isn’t written with the intention to shame my fellow settler-astronomers. I have no right to do so – I’ve observed at KPNO and benefited from the observatory myself. I write now to remind my colleagues that, having benefited from the lease of Kitt Peak and the use of Tohono O’odham Nation’s land, we have a moral obligation to support the O’odham people against further desecration and extraction, to support their right to free movement, and to advocate for their further inclusion in the administration and operation of KPNO.

Currently, that means supporting O’odham efforts to resist the construction of Trump’s Border Wall. This go-fund-me, “DEFEND OODHAM LAND Bail Fund” is organized by O’odham grassroots activists who are engaging in direct action to oppose further construction of the border wall. They articulate these issues far better than I can here, so I’d urge you to read further by visiting the instagram pages of the Defend O’odham Jewed and the O’odham Anti Border Collective.

Instagram post from O’odham Anti-Border Collective

You can hear a fantastic interview with members of both groups by Professor Nick Estes here. The go-fund-me also notes that you can support their efforts by donations through the following apps:


Cashapp: $DefendOodhamJewed

Venmo: DefendOodhamJewed

You can read this article “Clouds at the Border: Threatened by the Wall” by Martín Zícari.

Above all else, remember to continue to challenge your own colleagues when it comes to issues at the intersection of astronomy and indigenous rights. These problems go beyond representation, and only by combating them on all fronts (the representational, the physical, the academic, the personal) can we repay our dues to the original, rightful stewards of the land we observe the heavens from.






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