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Kitt Peak National Observatory and Native Americans Go Way Back

On the morning of March 15, 1960, about 50 people drove up the winding road to the top of Kitt Peak, 56 miles southwest of Tucson, Arizona. These scientists, politicians, military officers and members of the Tohono O’odham Nation had gathered to dedicate the country’s first national observatory.

They listened to William W. Morgan, a professor of astronomy at the University of Chicago, deliver the official address. After the ceremony, the visitors ate lunch and toured the mountain.

The dedication of the Kitt Peak National Observatory (KPNO) tied two cultures together—one with ancient roots in the Southwest, the other with modern eyes on the universe.

Helmut Abt, an astronomer at Kitt Peak, played a key role in establishing a modern observatory on ancestral homeland of the Tohono O’odham (then called the Papago).

“Kitt Peak observatory is very successful on the mountain, and they [Tohono O’odham] have gotten something in return,” Abt said.

The search for a place to locate a large national observatory began in the 1950s, Abt said. Before then, universities had only small observatories with telescopes for their own astronomers. Many of these were in the east, where snow or rain hampered observations for much of the year.

As the Cold War heated up, astronomers from different universities petitioned the government to establish a single large observatory accessible to scientists from all over the country. Additional impetus came from the growing network of commercial flights, which enabled travelers to cross the country in a day, Abt said. Before the 1950s, it took several days to go coast to coast by train.

Finding a sight

In 1955, Abt, fellow astronomer Aden Meinel (who became Kitt Peak’s first director) and engineer Harold Thompson began searching for potential sites.

California had two good observatories—Lick Observatory near San Francisco, and Mount Palomar near San Diego. But the team quickly decided against putting another observatory in California. They wanted to find a place where it was less cloudy, said Katy Garmany, an associate scientist at the National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO) in Tucson.

In addition to clear, dry skies, the ideal site had to be far from city lights but close enough to an urban area that had materials to build observatories, homes and schools. The top of the mountain needed to be flat for construction.

Ideally, the elevation would be between 6,000 feet and 8,000 feet, where the air is less humid and turbulent. Peaks higher than 8,000 feet would be battered by winter storms and difficult to reach.

“If you have turbulent air over the observatory, the object being viewed would get smeared out and lose details through the telescope,” Abt said.

In 1955, a pilot flew Abt around the Southwest in a two-seat Cessna to look for mountains with the right characteristics. In just three days they covered 2,000 miles.

After Abt inspected the best prospects by Jeep, the team narrowed the search to five locations in Arizona: Kitt Peak; Hualapai Mountain near Kingman; Chevelon Butte near Winslow; the Sierra Ancha north of Roosevelt Lake; and a site near Flagstaff.

Over the next two years, the team studied the weather and visibility at those sites. In December 1955, Abt and Meinel tried to hike to the top of 6,875-foot Kitt Peak but made it only half way.

The team concluded that Kitt Peak was by far the best place for an observatory, Abt said. Kitt Peak was far enough away from Tucson that the city lights didn’t interfere with observing the night sky. Tucson also had an international airport making it easy for astronomers and visitors to get to Kitt Peak.

Kitt Peak takes its English name from Philippa (Roskruge) Kitt, the sister of a 19th-century surveyor. And the Tohono O’odham call it “Iolkam Du’ag” meaning “mountain of Manzanita shrubs,” or “I’itoi’s (creator) garden.”

“However, they [the team] didn’t know Kitt Peak was on the Tohono O’odham reservation,” Garmany said. “Instead, they thought it was Bureau of Indian Affairs land.”

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On March 5, 1958 the Schuk Toak District Council met with AURA representatives and approved a resolution authorizing the lease of Kitt Peak to the National Science Foundation. Mark Manuel, chairman of the Papago Tribal Council, and Chester Higman, administrative assistant to the chairman, are seated at the table. At the far left is Harold Thompson, engineer for the site survey, and standing on the far right is Dr. Aden B. Meinel, first director of the Kitt Peak National Observatory.

In March 1956 the astronomers received permission from the Tohono O’odham Nation to ride up Kitt Peak on horseback. Two O’odham guides—Al Martines and Raymond Lopez—accompanied them. At the top, the O’odham guides explained the importance of the mountain, their creator I’itoi and cultural perspectives on the land.

After their ride up Kitt Peak, the astronomers spent time with the tribal council elders who governed the Tohono O’odham Nation. They also consulted the Schuk Toak District Council because Kitt Peak is within the boundaries of that district. The Tohono O’odham Nation is made up of 11 districts or communities. Each district has a chairperson, vice chairperson and a treasurer.

The astronomers asked if the O’odham would lease land for an observatory, Abt said. The O’odham were receptive because they had recently gained control over their land.

When the Tohono O’odham Reservation was established, the O’odham possessed only surface rights on the land, said Bernard Siquieros, the education curator at the Tohono O’odham Nation Cultural Center & Museum in Topawa.

The O’odham elders were not looking for financial gain but for a way to educate and employ tribal members, Siquieros said.

Sold on the idea

The elders, however, didn’t know what an observatory was. “We arranged for some of them to come to the University of Arizona to look through a 36-inch telescope,” Abt said. “We showed them things like the moon and how the telescope made the images much larger and showed details as well as galaxies and planets.”

The O’odham realized the telescopes on Kitt Peak would not interfere with their ancestral land, so they agreed to lease 200 acres. In 1958, the National Science Foundation secured a perpetual lease to construct observatories for research and educational purposes, Garmany said.

Two years later a paved road led to a white-domed, 36-inch telescope atop Kitt Peak.

O’odham mo g cew wu:pui” meaning “The men with the long eyes,” as the O’odham called the astronomers, began to study the universe from the new national observatory.

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Tohono O’odham employees in front of the 84-inch (now 2.1-meter) telescope on October 12, 1965.

Don Mendez, Tohono O’odham, worked at the Kitt Peak observatory for 26 years. He began working there in 1967 and retired in 1994.

He started working as a custodian and after four months he was asked by a manager if he wanted to learn how to operate a telescope. Mendez said he jumped on the opportunity and became a telescope operator for the stellar department after six months of training.

“The telescopes at that time were not automatic and everything had to be done manually,” said Mendez.

Mendez then became part of a telescope support group. The telescope support group maintained the telescopes by changing out the instruments and cleaning the telescopes.

“I felt it was a privilege to work at the Kitt Peak National Observatory,” Mendez said. “Kitt Peak has been good to us O’odham who have been employed there.”

Mendez believes that the observatory has been good for the Tohono O’odham Nation and has helped put their name on the map. He said in his 26 years at KPNO he saw a lot of visitors, students and astronomers came to the observatory.

“Kitt Peak has a (perpetual) lease with the Tohono O’odham Nation as long as the observatory is being used for research and educational use,” Mendez said. “And I am sure it will be there for many more years to come.”

Kitt Peak National Observatory held an open house for nation members October 8, an even they hold every few years. The goal of the open house is “sharing what is done at the observatory with the people of the nation and to share the culture of the Tohono O’odham with the staff of the observatory.”