Kitt Peak and the Tohono O’odham Nation

If you’ve spent time in Tucson you know that it gets very dark at night. There are very few street lamps or lit-up buildings. At first I thought of this as some sort of mistake or Tucson defect when really it is an effort to reduce light pollution so that researchers at observatories around Southern Arizona can view the sky better.

It was a sunny and breezy Friday at the Kitt Peak National Observatory, one hour southwest of Tucson. We met our guide, Amy Juan, at the top of the peak. The buildings and surroundings looked like a tourist hiking and science destination. I was confused why we were going to Kitt Peak at first—what would a mountain with an observatory on top have to do with the Tohono O’odham and the week’s theme of border militarization on Indigenous communities? Amy, a member of the Tohono O’odham Nation who works at the observatory, gave us the low-down. In 1958 the Tohono O’odham entered a perpetual agreement to essentially give the peak’s territory to scientists in the form of a one-time payment lease. O’odham leaders had said no three times before they were convinced the establishment of the observatory would bring jobs and education to the community and were promised no militarization or commercial business in the area. Now, Kitt Peak is sprinkled with white observatory domes, roads, and even dormitories for astronomical researchers. The Tohono O’odham are still involved in Kitt Peak after the perpetual lease began in 1958. Amy told us the Nation keeps an eye on the projects at the peak, and she sees herself as part of this effort. She believes that we should be able to produce Tohono O’odham astronomers, especially as there are only a handful of TO employed at the observatory. Amy sees her involvement at the observatory as her way of watching over her people’s land and as good reminder of the continuing struggle of Native American tribes and nations to reclaim their original territories.


A vista from the top of the highest observatory’s 360 degree sky view on Kitt Peak.

Throughout our tour of the site we saw impressive works of man and nature: the world’s largest solar telescope and its view of the daytime sun along with the impressive surrounding landscape. Amy led us to a beautiful vista of valleys and dry riverbeds, with the Nation just behind the mountains, and thirty-seven miles beyond that, the border. With the view behind her, Amy shared some history of the Tohono O’odham Nation in the context of the creation and militarization of the US-Mexico border.

The Tohono O’odham were here before anyone else we know. They have remained in the same lands through Spanish missionaries and conquest, Mexican independence and revolution, and US expansion, which ultimately split the Nation’s land between two countries. The O’odham unofficially have dual-citizenship but in practice that is not the case. Unfortunately, those on the Mexican side of the Nation do not enjoy the same privileges as those on the north side of the border, having significantly less medical access or ability to cross back and forth. The biggest changes on the border began after 9/11. Amy remembers crossing the border without knowing the border was there. Now, a series of vehicle barriers line the border, checkpoints block all roads exiting the Nation, and Border Patrol agents harass those who have every right to be there. There was a point when Border Patrol was not involved in the Nation’s territory, but after drug smuggling and violence threatened the community, they called for the Border Patrol to come in. Since then, la migra has never left.

A lot was left to the imagination as Amy told us current struggles and concerns surrounding border militarization for the Tohono O’odham. During her main talk, the landscape behind Amy seemed vast, quiet, stagnant, and empty. The peak seemed to be the nearest site of human activity for miles—but I knew this was clearly inaccurate as Amy spoke to us. Even though I was overlooking just past the first couple of mountains, the very areas where these relatively recent changes in the Tohono O’odham borderlands occurred, it was hard to imagine how close we really were. For me, physical proximity often makes what I’m learning more real. In this case, the physical separation between the Nation and us represented how hidden the Tohono O’odham are to most people, which is surprising since they are one of the largest Native nations in the US.


After our talk we saw the sun through a solar telescope nearby. We then walked to a telescope called the McMatt-Pierce Solar Telescope, which looked like a giant white escalator going towards the sky. Later we went into the visitor’s center, which was a small interactive museum and gift shop. There was a small exhibit wall in the center meant to educate visitors about the Tohono O’odham people. At the beginning of our tour Amy mentioned that this exhibit misleads people to think the O’odham live the same today as they did hundreds of years ago, and that it desperately needs an update. It was mostly old photographs of O’odham people, their homes, and their daily living. The other exhibits were more about the science and technology related to the kind of work at the observatory, along with astronomical information. Inside the gift shop, next to the key chains and t-shirts, there were O’odham-made crafts for sale. Amy said this was another part of the deal they have with the observatory, that the O’odham could sell products of their own on-site.


A mural on the Kitt Peak Visitor’s Center

After the visitor’s center and museum we drove to a building higher up the peak that has a 360-degree overlook at the top. From there we could see Tucson, different mountains, and mining. It was very beautiful and gave a nice scope of the land we were in. It also gave us more of an idea of how spread out things are, for example, Amy works at Kitt Peak, lives in Tucson, and has family that live on different parts in the Nation’s territory, so she drives a lot. Looking at the land made me think more about the resource development (extraction) projects in general in the area, and how common it is for indigenous nations to constantly fight for their right to land and resources. Right here in Arizona an Apache group and leader have an ongoing encampment that began in February, protesting the Oak Flat land exchange (thanks Obama), which would allow for the creation of a huge copper mine and the destruction of a piece of forest and sacred land for the Apache. To read more about Oak Flat and the initial march, go here:

We had lunch at a picnic area on another part of the peak with Amy and she spoke to us a little more about her beliefs for social change and involvement in activism. She’s in a group of younger people called the Tohono O’odham Rights Network (TOHRN). They do things like know your rights workshops and are committed to sharing information in a community language that is accessible to the every-day working person. Amy said you could think of it as trying to explain decolonization to your grandma. And I don’t think you have to be native to this land to believe in decolonization. Another thing that Amy said that stuck with me is that resistance is not “just for us” (the natives), but for everyone to survive and have a healthy, good life. In my view the destruction of resources, violent harassment and surveillance, and the creation of borders in general denies freedom for anybody’s life and movement, but especially those who are indigenous and Latinx.

On the ride back to Tucson, I thought more about one of our readings for that day that focused on the history of European conquest of the indigenous Americas and looked towards a revolution in the future (the zine is called Colonization and Decolonization: A Manual for Indigenous Liberation in the 21st Century). The author argues that social/political change occurs in times of crisis, and that right now we are in the “calm before the storm.” To me, border militarization and its deep impact on indigenous nations is a clear continuation of colonization (the invasion, destruction, and control exerted over original peoples and natural resources), and it has arrived to or is at least approaching crisis. This crisis impacts Native Americans and Mexican and Central American immigrants differently, but in the end the creation of borders and its militarization infringes on both groups’ human rights of (what I believe to be) freedom of movement and residence. Just like how the border crossed through the Tohono O’odham nation in 1854 (the Gadsden Purchase) and over Mexicans in 1848 (Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo), imperial borders and control of movement and citizenship began throughout the Americas with the arrival of European colonization.

–Gaby Hurtado-Ramos


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