Aiming high: Lopez questions the Charlottesville legacy

Guy Lopez didn't come here to rave about how great the University of Virginia is. His mission: to hold a mirror to this town and show a different view of its much-vaunted history. "I'm one of the people affected by actions emanating out of Charlottesville," he says.

Lopez is the coordinator for the Mt. Graham Coalition, a group protesting the University of Arizona's Mount Graham Observatory, which is about to complete construction of a large binocular telescope that will be the largest telescope in the world. UVA is considering investing $4 million for the right to use the telescope a few days each year.

The project has been controversial for well over 10 years, drawing criticism from environmentalists as well as Native Americans. But aside from a protest Lopez organized here in April that drew 20 protesters and a few letters to the Cavalier Daily, Mt. Graham hasn't made many waves in Charlottesville.

He explains why we should care. "Charlottesville has this history, this legacy. It's probably one of the most influential small towns for its impact on history."

And for a town that boasts Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe, three white males who enshrined freedom of religion in our founding documents, Lopez poses this question: "Does freedom of religion apply to American Indians today?"

This isn't Lopez's first brush with resistance. A member of the Dakota Nation, he grew up on the Crow-Creek-Sioux reservation in South Dakota and remembers watching– as a longhaired 10-year-old with a red bandana– the occupation of Wounded Knee on South Dakota's Pine Ridge Reservation in 1973.

"It was electrifying, that feeling of vindication, that there will be justice for us ultimately," he recalls.

When he was a "disaffected college student," Tiananmen Square in 1989 was "one of the things that woke us up," he says. "And when it was crushed, it caused waves around the world."

Lopez became aware of the Mt. Graham controversy as a graduate student at the University of Arizona. "At that time, it was called the Columbus Telescope," he says. "We protested, and they dropped that name although it's still called that in Europe."

Mt. Graham is the central sacred mountain for San Carlos Apaches. "It's a place intimately connected to their survival," says Lopez. And it's the home of the ga'an, mountain spirits that have kept the Apaches from perishing all through their long history.

Why can't the observatory and the Apache coexist?

Lopez puts it this way: "Imagine you have an altar in your house. It's as if your altar has been appropriated by a roommate you don't like who's put his stereo on it."

An experienced activist, Lopez says his group can do protests at any time. But his strategy here is to try to persuade the university community to look at Mt. Graham from the American Indian perspective: as a cathedral that's been violated.

"In all the years of UVA's illustrious history," he says, "it's accomplished nothing for the Virginia Indians or the American Indians." Lopez also wants Native Americans to have a voice in the upcoming bicentennial celebration of the Lewis and Clark expedition.

"Our land was claimed fraudulently by Lewis and Clark," he says, "and it was sold fraudulently by the French."

UVA sent five representatives to Arizona in April to meet with environmentalists, activists, and Apaches the first potential consortium partner to meet with tribal members, UVA provost Gene Block reported upon his return.

The university "will be looking into all aspects of the project, including Native American consideration of the mountain as a sacred place," says UVA spokesperson Louise Dudley. A decision is expected this semester.

Lopez is not optimistic he'll be able to dissuade UVA from signing on to the Mt. Graham observatory. "It seems there's a certain bias they have that they can mitigate the impact on the Apaches," he says.

His larger objective, to get the University of Virginia and the Charlottesville community to respect American Indians' religious freedom, is also daunting and thought-provoking.

"Does the ideal of democracy extend to the reality?" he asks.