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Ola Cassadore, the last Apache Warrior

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08 December 2012

Ola Cassadore (1923-2012), Apache spiritual leader and President of Apache Survival Coalition, at the Town Hall of Turin in 2001 during the trip organized by Ecospirituality Foundation

The great Apache spiritual leader recently passed away on November 25. Her life, dedicated to defending the Apache sacred mountain, is an emblematic symbol for all Natural Peoples

Ola Cassadore was a wise woman, a great spiritual leader and at the same time a woman of incredible simplicity. She always made an impression for her serious expression, which would transform when you least expected it into a crystalline laugh of a young girl. Old loved to play, have fun and joke around. She was of few words; however, she managed to touch the heart of many people around the world. She had a mission: defend the Apache sacred mountain, Mount Graham, which in Apache language is called Dzill Nchaa Si’An – the Great Sitting Mountain.

Ola made a solemn commitment with the Arizona Apache when they told her of the imminent desecration of their sacred mountain by the project that would soon destroy their most sacred land. Old told us, “It was very hard for the Elders, and tears started to flow from their eyes while they told me that Mount Graham is a sacred mountain, and they did not want it to be destroyed. From that moment, I decided to oppose the project.”

I had the privilege to meet Ola and share many significant moments with her, both of struggle and of daily life. This contact began with a common mission, the defense of a sacred place for a Native People, and soon turned into an intimate and special relationship in which two cultures met and recognized each other in a shared spirituality.

Ola Cassadore with her husband Mike Davis and with Rosalba Nattero, Giancarlo Barbadoro and Marco Pulieri on Mount Graham, showing the road barred

The moments that I best remember and miss most are those of daily nature, in which we shared each other’s habits and cultural customs. We exchanged ideas and projects, laughs and joy. She liked Michelle, my cat, who exchanged these feelings by always sneaking up on her in an endless game.

In the few moments free from the work with the Mount Graham case, Ola and her husband Mike Davis opened up to me and Giancarlo (Barbadoro – editor’s note) with details on their daily life on the San Carlos reservation and on uses and customs of the Apache tradition. Obviously, notes of sadness and anger for this other humiliation of the Apache were not missing.

We first met Ola Cassadore in 1993, in Arizona, at her caravan on the Apache San Carlos reservation; and we were struck by that mix of pride, sweetness and hidden sufferance that is shared by all who have had everything taken from them a little at a time: land, traditions, rites and uses.

Ola Cassadore was a member of the Apache San Carlos Tribe. Her father was Deschin Clan Leader and her mother belonged to the Istaneyei Clan. Ola grew up in a strongly traditional Apache family. Her grandmother was a medicine-woman and practiced traditional therapy for the members of the Community. Her brother, Philip Cassadore, following the path of his father and uncle, also became a medicine-man and received his title on Mount Graham in the traditional Apache manner.

Ola Cassadore with Rosalba Nattero in 1993 in her caravan at the Apache San Carlos reservation

I cried along with Ola when she and her husband, Mike Davis, led us up Mount Graham to show us the destructing taking pace on their maximum sacred land.

The humiliation that we took part in while seeing the road barred and the ranger that pushed back the descendants of a proud People from their mountain made us decide to stand at their side in this struggle. We somehow felt responsible: Italy takes part in the project through the Arcetri observatory; and another major sponsor is the Vatican. How could we Italians make believe that nothing was happening?

We met Ola many other times, both in Arizona and Italy. Solidarity turned into friendship, care and trust. The moments we spent together working on our common commitment were filled with happiness and anecdotes. We shared very intimate spiritual moments, such as the Apache prayer that she conducted on Mount Graham, in which we participated; unfortunately not on the most sacred part of the mount because it was barred.

Ola sang the traditional chants of her People in Apache language. Her voice underlines the evocative spirit of the traditional chants, as if from another time. Along with my music band LabGraal, we recorded some of her chants; and this is one of the precious gifts I received from her.

Ola’s battle for Mount Graham

The life of Ola Cassadore was linked to that of the Sacred Mountain in a bond that escapes human comprehension. Mount Graham is located near Tucson, Arizona, near the Apache San Carlos reservation. It is a unique mountain of its type because it has particularly rare vegetation even though it is in a desert area that goes from desert flora to boreal forest.

From memory forgotten, Mount Graham has always played a central role in Apache culture. The Apache conserve 32 chants of life, given to the Ancestors by the Creators: 16 of these chants refer directly to Mount Graham, Dzill Nchaa Si’An.

Ola explained to us that Mount Graham is the home of the spiritual messenger of the past, Ga’an. Ga’an is the spirit that lives inside Mount Graham, today known as the spiritual dancer of the Apache mountain. The Apache, from their Ancestors up to the modern generation, have always depended on the mountain for their ceremonies and the survival of their culture. This is where the Apache Ancestors are buried, “medicine-men” gather healing herbs and Apache shaman celebrate their sacred rites.

Ola Cassadore and Mike Davis with Rosalba Nattero and Giancarlo Barbadoro in Dreamland (Piedmont) during the visit in Italy of the Apache delegation

The mountain was part of the San Carlos reservation up to 1873. Even after breakdown of the reservation (due to progressive restriction of its confines), Mount Graham continued to represent the maximum sacred site for the Apache, not only for the San Carlos community, but for all Apache Peoples. They continued to hold their rites and prayers there up until a few decades ago, with full respect for nature, in the most uncontaminated sites on the mountain where the sacred water springs needed for their ceremonies are located.

But this place was taken from the Apache twice: first when the mountain was excluded from the reserve boundaries and second when in 1990 work began on the construction of the Astronomical Observatory, destroying the most sacred part of the site and barring access to the Apache.

The project is of the University of Arizona along with two European partners: the Arcetri Observatory (Florence, Italy), funded by the Italian government, and the Vatican. Many other sponsors that initially adhered to the project have withdrawn due to the poor visibility from the site and protest started by Ola, which soon became international.

To protest against this violation, Ola Cassadore founded the Apache Survival Coalition and tirelessly travelled the world with her husband Mike to seek help in blocking the desecration of the Sacred Mountain.

The history of injustice

It all started with deceit: the University of Arizona sent a letter to the Apache to request approval of the project, but the letter that never arrived because it was found a year and a half later in a drawer of an office at the BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs). Receiving no response, the University of Arizona felt authorized to begin work.

This illegal position has been disputed by Apache since they became aware of the project, in 1990, for what was happening on Mount Graham was considered a true desecration. The Tribal Council of the San Carlos Apache issued five official Resolutions in opposition to the Observatory and instructed Ola Cassadore to promote, as a spokesperson of the Tribal Council, the protest of the Apache around the world. Since then, the struggle of the Apache Survival Coalition has been joined by movements from all over the world, political, religious and secular institutions and organizations both American and European, as well as by most of the Indian Nations.

Ola Cassadore with the LabGraal musicians

In 2001, Ola Cassadore and Mike Davis visited Italy as guests of the Ecospirituality Foundation that sponsored the trip and organized a series of public events and official visits with political leaders and institutional heads. It was the opportunity to give visibility to a case that involved us Italians in an act of injustice, funded by our tax money and with the majority of the population unaware, towards the Apache People.

The case of Mount Graham created much indignation, not only in Italy, but all over the world. This case became an act of international solidarity and issue of embarrassment for the sponsors, many of which left the project after the attention of the media.

Officially charged by Ola Cassadore, we took the case to the United Nations in Geneva and New York. Every year since 2002, Giancarlo Barbadoro and I have, as delegates of the Ecospirituality Foundation and representatives of the Apache Survival Coalition, made appeals to the United Nations to keep the case alive and to not forget that the Apache are subjected to another act of humiliation.

Following the appeals, Rodolfo Stavenhagen, Spacial Rapporteur to the United Nations for Indigenous Peoples, visited Arizona twice. His last visit was in October 2005 when he met Ola Cassadore and her staff.

The issue of Mount Graham also reached the Chamber of Deputies (Italy): Hon. Paolo Cento, on request of the Ecospirituality Foundation, presented a motion to block funding for the Observatory. The motion reached Chamber debate in January 2002 – an extremely important event for the Apache – but remained pending.

Ola Cassadore and Rosalba Nattero

In recent years, the Apache Survival Coalition denounced attempts of corruption by the Universities of Minnesota and Virginia, encouraged by the University of Arizona. An Apache journalist wrote that the two Universities promised 40,000 dollars each year for every member of the Community in exchange for their renunciation in the struggle for the Sacred Mountain. The Apache obviously refused the proposal.

It is emblematic that the Vatican has declared that it will continue to work in the project because it judges that the site does not have characteristics of sacredness, as according to a statement made at Castel Gandolfo on 25 May 1992 by Father George Coyne, Vatican Observatory Directory. It is unacceptable that the University of Arizona, along with the Jesuits and with the help of the Vatican, has denounced the religious beliefs of the Native Americans in a Court of Law (The Independent Native Journal – May 2001), making appeal on the principle that religious freedom for American Indians does not exist.

Ola’s words

Due to the prerogative that comes from her position in the family, Ola was educated according to the guidelines of the Ancestors and in the traditional customs and ceremonial practices of the Apache. The testimonials that she trusted us with speak of an invisible world, a dimension that risks disappearing forever, and a tradition that places its hopes of survival only in the continuing action of the medicine-men.

“I remember sitting on a blanket on the ground inside the wieki up (Apache hut) of my grandfather, who gave me teachings. He taught me many things about Apache women. He told me many things about the spiritual beliefs of my People. He taught me to remember the way of the Apache and wanted me to learn the duties of an Apache woman.

During the summer solstice he prepared the horses, one was to ride and the other carried the baggage: blankets and food. We rode all day until reaching the top of our Sacred Mountain where we stayed for many days to gather nuts, berries and other wild food. There were many wild animals on the mountain but they didn’t come close; and I can’t remember any moment where they have us trouble during our camping.

The Ola Cassadore's fight will continue with all those who defend the sacred lands and traditions of Indigenous peoples all over the world. Mount Graham is a symbol for all of us, and the struggle continues.
To never forget

My grandfather was spiritually very strong, in the Apache way, and he gave me his teachings in the darkness of the night on top of the mountain. He told me that I didn’t have to be afraid because this was out land, our place, and because we are part of this land and of all the things on this mountain, so we are protected.

Mount Graham is a sacred mountain, and many ceremonial objects are kept in its heart. It is the place where our Ancestors are buried. There are a lot of medical plants; and there is the spring water for Apache ceremonial blessing and for natural healing.

We Indian Peoples have already made many sacrifices and lost many of our sacred sites. We don’t want this to happen again with our most Sacred Mountain, Mount Graham”.

Ola left us many precious gifts that we conserve with infinite love. But the greatest gift is the one that travels towards the future: her mission has become ours, and I know for certain that the fight for Mount Graham will not be forgotten. It is the symbol of the struggle to defend the ancient traditions and allow them to be passed down to future generations.

Traditions that conserve the teachings of the Ancestors, based on the principles of brotherhood, freedom and knowledge. They conserve our ancient history and protect us against an uncertain future that takes our identity away.

Ola Cassadore’s fight will be that of all who intend to maintain their Native roots, their Ancient Heart.
And I am certain that Ola will be with us.

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