SAN CARLOS, Ariz. - Passing among them a staff with a small stone and a feather attached to it, young Apaches ran up Mount Graham in the annual spirit run last July.
Running is a large part of the history of Apaches, especially for young men and women, said Wendsler Nosie, director of Apaches for Cultural Preservation and the event's organizer.
Young people would run between spiritual places to collect medicinal herbs, he said. Once Apaches were taken to the reservation, though, they were no longer able to run, he said.
"(Running is) a part of the identity of who we are," Nosie said. "We do it because of the sacredness of the mountain."
Last year, he said, there were approximately 1,000 spirit run participants, and he expects more at this year's July 30 run.
"It's really snowballing," he said.
Dwight Metzger, who works with the Mount Graham Coalition, said more people and other tribes are becoming involved in the event.
"It's becoming a very profound event," he said. "It's very heartening to see Apaches reclaiming the space."
Metzger said he ran in the event and worked various support jobs.
Nosie said the high youth turnout is what really excites him.
"(With the run), our younger generation can get the true meaning of how holy this mountain is and what it does for us as a people," he said.
Nosie compared what he calls the mistreatment his ancestors faced from non-Indians to what an abuse victim faces.
Victims do not know what to do about the crime, he said. The second generation sees the abuse, and it internally affects them, he said, but it's the third generation that begins to ask a lot of questions.
"That's the generation we're in now," he said.
Young Apaches will become the defenders of the culture, he said.
"They're getting stronger, and that means the fight will never end," he said. "The worst thing you could do is wake up the Apaches, and (the universities) have done it."
Mount Graham is the center of the struggle among the Apaches and the University of Minnesota, the University of Arizona and several other institutions. The universities are using the mountain to house three telescopes.
But for the Apaches, the site is a part of their mythology, ceremonies, songs, prayers and miracles, spiritual leaders said.
Many said the presence of the telescopes on the mountain interfere with the spirituality of the place.
Nosie said American Indians praying on the mountain remove all jewelry because the prayers ricochet off the metal and never reach God. The telescopes create this problem, Nosie said.
"You lose the power of the gift of Mount Graham," he said.
Sandra Rambler, a tribe member, said part of the spirituality surrounding Mount Graham comes from a story about Apache tribe member Geronimo.
Geronimo was a spiritual leader for the Apaches in the mid-19th century, according to the American Indian Heritage Foundation. He was the leader of the last American Indian group to surrender to the United States, the foundation said.
As the U.S. government searched for Geronimo, he took refuge on Mount Graham because of its spirituality, Rambler said.
The rain on the mountain brought him protection and hid him, so he could live longer, she said.
Ola Cassadore Davis, an Apache spiritual leader, said the power of Mount Graham has created miracles.
She said there was once a young woman who could not walk and suffered from body tremors.
A group of people went up to Mount Graham and prayed for her, Davis said.
A medicine man had a vision that she would walk again in two or three months, she said. After the people came down from the mountain, she improved every day. At the end of three months, she was healthy, she said.
"If you believe in (the power of Mount Graham), it really helps," she said.
Rambler said the mountain holds sacred water used in ceremonies to heal diseases such as arthritis and cancer.
"These are diseases the white people brought to us," she said.
Nosie said Mount Graham is also a part of the Sunrise Dance ceremony.
The ceremony celebrates a young girl's entrance into womanhood, he said. It lasts a week and attracts several hundred participants, he said.
Young women participate in the ceremony after their first menstruation, he said.
Other ceremonies are performed on or near the mountain, but Nosie said he cannot discuss them because the tribe does not want to exploit its religion.
Overexposure to the outside world would cause the ceremonies to lose part of their meanings, he said.
One tribe member said the mountain is not as important to most tribe members anymore.
Tribe member Daniel Miller said many Apaches are not traditionalists, and most consider themselves Christians.
"We aren't raised with that (Apache) cultural stuff," he said.
He said most people do not go to Mount Graham or participate in ceremonies.
"We don't have time for that anymore," he said.
Robert Howard, the Apache Tribal Council's vice chairman, said that although he is Christian, he still stands by Apache traditionalists in their struggle against the University of Arizona.
"We'll always be here," he said.