Screw Your Religion! We Want To Ski!

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  October 25, 2005 — 4 Comments

The Revealer links to a New York Times report on the efforts of a coalition of 13 Native American tribes to stop a ski resort located on the San Francisco Peaks from pumping recycled (non-potable) waste-water onto the mountain for snow production.

“So imagine, tribal leaders ask, what the spirits will think – or worse, do – when treated wastewater is piped up from Flagstaff and sprayed on the mountain so the resort, the Arizona Snowbowl, can make more snow to ski on? A lawyer for one of the tribes likened it to ‘pouring dirty water on the Vatican.'”

The supervisor of the Coconino National Forest can’t understand why the tribe doesn’t realize that people’s fun is more important that religious and cultural tradition.

“Nora B. Rasure, the supervisor of the Coconino National Forest, wrote this year in the report that the resort “has and continues to provide a valuable recreational experience to many people, and that in order to continue providing that experience in today’s physical and business environment, changes are needed.” Ms. Rasure noted that none of the tribes performed ceremonies or maintained shrines within the resort property and that the improvements would involve only 205 acres.”

Here we see a primary split between the Judeo-Christian conception of “sacred” and the pre-Christian native conception of “sacred”. Since most have a hard time envisioning an entire mountain range as holy and an integral part of one’s culture and history they don’t understand the trouble over what many consider to be a tiny portion of the mountain range. This lack of understanding creates scenes like the following from the first day of the trial.

“Courtroom observers were dismayed by the lack of cultural sensitivity on the part of government lawyers. After a witness described how the spraying of wastewater to make artificial snow would defile the sanctity of medicinal plants gathered on the mountain, a government lawyer asked if the medicine man knew he could purchase herbs at health food stores. A government lawyer also questioned a witness by going down a long list of sacred sites one by one and asking if a particular site was on federal land. In each case, the witness, a Hopi man, humbly replied, “I don?t know.” Eventually, the witness told the lawyer that his culture doesn’t view land in that way, that there is no concept of land ownership. The lawyer did not acknowledge his statement in any way, but instead went back to the list, unapologetically asking the same questions in the same manner.”

This is just the latest in a long line of contested actions involving the peaks stretching back to the late 19th century when indigenous people were forcible removed from the area. Native groups failed to block the building of the resort in 1979, and are now hoping that laws put in place since that initial court battle will help decide the case in their favor.

To underline how seriously the tribes take this matter, I will highlight a selection of quotes from Natives regarding the area.

“In a time when the Hopi Katsina Spirits have answered our prayers for rain and happiness, Coconino [National Forest] has placed a dagger in the Hopis’ spirituality,” – Leigh Kuwanwisiwma, director of the Hopi Cultural Preservation Office

“The San Francisco Peaks is the essence of who we are… and is the Holy House of our sacred deities whom we pray to and give our offerings,” – Joe Shirley Jr., President, Navajo Nation

“It’s like putting death on the mountain, which would be a form of witchcraft or black magic. I won’t be able to practice my religion.” – Frank Mapatis, Hualapai spiritual leader

“The kachinas are the snow makers. When man makes snow what does that tell the deities?” – Jeneda Benally, a Navajo advocate (and member of Native punk band Blackfire)

For those interested in helping out, the tribal coalition has a page set up letting the public know what they can do to help.

Jason Pitzl-Waters