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Know the West

This Saturday, Prayers for the Peaks


Earlier this week I had the good fortune to share a conversation with David Johns, acting president of the Navajo medicine men’s association. Mr. Johns and his colleagues in the Dine Hataalii Association (DHA) are preparing for a Navajo Nation-wide day of prayer this Saturday, to support the campaign to protect the holy San Francisco Peaks. The Peaks, which rise to 12,000 feet above Flagstaff, Arizona, at the Western edge of Navajo lands, are sacred to thirteen tribes – including the Navajo, for whom the Peaks represent a central locus of spiritual power. Presently, for tribes throughout the Colorado Plateau, the Peaks are threatened by a proposal to use reclaimed wastewater as artificial snow in order to increase the moutain’s ski resort’s annual skiable days.

Saturday’s day of prayer will support the Save the Peaks Coalition, an alliance of concerned citizens based in Flagstaff, AZ, as they head into federal court next week. On July 20th, a Phoenix district judge will hear oral arguments on a National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) question: whether the Forest Service failed to properly review the potential environmental and public health risks associated with the use of artificial snow.

This NEPA case follows an epic legal battle under the Religious Freedom and Restoration Act which concluded in 2008 when, after a victory before a Ninth Circuit three-judge panel, a rarely-convened en banc panel determined that snowmaking did not substantially burden Navajo religion. In that case, the court found Navajo tradition to be merely a “subjective spiritual experience,” not entitled to statutory protection despite the colossal negative impact that snowmaking will have on Navajo spirituality and cultural cohesion.

For indigenous peoples in the Northern Arizona region, whose spirituality and culture are inextricable parts of a whole, the San Francisco Peaks are regarded as a holy place tantamount to the most revered sanctuaries of Western monotheistic traditions. Yavapai-Apache Chairman Vincent Randall describes the San Francisco Peaks as one of the "sacred places where the Earth brushes up against the unseen world.” For the Hopi tribe, the Peaks are known as Nuvatukaovi, which means "The Place of Snow on the Very Top." The Hopi believe that ancestral kachina spirits live atop the mountain, and cause the rain and snow to fall – the Hopi believe that natural snowmaking cycles may cease if the kachinas witness humans manufacturing snow. And the Navajo Nation’s traditional homelands are bounded by four sacred mountains, the westernmost of which is the Peaks. The mountain’s traditional Navajo name is Doko'oo'sliid, which means "Shining On Top," and has traditionally been accessed by medicine men for the collection of herbs for healing ceremonies.

In our conversation, David Johns explained to me that all Navajo ceremonial songs and prayers involve the honoring of each of the four sacred mountains. These mountains offer guidance and strength to the Navajo people, and through proper honoring in song and ceremony, the people can maintain good relations with the mountain and therefore remain strong and healthy. After emphasizing that each and every Navajo prayer contains a statement of respect for the Peaks, Mr. Johns expressed his disbelief at the United States government’s total disregard for the utter spiritual desecration that would result from snowmaking.

In the District Court next week, the Forest Service will argue in support of its finding that the reclaimed wastewater will not cause a significant impact to the environment or public health. Though the wastewater is known to contain endocrine-disrupting contaminants and other pathogens, the government asserts that these occur in such small amounts that no appreciable harm can result from their consumption by humans or their application to plants and soil. Such a view disregards impacts from the accumulation of these pathogens over time in the soil, flora and water, unforeseen impacts on children’s health from the ingestion of artificial snow, and the egregious cultural impacts of the proposal. While the Forest Service finds minimal risk to environmental and public health, the indigenous peoples implicated here know that any degree of contamination causes an unacceptable degree of physical and spiritual risk to the mountain itself and to the health and well-being of future generations.

In essence, the parties are asking the district judge to evaluate competing cultural narratives – but the judge must do so based on legal rules that disfavor the sacred. A decision in favor of the Forest Service will compromise the spiritual and biological integrity of the holy Peaks, and thereby negatively impact a whole people, in support of an altogether dubious economic venture. As David Johns suggested to me: it is time that our society begins to integrate a respect for the sacred into our decision-making, even if we need to place limits on economic development in cases like this one, so that future generations can inherit a balanced world.

Caitlin Sislin, Esq. is the Advocacy Director for Women's Earth Alliance, where she coordinates the Sacred Earth Advocacy Network -- a network of pro bono legal and policy advocates in collaboration with indigenous women environmental justice leaders.  For more information, please contact Caitlin at [email protected].

Photo of San Francisco Peaks courtesy Women's Earth Alliance.