Get your ash off our mountain

  People leave things in wilderness areas: toilet paper, orange rinds, even beer cans. But in the San Francisco Peaks north of Flagstaff, Ariz., it's human remains that are littering the Coconino National Forest.

Last month, Native Americans in Arizona were upset when newspapers reported that a deceased Navajo woman's ashes had been scattered in the peaks area, an important center of Hopi and Navajo spirituality. Some believe the presence of human remains could make ceremonies held there less effective.

The Arizona Daily Sun reported, weeks later, that the original story was a hoax. But the incident brought the practice of scattering human ashes on public land to the public eye. Sammie Slivers Sr., president of the Diné Spiritual and Cultural Society, told the Navajo Times on June 12 that Navajo people view the peaks as their church, and burying people there is insensitive.

Now, tribal leaders who plan a cleansing ceremony to purify the site have brought their case to the Forest Service. They say wilderness burials must stop.

Jon Nelson of the San Francisco Peaks Ranger District says the Forest Service already prohibits using public lands for burial, but that few people know about the policy. The agency is working with the tribes, "but what it comes down to," he says, "is that it's pretty religious for the people who are out there doing the burying, too."

Nelson says wilderness burials are more common than the Forest Service or the tribes realize. But, he adds, "There just aren't enough of us out on the ground to possibly enforce the law."

* Emily Miller