When the sacred becomes toxic

  • Jonathan Thompson


In 1680, the Pueblos of New Mexico organized a revolt against the Spaniards who had colonized the region. The uprising, which involved Pueblos from Taos to Zuni, successfully chased the Spaniards back to El Paso, where they would stay and sulk for the next 12 years.

The Puebloans had plenty of grievances: The invaders had taken over their lands and villages, forcing them to labor without pay, and, on at least one occasion, whipping and hanging their medicine men in the Santa Fe plaza. Sure, the invaders were after wealth and power and land, but the revolt against them was largely sparked by religion. The Spaniards had made the mistake of trying to destroy the Native religion, replacing it with Catholic rites and beliefs. It was an especially brutal form of oppression, and it was repaid in kind. Twenty-one friars were killed during the revolt, and churches and Catholic icons were burned.

When the Spaniards returned, they were less heavy-handed in their proselytizing, fearful of a repeat. Still, cultural tensions between the Southwestern tribes and the European newcomers have not gone away. And more and more, it seems, that tension is finding its way into natural resource battles.

Perhaps the most prominent recent conflict has been over the San Francisco Peaks near Flagstaff, Ariz. The Snowbowl ski area wants to make snow with treated wastewater. Area tribes, most notably the Navajo, fought back on the grounds that the peaks are sacred, and that spewing sewer water on them is akin to urinating on Notre Dame. After a long slog up the legal chain, the U.S. Supreme Court finally refused to take the case. The tribes appeared to have lost, although hope remains: The U.S. Forest Service, which manages the land on which the ski area operates, continues to hold back the resort's permit. (And Republican Sen. John McCain has vowed, in typical fashion for him, to hold up U.S. Department of Agriculture appointments until the snowmaking is allowed to proceed.)

In this issue, Laura Paskus tackles a more complicated economic and cultural battle over another sacred peak, Mount Taylor. Once again, tribes are using religion to try to protect the mountain, this time from uranium mining. In this case, though, the fight has spilled out of the bureaucracy and courts and into the streets. It's tapped into deep reservoirs of bitterness, and even (maybe) led to violence.

There are legitimate questions as to whether religion should be a deciding factor in the management of public lands. On the one hand, we don't want to defile any culture's Mecca, Vatican or Dzil Na'oodilii, whether it's on private or public land. On the other hand, religion can certainly complicate things. And when it's wielded carelessly, it can be explosive. 

Even as the tribes seek to protect Mount Taylor as sacred, one of their most vehement opponents –– Marita Noon, an evangelical Protestant author and speaker –– has argued, essentially, that mining is God's will. Perhaps Noon is simply serving up a healthy dose of Palinesque opiate in order to align the impressionable masses with the pro-energy development group that she directs. But by introducing Christianity in such a visible way, she makes the conflict look like a religious one. That happened 330 years ago, and it didn't end well for anyone.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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