Obama Asked to Stop Snowbowl Sacred Site Desecration

Rob Capriccioso
9/22/11

WASHINGTON –Bolstered by new support by the United Nations, an Indian human rights group is urging tribal leaders to ask President Barack Obama to suspend the planned spraying of reclaimed sewage on the San Francisco Peaks in Arizona.

The Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission (NNHRC) passed legislation this month, which formally places the issue before the Navajo Nation Council. Many Navajo leaders, as well as those from other tribes, have already decried the plans to desecrate the sacred mountains by the Snowbowl Ski Resort. The Obama administration, via the U.S. Forest Service, has previously granted a permit authorizing the use of reclaimed waste water to make artificial snow.

The peaks are reported to be sacred to at least 13 tribes, and the mountain has long marked the traditional boundary of the Navajo people. Tribal citizens regularly make pilgrimages there to connect with and honor their cultures and religions.

If the human rights legislation passes the Navajo Nation Council, a formal request would be issued to Obama on behalf of the tribal government to suspend the permit authorizing the use of reclaimed water there.

NNHRC organizers noted that their request comes on the heels of the U.N. Special Rapporteur of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples S. James Anaya’s recommendations in his report to the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland, on August 22. Anaya was scheduled to present the report to the U.N. Human Rights Council on September 20.

The human rights resolution passed the council with 4 in favor, 0 opposed on September 2. It is titled, “Acknowledging the Report by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, S. James Anaya, and Recommending that the Navajo Nation Council to Formally Request the President of the United States of America to Direct the U.S. Forest Service to Suspend the Permit authorizing the use of Reclaimed Waste Water to make Artificial Snow and follow the Recommendations of the Special Rapporteur; and other recommendations.”

Several tribal leaders met in May 2010 with Anaya regarding the possible desecration of the San Francisco Peaks. The Navajo Nation Council also previously authorized the submission of a complaint to Anaya, requesting that he help protect the human rights of Navajos and other Indigenous Peoples.

In August, Anaya said that the United States had not responded to information he received “relating to the proposed use of recycled wastewater for the commercial ski operation [on] the San Francisco Peaks, a mountainous area that is sacred to several Native American tribes.” At that time, he recommended that the U.S. government review its decision, consult with tribes, and that it take appropriate remedial action.

“The [United States] Government should give serious consideration to suspending the permit for the modification of Snowbowl until such agreement can be achieved or until, in the absence of such an agreement, a written determination is made by a competent government authority that the final decision about the ski area modifications is in accordance with the United States’ international human rights obligations,” Anaya wrote in his report.

“The Special Rapporteur wishes to stress the need to ensure that actions or decision by [the United States] Government agencies are in accordance with, not just domestic law, but also international standards that protect the right of Native Americans to practice and maintain their religious traditions. The Special Rapporteur is aware of existing government programs and policies to consult with Indigenous Peoples and take account their religious traditions in government decision-making with respect to sacred sites. The Special Rapporteur urges the [United States] Government to build on these programs and policies to conform to international standards and by doing so to establish a good practice and become a world leader that it can in protecting the rights of Indigenous Peoples.”

Anaya also noted that the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which the United States has endorsed, states that consultations should take place with the goal of achieving agreement or consent by Indigenous Peoples to decisions that may directly affect them in significant ways, such as decisions affecting their sacred sites. “Simply providing Indigenous Peoples with information about a proposed decision and gathering and taking into account their points of view is not sufficient in this context,” Anaya wrote. “Consultation must occur through procedures of dialogue aimed at arriving at a consensus."

“In the absence of consent by Indigenous Peoples to decisions that affect them, States should act with great caution. At a minimum, States should ensure that any such decision does not infringe Indigenous Peoples’ internationally-protected collective or individual rights, including the right to maintain and practice religion in relation to sacred sites,” he added. "The process of snowmaking from reclaimed sewage water on the San Francisco Peaks undoubtedly constitutes a palpable limitation on religious freedom and belief, as clearly indicated by the U.S. Forest Service's Final Environmental Impact Statement.”

"The religious freedom at stake is not simply about maintaining ceremonial or medicinal plants free from adverse physical environmental conditions or about physical access to shrines within the Peaks. More comprehensively, it is about the integrity of entire religious belief systems and the critical place of the Peaks and its myriad qualities within those belief systems."

Anaya also made the following statement, which NNHRC officials considered significant: “It is highly questionable that the effects on Native American religion can be justified under a reasonable assessment of necessity and proportionality, if the purpose behind the government decision to permit the enhancements to the ski operation is none other than to promote recreation.”

“The Navajo people is a part of the world community and the world community has set standards for a good reason,” said Leonard Gorman, an organizer with the NNHRC, in a statement. “The United States must be responsible and abide by international standards that protect the human rights of Navajos.”

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