Sacred Site Faces Legalized Desecration From Arizona Snowbowl Wastewater
The Navajo call them Doko’oo’sliid, or “Shining On Top.” To the Hopi, the peaks are Nuvatukaovi, or “The Place of Snow on the Very Top.” Whatever name they bear, the San Francisco Peaks are sacred to no less than 13 tribes. So Thursday’s decision by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals to allow Arizona Snowbowl to make artificial snow out of wastewater is a serious blow to Native American religious beliefs.
Tribes use the peaks for various ceremonies for healing, well-being, balance, commemoration, passages and the world’s water and life cycles.
The Navajo believe the Creator placed them between four mountains: Blanca Peak in Colorado, Mount Taylor in New Mexico, the San Francisco Peaks in Arizona and Hesperus Peak in Colorado. The San Francisco Peaks are the sacred mountains to the west of the Navajo homeland.
The Sacred Land Film Project points out that Navajos collect herbs from the slopes of the peaks and bury the umbilical cords of their children there.
A website dedicated to Navajo religion explains how Navajo beliefs differ from those held by Christians. “In contrast to the Judeo Christian religions which tend to celebrate people and events, and thus can be practiced anywhere, the Navajo religion is founded on relationships to specific places. The Navajo religion is defined by and cannot be separated from its relationship to specific geographical places. These sites are sacred because of special religious events which have occurred in that particular site.”
Ernie Zah, spokesman for Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly, said the decision February 9 was “a disappointment. Although the San Francisco Peaks are not within our reservation, they are within our traditional boundaries, within our realm of dwelling, and we make offerings on the Peaks, we have prayers and songs that incorporate not only the San Francisco Peaks but all elements of life, and this court decision to potentially allow the use of reclaimed water to generate snow negates our inherited traditional foundations.”
Lloyd Thompson, a Navajo medicine man, explained to the Navajo Times in 2002 that religious understanding isn’t extended to Native Americans. “If we (Navajo people) took sewer water and put it on Mount Sinai, we’d be put in jail, fined, and maybe even attacked,” he said. Mount Sinai is the site where Moses is said to have received the Ten Commandments from God. He also told the Navajo Times that the sewer water that would be used isn’t just contaminated with human waste but also with body parts and blood from hospitals and mortuaries.
Native American sacred sites aren’t like churches, mosques or synagogues where people can worship without interference because those buildings are owned privately. Many sacred sites are on federal land. A 2005 High Country News article discusses this aspect and asks “Can federal lands still be sacred?”
In the article Joe Shirley Jr., then-president of the Navajo Nation, said: “To Native Americans, desecrating the San Francisco Peaks with wastewater is like flushing the Koran down the toilet.”
The Sacred Land Film Project also discusses the sacredness of the San Francisco Peaks to the Hopi people, who believe the peaks are home to Kachina spirits for half the year. The Kachinas live among the clouds around the summit and are said to bring rain when properly honored.
The move to bring wastewater to the peaks will negatively affect the Hopi beliefs. A Hopi chairman is quoted at Sacredland.org as saying, “If the ski resort remains or is expanded, our people will not accept the view that this is the sacred home of the Kachinas. The basis of our existence will become a mere fairy tale.”
Jeneda Benally, who is seen in the video below outside the courthouse on January 9, told PNN-TV that “Reclaimed wastewater is an affront to indigenous people. It’s an affront to our environment and it will not only contaminate the spiritual integrity of the holy San Francisco Peaks, but it will also contaminate our future generation’s health.” In the video, she leads the crowd in a chant: “No yellow snow!”
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