Skis Carve a Path of Controversy in Arizona ; A New Snow Park Feeds a Rising Appetite for Recreation. but to Native Americans, a Sacred Site Is Desecrated

Article excerpt

Dividing two worlds, the pearl-white loft of the San Francisco Peaks hovers as a dwelling place for powerful earth gods, at least in the eyes of native peoples living on the nearby Navajo and Hopi Indian reservations.

But for athletic denizens of urban Flagstaff, those same mountains rising overhead have come to mean something else: a rare opportunity to alpine ski on the arid Colorado Plateau.

Today, those differing views, one modern, the other ancient, have created a clash of cultures that now reverberates across Western Indian country.

"The Peaks are part of me. They speak to who I am as a Navajo. It's hard to put into words how a landmark can represent the essence of your soul, but it does," says Joe Shirley Jr., president of the 300,000-member Navajo Nation, the largest tribe in the US. "It sickens me to think of what the US government is allowing to happen in those mountains."

A recent decision by the US Forest Service to allow expansion of a commercial ski area and use of treated sewage water for artificial snowmaking in the San Francisco Peaks has incited an emotional debate about spiritual desecration.

It pits those, such as Mr. Shirley, who demand that natural native religious sites - including mountains, valleys, lakes, and caves - be strictly protected versus others who want public wildlands made more accessible for mining and recreation.

While some tribes claim the threats have escalated in the West because of policies governing energy development and mining advanced by the Bush administration, the conflict has taken a variety of forms in recent years.

For instance, in the Lewis and Clark National Forest of Montana, the Blackfeet and neighboring tribes claim that proposed oil and gas drilling would harm areas where sun dancers still pray.

In the Black Hills and Badlands of South Dakota, as well as Glacier National Park of Montana, tribes say broken treaties have plundered sacred lands.

During the 1990s, a dispute erupted between mountain climbers and plains tribes at Devil's Tower National Monument in Wyoming, prompting the National Park Service to impose restrictions on alpinists so they didn't disrupt religious ceremonies. Today, the state is wrangling over an attempt to rename Devil's Tower "Bear Lodge," its traditional reference.

This latest debate centers on the San Francisco Peaks, the highest mountain range in Arizona and among four groups of summits considered holy by the Navajo and Hopi. The National Congress of Native Americans, the most powerful confederation of tribes in the US, says the slopes are no different than the edifice of the National Cathedral.

Outrage over downhill skiing at the resort, Snowbowl, extends back to the late 1930s. Two decades ago, activists here fought proposed infrastructure improvements at Snowbowl all the way to the US Supreme Court, arguing that the existence of the ski area prevented them from practicing their religion. The Supreme Court upheld an appellate court ruling in favor of the ski area. …