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
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
"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
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. …