Spirit of cooperation among Arizona tribes high

By Felicia Fonseca
Flagstaff, Arizona (AP) September 2010

The debate over snowmaking in this mountainous region, if nothing else, united American Indian tribes on a single issue, and they say that cooperation will go far in the effort to protect sacred sites in the future.

No winner emerged from the City Council’s decision this week to stick with its original contract to provide treated wastewater to the Arizona Snowbowl for snowmaking. Officials also were considering sending potable water to the resort just outside Flagstaff.

Tribes intent on protecting the San Francisco Peaks, which they consider sacred, were unsuccessful in pushing to derail snowmaking completely. Meanwhile, the owners of the ski resort likely can’t make snow anyway pending resolution of a federal court lawsuit over the health risks of using treated wastewater.

“It’s a nightmare decision for the City Council,” said Councilman Al White. “You intrinsically have to hurt somebody, and you don’t want to. There’s no right answer to this.”

Representatives of American Indian tribes came away from a recent meeting unsure of what to do next but had a sense of cohesiveness in knowing they stood up for what they believed.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture tried to forge a compromise among the tribes, the city and the resort owners after the tribes lost a legal battle over religious rights. But the tribes didn’t budge in their position that they would not support snowmaking, regardless of what type of water was used.

The USDA acknowledged a compromise wasn’t possible and issued a permit in July for snowmaking.

A committee of the Navajo Nation Council said “desecration appears imminent,” and tribal President Joe Shirley Jr. said “it is irrefutable that these decisions hurt indigenous people in ways unseen and unfelt by our neighbors.”

The issue has been debated extensively for more than eight years and positions haven’t changed much.

“I don’t know how to bridge the differences that we might have in the belief that snowmaking should or shouldn’t happen,” White said. “But I’m hoping they (the tribes) won’t let it get in the way of us being able to talk about greater, regional issues in the future.”

Tribal leaders are hopeful their voices will continue to be heard.

“I wouldn’t say the relationship between city and tribal governments is strained,” said Navajo lawmaker Thomas Walker. “We’re just opposing snowmaking. We’re not talking economics, we’re not talking politics of the matter. We’re not talking legal strategies.”

City councilors Art Babbott said he appreciates the tribes’ spiritual beliefs but said it wasn’t his job to make decisions based on how people outside the city viewed the city’s policies. Using treated wastewater for recreational use is among the city’s policies.

City boundaries matter little to Navajos, for example, who consider everything within four sacred mountains their ancestral homeland. Navajo belief holds that the four sacred mountains, including the San Francisco Peaks, were placed on Earth by Holy People as repositories of herbs, plants, stones and soil that help heal Navajos and restore harmony, Shirley said.

Walker and Hopi Chairman Le Roy Shingoitewa point out that Navajos and Hopis spent millions of dollars a year in Flagstaff, even if tribal members don’t live there. To many of them, Flagstaff is the “big city.”

“There may be a misnomer by some of the people that we don’t contribute much to the economy in Flagstaff,” Shingoitewa said. “They will be surprised that once the tribes show how our impact is to that city, that we are a viable entity to Flagstaff.”