American Indian religions are uniquely tied to the land. For many there is no separation between spirit and nature. But as industries like mining or tourism push farther and farther into undeveloped areas, they can run into conflicts with tribes, who sometimes see their sacred land as more valuable than economic development.
The sacred land issue came to a head in 2008 when the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that making snow out of reclaimed waste water, while offensive, posed quote “no substantial burden” on the tribes’ exercise of religion on the San Francisco Peaks in Flagstaff. Today treated wastewater is pumped several miles up the mountain to make snow.
On a recent windy afternoon the ski resort was open and the mountain covered with artificial snow. Several skiers and snowboarders took a break between runs to explain their sense of the sacred.
“The mountains are sacred, the mountains and the trees, you know, the wind and the birds, everything, seeing the clouds flying over, it’s just it’s awesome,” said longtime skier Doug Keeler.
“The tribes they’re concerned with the quality of water being sprayed on the mountain,” said snowboarder Andrew Winegarner. “So I kind of feel with them I understand how they’re upset, but I also feel the mountain is sacred for myself.”
Navajo activist and musician Klee Benally finds these ideas of the sacred offensive. Benally said skiers are confusing an adrenaline rush with spirituality.
“That undermines our legitimate connection and deeply held beliefs that we’ve maintained since time immemorial,” Benally said.
Benally and many traditional Navajos feel strongly that the waste water snow is desecrating their holy ground — the place where he makes offerings, where the Havasupai believe their people emerged, where the Hopi believe their ancestors live.
“It’s something that worries me all the time,” Benally said. “When I pray or participate in ceremonies, I question the effectiveness of those prayers.”
Lands held sacred by Indian tribes are coming under threat more and more as pressure grows to create jobs in rural areas. Many tribes are private about their traditions and are reluctant to map their holy ground, so we don’t know how much land is actually considered sacred.
We do know Oak Flat in southeastern Arizona is sacred to the San Carlos Apache.
For several years Sen. John McCain has been fighting to allow Resolution Copper to develop a mine there. McCain and other lawmakers tout the hundreds of jobs the mine would bring to a reservation where the unemployment rate is at 50 percent.
"The tribal leaders of San Carlos Apache obviously care more about some issues than they do about the prospect of employment for their tribal members,” McCain said at a Senate committee hearing last year.
“Non-Indians often think that they know what is best for Indian people,” said James Riding In, a member of the Pawnee Nation and Indian Studies professor at Arizona State University. “Indians in Arizona and elsewhere continue to be guided by religious traditions that have been handed down by the Creator. So for Indians it’s not all about money. For non-Indians often times it is.”
Of course some tribal members are not spiritual at all and might rather have a job. But Riding In says it’s difficult for non-Indians to understand the spiritual connection many tribes have with their land.
“Christianity is not a religion rooted in the land as is indigenous spirituality,” Riding In said. “Christianity is portable. It can be taken anywhere. And it doesn’t view the land as being sacred. It views the land as places to be conquered, to be exploited, to be changed to suit the needs of humankind.”
Riding In and Benally say current laws do not protect land-based religions. They list many other examples of sacred sites threatened by mining interests — like Mount Taylor in New Mexico, Indian Pass in California, and Mount Tenabo in Nevada.
Read more: What Part Of Sacred Don't You Understand?