This is not the first time I’ve traveled up this mountain. My once-lover Dark Cloud and I hiked, camped and made love in these old Ponderosa and Fir forests. My road buddy Everett and I crawled into a little cave in this mountain to drink water from an icy spring that tastes of volcanic rock. I’ve danced on the thick mat of pine needles under a New Moon and followed my son up Bear Jaw trail until I had no more breath.
I would tell you that this mountain that the settlers named the San Francisco Peaks is tethered to my heart if I didn’t worry that you would then dismiss my words as those of a wannabe flake. I would tell you that I once had to fly to Manila for a wedding, and the further the plane took me from the silhouette of this mountain the thinner that cord stretched until I was sure it would break and I would be lost forever. I would tell you that I once drove back from dances on the Hopi reservation north of these mountains, came round a curve in the highway, saw that silhouette and knew in an instant that the Hopi and the mountain they call Nuva’tuk-iya-ovi are clasped as two warm hands might be clasped. I would tell you that I stood on this mountain that the Dine call Dook’o'oosÌÌd and watched a Navajo apprentice healer touch a boulder as tenderly as he might have touched his child, but I worry that you might relegate me to the long-gone New Age. And if I tell you that I heard a Dine woman say that disrespecting the Mountain is a form of genocide, “because the health of the Dine men is linked with the Mountain; and the health of the Mountain is linked with their health,” I hope you would listen with an open heart.
It is a bright July morning in Northern Arizona. White clouds drift above the road. It is monsoon season, but there is no hint of storm on its way. I drive on a winding two lane that goes up to Snowbowl, a small ski resort on this desert mountain. A mile or so of the road is reduced to one lane because the ski resort is dynamiting and gouging a trench in which they plan to lay pipes in which treated wastewater will be carried to make fake snow. Thousands of Native Americans, their supporters and environmentalists have battled the Snowbowl’s plan for at least ten years — in the courts, on the streets, in the parking lot of the resort, in front of Flagstaff’s local newspaper office, on-line and, most recently, by locking themselves down to the equipment that is now lacerating the face of the mountain. A week ago, a group of activists set up an encampment and invited others to join them. They set up a central Cook Shack and information tent. (During slavery in America, the Cook Shack was the place slaves would meet to plan their escapes to the North. There, they were safe from the master and the master’s spies.) And today we will gather in a circle and pray.
Don’t miss a beat
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I pull into the Snowbowl parking lot. One of the encampment’s organizers takes me up to the Snowbowl’s clear-cuts where acres of old growth fir and pine have been leveled. My gut twists. I tell Ned that I had stood in the Hopi village of Shungopavi a few days earlier and watched the Katsinas dance. Each of the dancers wore a ruff of fir twigs around their necks — fir that had been gathered in a manner no less reverent than the dances. The Katsinas and the watchers were in ceremony for the mountains upon which the Katsinas make weather. For a human to make snow from wastewater on Nuva’tuk-iya-ovi is the same as a person taking a leak on the main altar of the Vatican or in the Holy of Holies in a synagogue.
“So the Snowbowl has killed these fir,” my friend said. “Sacrilege.”
When we returned to the parking lot, the circle was gathering. I stepped into place and waited. Klee Benally, Dine (Navajo) musician and activist picked up his drum. His voice rose bright as obsidian into the huge sky. I felt my heartbeat slow, saw the others in the circle seem to settle more fully into their bodies. We had begun.
One by one, each of us spoke. We were Dine, Anglo, Mexican, South American, old and young, women and men, a tiny baby, a family down from the Rez, a tall, dark, dreadlocked man with his son at his side. When it was his turn to speak, he spoke of his wish for his son to know the mountain as he did. Then he told us what had happened when he and Klee had been waiting for the rest of us to arrive: “Klee was waiting with his drum. I was walking toward him. Some white guys were walking toward the trail. I overheard an older white man loudly say, ‘Look at that Indian playing his drum, don’t they know that they were all exterminated? Get over it.’ Another friend confronted the guy and asked him to say it to Klee’s face. The man declined and denied that he said anything.”
There was absolute silence in the circle, then the sound of muffled sobbing. The dreadlocked man’s face was wet with tears. A young woman next to me had buried her face in her hands. I remembered the February 2005 summit meeting between tribal elders, leaders and medicine people and Nora Rasure, who was then Forest Supervisor. Middle-aged Native American men, sombre women and elders had talked with tears streaming down their faces about the life-essential threads that weave between their people and the Mountain. I’d heard Nora Rasure say after four hours of testimony, “Well, skiers have their rights too. I have to protect them as well.”
The young woman took her hands from her face, looked up at the Mountain and said, “I am part of the encampment. I want to talk about the environmental effects of the contaminants in treated wastewater.” I listened to her words, but my thoughts were with Klee and the angry white man. I remembered standing years earlier along the highway just before the Snowbowl Road, holding a sign that said, “Why no snow-making? — stop and learn why;” and the enraged faces of the skiers on their way up the mountain, the curses, the foul insults. I remembered the genuine question I heard again and again from friends who skied or snowboarded, “What’s the big deal about snowmaking?”
And, as I stood in a circle of people on the slope of the Mountain, I knew the answer. The big deal about snow-making with treated wastewater on the San Francisco Peaks (Nuva’tuk-iya-ovi/Dook’o'oosÌÌd) is cultural extermination. It is genocide.