Saturday, October 22, 2005

Commerce and Religion Collide on a Mountainside

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. - In the view of American Indians here, the spirits that inhabit the San Francisco Peaks, towering 12,000-foot-plus mountains rising from the desert here, certainly did not appreciate it when a ski run was built a quarter of a century ago on one slope.

The national forest is not on tribal land but is within ancestral boundaries claimed by several tribes.
So imagine, tribal leaders ask, what the spirits will think - or worse, do - when treated wastewater is piped up from Flagstaff and sprayed on the mountain so the resort, the Arizona Snowbowl, can make more snow to ski on? A lawyer for one of the tribes likened it to "pouring dirty water on the Vatican."

In a trial that began this month, 13 Indian tribes who regard the peaks as virtual living deities of the highest order argued that the plan would interfere with their religious practices, including the gathering of mountain water and herbs they say the artificial snow would taint.

"The mountain is like a power plant," Frank Mapatis, a spiritual leader in the Hualapai tribe, said in court. "You plant a feather there, and it is like plugging into a power plant."

The case pits economic interests against traditional practices, and culture versus science, the kind of clashes that are becoming increasingly common in the West as population booms and development pressures butt against Indian desires to reassert ancient practices.