Saturday, August 11, 2007

Far From the Reservation, but Still Sacred?

Yuma, AZ

Squinting against the harsh desert sun, Mike Jackson, leader of the Quechan Indians, looks out past his tribe’s casino and the modern sprawl of Yuma and points to the sandy flatlands and the rust-colored Gila mountain range shimmering in the distance. “They came this way,” he says, describing how his ancestors followed the winding course of the Colorado River and ranged over hundreds of miles of what is now western Arizona and southeastern California. “There’s a lot of important history here, both for the Quechan and the U.S.”

And if it’s up to him, that history will go a long way in determining the future of this corner of the West, one of the fastest-growing parts of the country and a place where developers are increasingly running up against newly powerful but tradition-minded American Indian leaders like Mr. Jackson.

As president of the Quechans over the last decade, Mr. Jackson is leading a new kind of Indian war, this time in the courts. The battlegrounds are ancient sites like the religious circles, burial grounds and mountaintops across the West that Indians hold sacred and are protected by federal environmental and historic preservation laws. After successful smaller battles, Mr. Jackson is now challenging a bigger project, arguing that the construction of a planned $4 billion oil refinery in Arizona could destroy sites sacred to his tribe.

What makes this case different from more traditional fights between Indians and developers is that the refinery isn’t on the Quechan reservation or even next to it. In fact, the refinery is planned for a parcel of land some 40 miles to the east of the reservation, on the other side of Yuma and the Gila mountain range. But Mr. Jackson and the tribe’s lawyers argue that before the land can be transferred to the company building the refinery, Arizona Clean Fuels, or construction can start, an exhaustive archaeological and cultural inventory must take place.

The Quechans are not a large tribe. Also known as the Yuma Indians (they prefer the name Quechan, which means “those who descended”), they number about 3,300 and their reservation on the California-Arizona border covers roughly 70 square miles. That is a small fraction of the size of lands the federal government set aside more than a century ago to better-known nations like the Apaches or Navajos. Mr. Jackson has already stopped two planned projects — a low-level nuclear dump and a $50 million gold mine on the California side of the border — both also well away from the Quechan reservation. This year, he helped defeat the nomination of a Bush administration official who favored the mine to a federal appellate court.

LIKE the land itself, the fight over the refinery reflects a tangle of cultures and centuries of bitterness between Indians and newcomers. Mr. Jackson says it’s about respect for Quechan culture, and a new willingness on the part of Indians to stand up to the local establishment after centuries of not having a say. Business and political leaders in Yuma argue that it’s little more than a land grab by Mr. Jackson, a dubious attempt by the tribe to block much-needed development and assert claims to territory lost long ago.

What’s more, says Glenn McGinnis, chief executive of Arizona Clean Fuels, a preliminary inspection failed to turn up evidence of ruins near the site, which was privately owned for decades by local farmers but was later bought by the federal government to acquire water rights.

In any case, Mr. McGinnis says he’s committed to protecting any sacred remains that turn up once construction begins. But doing the more extensive survey sought by Mr. Jackson and the Quechans now would not only delay the project by months, it would also cost about $250,000, which Arizona Clean Fuels would be obligated to cover.

The dispute is about more than money, though. It has also brought resentment of the tribe’s newfound clout to the surface. David Treanor, vice president of Arizona Clean Fuels, calls the Quechans’ stance “psychological imperialism” and compares Mr. Jackson to Hugo Chávez, Venezuela’s left-wing leader.

Casey Prochaska, chairwoman of the Yuma County Board of Supervisors, adds: “My grandmother probably went across here in a covered wagon. This country didn’t stop because they walked over this land.”

Indeed, the refinery isn’t even the main issue for some business leaders. “It’s a question of how far does their sphere of influence go,” says Ken Rosevear, executive director of the Yuma County Chamber of Commerce. “Does it go clear to Phoenix? To Las Vegas? The whole West?”

Casey Prochaska, chairwoman of Yuma County’s Board of Supervisors, is skeptical of the tribe’s contentions that relics are on a proposed refinery site.
Mr. Rosevear may be exaggerating, but his fear illustrates just what’s at stake. If the Quechans’ lawsuit succeeds, it would bolster the efforts of other, larger tribes to block development on territory where they also once lived and prayed.