On Tuesday December 11, 2007, I joined in a community effort to welcome and support a coalition of Native American Nations and environmental justice groups in their ongoing effort to defend Arizona's San Francisco Peaks from proposed ski area development.
The coalition had traveled from Arizona in order to be present for a Federal Appeals Court hearing in which developers would challenge a precedent-setting court victory won by the coalition, which halted plans to expand the skiing business by making fake snow out of sewage waste. The group processed from All Saints Church to the courthouse, beating drums and carrying banners with the names of the Nations and pictures of the peaks. They then kept vigil as arguments were heard by 11 judges.
This case is viewed as precedent-setting in the realms of religious freedom and public health, and particularly in establishing an interpretation for the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). As of writing, no decision had been announced.
As a person of faith, what struck me about the gathering is how deeply important the theme of religious freedom was. From some of the press, one could get the sense that the argument was selected pragmatically, but that is not the sense I got at the event. I got the sense that this was part of a very deep moment of decision: to take back the right to define the nature of the sacred.
I got caught shorthanding this message to a passerby, and the press liaison corrected me. "Its not just about a mountain," she said, and went on to explain to the man the many ways the different tribes interact with the peaks and their ecosystems as sacred.
I'm not sure if the passerby was taking it all in, though. "Uh-huh" was about all he said. How do you capture such a call in a soundbite? The organizers tried, and the participants were with them. But i think that witnessing the procession would have been a little like stepping off a NYC subway and finding yourself in the Cascades.... or the Arizona desert.
And historically, most white people who abandoned new york subways for the big sky-west did so with spiritual narratives. Indeed, its these folks and their offspring who have built an entire industry dedicated to creating and perpetuating cathartic experiences in "nature." The snowbowl proposal to expand the skiing industry on the San Francisco peaks is just one example of how our embrace of nature is a death grip.
So it is not enough to say "This is how I Pray" -- as one woman did with a handmade sign. Lots of people do that then grab their snowboards and their REI cards without a second thought. We must also learn how prayers have been said through the ages, and return to a reverence for the wisdom that these practices carry. And we must connect the dots between the desire and need we have for nature, and the destruction we wreck on her. if we were to really look closely at that question, it could re-configure the entire narrative of this nation, and perhaps show us a way out.
I'm grateful for the voices of the indigenous peoples in demanding this attention, now.
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