Arizona's Hopi culture, Protection of San Francisco Peaks, Religious Freedom and Restoration Act, Kachinas, ceremonies

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Hopi People Rejoice in Protection
of their Sacred Mountains

Hopi Tribe Wins Landmark
Religious Freedom Case on Appeal


The San Francisco Peaks, almost 13,000 feet tall, are the holy mountain where their Kachina spirits dwell. It is a site of sacred pilgrimage, source of plant materials for ceremonials, source of the waters for the desert lands.

A federal appeals panel blocked a ski resort's plan to make artificial snow by spraying treated wastewater on mountains that Indian tribes consider sacred. In a unanimous ruling, a three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, in San Francisco, overturned a lower court ruling from January 2006 that would have let the resort, the Arizona Snowbowl, to proceed with the snowmaking and other upgrades on the San Francisco Peaks near Flagstaff. Thirteen tribes, along with the Sierra Club and other environmentalists, had appealed the decision. They said using wastewater, no matter how clean, would offend deities and spiritually contaminate herbs and other plants used for medicine and religious ceremonies.


Photo from the Hopi Tutuveni
showing Hopi perspective that the spiritual helpers make snow, not ski area developers

a portion of the San Francisco Peaks near Flagstaff, Arizona


Excerpts from the Hopi newspaper Tutuveni, March 15, 2007:

In a victory expected to reverberate across Indian County, The Hopi and five other tribes have won their lawsuit to stop snowmaking using reclaimed wastewater on the San Francisco Peaks.

On March 12, 2007, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit found in favor of Arizona tribes who maintain that using reclaimed wastewater to make snow at the ski resort violates their rights under the Religious Freedom and Restoration Act.  The decision sets a precedent for the interpretation of RFRA in regard to Native American religious rights.

None of the Forest Service’s arguments — multiple use interests, or economic interests of the City of Flagstaff or the resort owners — justify placing such a substantial burden on the tribal members’ exercise of religion, according to the appeals court.  “We hold that the Forest Service’s approval of the Snowbowl’s use of recycled sewage effluent to make artificial now on the San Franciso Peaks violates RFRA.” wrote the court.

The judges explained that the religious burdens placed on the tribes by the proposed snowmaking “fall roughly into two categories: (1) the inability to perform a particular religious ceremony, because the ceremony requires collecting natural resources from the Peaks that would be too contaminated — physically, spiritually, or both — for sacramental use; and (2) the inability to maintain daily and annual religious practices comprising an entire way of life, because the practices require belief in the mountain’s purity or a spiritual connection to the mountain that would be undermined by the contamination.”

“I am really thankful and deeply appreciate the 9th Circuit Court’s decision,” said Bucky Preston, one of the Hopi plaintiffs.  Some of the judges in the courts must have a good heart and looked deeply into themselves to realize that the Peaks are so sacred to us and they understood our beliefs.”

Hopis at prayer shrine high on the Peaks


I am sad to report that a subsequent appeal by the US Forest Service overturned the above decision and the Hopi Tribe along with other Arizona tribes and environmental groups are taking to the next higher level of appeal.
Jan., 2009


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posted March 25, 2007
updated March 3, 2008

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