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Profile: The Sacred and the Stonewashed

Rescuing a holy mountain from high-fashion jeans

by Marilyn Berlin Snell

Next to the front door of Sammy M. James's Flagstaff mobile home hangs a poster of the nearby San Francisco Peaks. The Spanish name for the Peaks has been crossed out with black ink and replaced with the Navajo Doko'oo'sliid, "the place where snow never melts." The tallest point in Arizona, this place marks the westernmost boundary of the traditional Navajo homeland--an immense stretch of Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado where the ceremonies of Navajo medicine men have the power to heal.

It is of no importance to the Navajo that the Peaks fall outside the treatied confines of their reservation, or that most of the Peaks' area is now public land managed by the U.S. Forest Service. The Peaks are sacred--and not just to the People (or Dineh, as the Navajo call themselves), or to the Hopi, whose spirits live part of the year in this heaven on Earth, but to 11 other Southwest tribes as well.

James is a member of the Navajo Black Sheep Clan. His friend Bucky Preston is Hopi and belongs to the Bamboo, Eagle, and Sun Clans. Fierce land disputes between their tribes far predate the 19th-century creation of the Navajo and Hopi reservations, and continue to this day. Though James and Preston come from tribes that don't much like each other, they united in their love of the Peaks and have been working with other Native American activists and the Sierra Club's Save the Peaks Campaign to protect shared and holy ground.

Their collaboration began two years ago when Tufflite Incorporated petitioned the Forest Service for an additional 30 acres to tack onto its 90-acre pumice-mining operation along the eastern flank of the Peaks. Under the 1872 Mining Law, companies like Tufflite can stake claims on federal land to mine "locatable minerals," judged to be of an "uncommon variety with unique properties and special, distinct value." The main use of pumice is for stone-washing denim.

Native American activists and environmental groups had been fighting separate battles against the White Vulcan Mine since the 1980s, when the global craze for the lived-in look made pumice a hot commodity for the fashion industry. During that decade the mine expanded from 5 to 90 acres. In the process, miners dug up and exposed archaeological sites, disturbed threatened species such as the Mexican spotted owl and, according to the Navajo, Hopi, Hualapai, Zuni, and White Mountain Apache, desecrated an altar. The request for an additional 30 acres was the last straw, and coalition-building began.

Next to James's poster is a handmade bag with two pouches, one side containing white corn pollen for morning prayers--sung outside in the driveway between double-wides--the other filled with yellow corn pollen for evening prayers. On the wall next to the corn pollen bag hangs a picture of Jesus.

"Both ways work," James responds when asked about the corn pollen/Christ combination. "Growing up I was converted to Catholicism, but right now I'm what I call a young traditionalist." The 47-year-old returned to his roots in 1986, when he, his wife, Ella, and children, Eric and Shannon, left Phoenix. "I got my curiosity back about my culture when I moved closer to the Navajo Nation and the elders," he says. "I'd spent a lot of time with my grandparents when I was young, every summer living in their hogan and tending sheep. They talked to me about the culture but I wasn't paying attention. When I moved to Flagstaff, I was losing the language and I didn't know how to sing or pray. I was lost."

James opens his "instrument box," which contains eagle feathers with Navajo beadwork stitched by Ella. He removes a pouch containing various plants and herbs, all sacred, all gathered from the Peaks. "Only the medicine men know what these plants are and how they're used. They're very scarce." He lets me smell the mixture. I close my eyes, inhale, and am filled with rain--or at least the memory of rain, from my Arizona childhood. Most summers growing up I was dragged all over "Indian country," as my parents called it, in the family Travelall with my sisters and our slobbering dog. It happened when I was a kid and it happens still: When I'm in this country, with its peculiar geology, scents, loud weather, and slanting afternoon light, I become acutely aware of not only my presence, of my body and its physical relationship to the ground, but my presence-within-a-greater-presence: an immanence.

"Everything has a special purpose," James says as he brushes a hand over the contents of his box. When asked if he studied with a medicine man to learn how to use the instrument box, he pauses. "We don't study. We attend ceremonies, listen, and learn." This is only the first of many cultural clarifications. Another comes when I ask if he considers himself an environmentalist. "I just heard that word two years ago for the first time. It's a foreign word and I'm not foreign." He laughs and then adds, "I'm not an environmentalist. I'm with nature." The distinction between being with nature and being an environmentalist is not merely a semantic one. When it comes to the Peaks, for example, James does not see the campaign as a political or even an environmental fight, but as a work of reverence to save something so woven into the fabric of his life that he doesn't separate the land from the prayer from the plants from the ultimate health and welfare of his people.

James sets his guest straight gently, but this has not always been his approach. By his own account, when he initially got involved with the Sierra Club his attitude was incendiary. "The first time I was interviewed by a reporter about the Peaks I had just finished [Native American activist] Russell Means's autobiography and I was mad. I despised everybody, and I showed my anger with my voice."

But he now says his rage, aimed at saving the Peaks--and also at a history of white greed, hypocrisy, and betrayal--burned indiscriminately and ineffectively. None of his interview was used. "When I listened to the tape I knew I had made a mistake," he recalls. "I prayed to the Peaks. I asked them to give me knowledge, to teach me to speak from the heart and not out of anger."

In the time since he first heard that foreign "e" word, James has gone from political agitator to cross-cultural translator for his beloved land. "The Peaks have immense stories behind them, brought down from generation to generation. If you don't know these stories, as someone said to me a while back, 'it's just another rock.' You can scar it, play on it, slide on it--whatever unnecessary thing that comes to your mind you can do. For us, it's a temple. If we don't save it, our ceremonials will stop. The healing will stop."

To the degree we know anything at all about the extraordinary world beyond what is familiar, we owe our understanding to translators who can express different ways of being. In the case of the Peaks, James's challenge has been to convey in concrete terms the depth of his reverence for a mound of dirt--and to explain to a nation founded on the sanctity of property laws that the Peaks don't belong to Native Americans, but they don't belong to anyone else either. Given the capacious and pious nature of James's regard for the Peaks, "public lands" would be a very poor translation.

In his activist work, James not only conveys the Navajo ethos to the wider world, he translates in the other direction as well. Last year, he took vacation time from his job in housewares at Dillard's Department Store in Flagstaff to travel the Navajo Nation, speaking to his people about "the commotion in the Peaks" and eventually collecting nearly 6,000 signatures on a petition against the mine. He was surprised that many elders had not even heard about the White Vulcan Mine or the campaign to close it. At one hogan, to which James had brought what he calls his "show-and-tell portfolio," with pictures of the mine and pieces of airy white pumice for props, all the old man said after he'd been alerted to the mine's existence was, "You go take those rocks back to the Peaks. They aren't yours."

James gave presentations on the mine to the Navajo Nation Tribal Council, which passed a resolution supporting efforts to stop mining on the Peaks and calling for a boycott of stone-washed jeans. And in April, he traveled by air for the first time in his life, visiting Washington, D.C., along with Bucky Preston, Andy Bessler of the Sierra Club, and others. They met with government agencies including the Department of the Interior and the Registry of Historic Places. "In the Washington meetings, Sammy, Bucky, and [Hualapai activist] Frank Mapatis laid their hearts out," says Bessler. "Some bureaucrats just nodded their heads and said, 'We'll see what we can do.' But others felt the power of what they were saying. There were tears sometimes."

When Bucky Preston heard about the mine's proposed expansion two years ago, he called the Sierra Club office in Flagstaff. "I don't have much to offer," he remembers saying to Bessler. "All I can do is run." Actually, the 50-year-old athlete has been winning trophies since kindergarten, when he started running between his ancestral home atop First Mesa and the Bureau of Indian Affairs school below. Bessler encouraged Preston as he organized a 103-mile relay from the Peaks to a concert sponsored by the Sierra Club in Hopiland. Preston fasted for four days prior to the relay, then alternated every two miles with another runner to complete the course.

Preston prefers action to talk, though he's not at all shy about saying what he thinks and has gotten himself into trouble with tribal politicians for questioning their spending habits and work ethic, among other things. If you're on his good side, however, he's generous and laid back. When I visited him at his home in Hopiland, he yanked a yellow-blossomed hohoysi plant, a relative of the sunflower, from his government-issue front yard and gave it to me, saying, "Dry it and it'll make you some good tea." I trusted his assessment--he had some drying of his own going on in his kitchen, where lengths of withering piva lay across a sheet on his linoleum floor. The tobacco, drying inside because sun-drying makes the smoke harsh, will be used in the kivas, or underground ceremonial chambers.

In a decent year, this region sees a mere 12 inches of rain, but Hopiland has had three consecutive seasons of drought, so even the weeds are struggling. Preston's unfenced backyard is dotted with stunted corn, which he and his 13-year-old son, Aaron, who has Down's syndrome, toil at daily. A hose attached to his house lies coiled nearby, but he prefers not to use it. For Preston, the lack of rain is a sign of deep discord in his tribe, and not something that can be fixed by the turn of a knob.

I had met Preston earlier in the day in Flagstaff, where he'd finished fifth in a five-kilometer run to raise money for the local hospital, and had followed him the two hours home in another car. I travel with my friend Chip Thomas, who has worked as a physician in the Navajo Nation for 13 years. As we drive past variegated mesas and heated sage, the sky above us is a wide and aching blue, though to the northwest there is lightning and gray curtains of rain.

After passing a lone reservation billboard, "" (which sells Hopi artworks--the only "industry" to speak of on the impoverished reservation), we stop in Kykotsmovi so Preston can gas up. Watching from our car as he stands at the pump, I ask if it's possible to tell from looking that Preston is Hopi. The only clue, says Chip, is that he wears his hair in the traditional Hopi bowl-cut with the back left long. This style is also worn by the Longhair kachina, one of the important Hopi spirits who live in the Peaks and bring rain to Hopiland. The cut looks like the rain when it falls.

Later, Preston says that his hair choice has nothing to do with fashion or symbolism. "It's my identity," he says simply. Driving home Preston saw the rain, too, and sang to it. "I said, 'Please come rain, the corn is waiting.' The corn is our life. That's what was given to us from the beginning. That's who we are." When prayers are answered, the kachinas, taking the shape of clouds in the heights of the sacred Peaks, visit the Hopi and their crops. The ripe corn is eaten; corn pollen and meal are used in kiva ceremonies and at kachina dances.

For a dance held midsummer, Preston adds, adult members of the tribe go into the Peaks to collect blue spruce boughs to adorn the kachina dancers, since blue spruce has the magnetic power to bring clouds and moisture. When I ask if children go on these outings to the Peaks, or whether he'd visited the Peaks as a child, a long silence ensues. "You don't just go there for fun," Preston finally answers with as much patience as he can muster. "When we need something for a ceremony, we have to prepare. We bring and use prayer feathers; it's a journey." More silence. This gives me plenty of time to think about how much is said between people, and cultures, in the spaces between words. Finally, he adds, "And we only take what we need from the Peaks."

Preston describes himself as a song-maker and artisan. He shows us some of the beautiful and mysterious accoutrements he's made for tribal ceremonies, but later asks that they not be described in this article. His "original traditional songs"--new words set to traditional Hopi drum rhythms--number in the hundreds. He teaches them always to Aaron first and only later to other young Hopi men, who learn the songs by heart and sing them in the guise of kachinas at dances. He's never written or recorded any of his songs. In one, which he sings for his visitors, the clouds speak about visiting the Hopi from their home in the Peaks. Then there's the Eagle Song. "When I made this one I was very hurt by the way our lives had gone," says Preston, referring to the Hopi people and the fact that there is a 55 percent alcoholism rate on the reservation. For a man who has been sober for 11 years, and who says he was abandoned by most of his family and community when he changed his life, this is a painful issue.

"The kachinas bring the songs. They are the spirits telling us, 'Look at yourselves. This is the way you are living. Change!' It's not like me telling people; it's the kachina spirits." After a pause he adds, "Some people listen, but it's more of an entertainment today."

"Our own people are destroying us," he continues, "just like the miners. Over in the Peaks it's the miners destroying the land; here, it's people destroying their minds." For Preston, these two tragedies are intimately, inextricably connected--as much as his hair is to the rain or the corn pollen he harvests is to manna from heaven.

By last summer, the Department of the Interior was anxious to settle the Peaks controversy before the election. In fact the Peaks were a high priority for Secretary Bruce Babbitt, who was born and raised in Flagstaff. In negotiations, the government proposed that the mine sell its claims in the Peaks for $1 million; that the mine could continue to operate for six months after the deal was approved; and that it would have ten years to sell its mountainous stockpiles of pumice. For its part, the mine would agree to complete reclamation within five years.

"There are some real problems with this deal, especially the fact that the miners are going to be up there for ten years selling the stockpile," says Bessler. "But it's the best we are going to get with the 1872 Mining Law in place."

At first the deal gave James a headache. "We did not think the mine should make money off the desecration of the Peaks. And it definitely shouldn't be allowed to continue taking from the Peaks for ten years." James and Preston wanted the land to be taken from the mine, prayed over, filled in, and reconsecrated to the spirits who dwell there. But that requires a different world, where different laws hold sway.
Back here in the real world, the Supreme Court trumps the Supreme Being, and precedents aren't encouraging. In the 1988 case Lyng v. Northwest Indian Cemetery Protective Association, for example, Arizona native Sandra Day O'Connor, writing for the majority, ruled in favor of the Forest Service, which wanted to log and then pave over a tract of sacred land in the Pacific Northwest. Native American petitioners had argued that the project would seriously damage what they held sacred and therefore violate the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.

"The government does not dispute, and we have no reason to doubt, that the logging and road-building projects at issue in this case could have devastating effects on traditional Indian religious practices," the Court wrote in a decision that gives a formal curtsy to Native American religion before ruling it irrelevant. "Individual practitioners use this area for personal spiritual development; some of their activities are believed to be critically important in advancing the welfare of the Tribe, and indeed, of mankind itself. . . . Nevertheless . . . the constitution simply does not provide a principle that could justify upholding respondent's legal claims."

With regard to the Peaks, Native Americans sought common cause with the government and environmentalists in stopping the desecration. But without an aggressive legal strategy that honored the centrality of the spiritual component--the essence of Native American involvement in the campaign--activists had to settle for a political compromise. In August, Tufflite accepted the government offer. It is now up to Congress to allocate the money necessary to seal the deal.

In the end, the most notable achievement of the Peaks campaign may not be the closing of the White Vulcan Mine, though this is excellent news, but that translators like James and Preston were able to overcome their cultural differences and teach an often-secular crowd about reverence for holy ground. "Bucky and I never talked about the Navajo-Hopi land disputes," says James. "We had one purpose and that was saving the Peaks for our people, for everyone. This campaign has been about unity, not division."

Preston agrees. "I was taught and raised in the Hopi way by my grandfather," he says. "But I am not a Hopi. Hopi isn't a word to identify a tribe but a way of life. Anyone can become a Hopi, but you have to pray, have discipline, respect, and live by the laws of the Creator. For me, working for the environment is following the Hopi way; it's part of becoming a Hopi."

It would be a great sorrow if that part of the story were lost in translation.

Marilyn Berlin Snell is Sierra's writer/editor.

The Sierra Club is continuing its decades-long effort to save the San Francisco Peaks, urging the Forest Service to nominate the Peaks as a Traditional Cultural Property. The designation would protect the mountains as a Native American sacred site. To help protect sacred lands, ask your senators and representative to legislate a permanent mineral withdrawal for the Peaks and to reform the federal 1872 Mining Law. For the address, see "Express Yourself".

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