Ever since snowmaking on the San Francisco Peaks was first proposed nearly five years ago, the opposition from Native Americans has been very loud and very clear. "The mountains are sacred mountains to us, have been for centuries," explained Caleb Johnson, who was vice-chairman of the Hopis when he spoke out against the snowmaking plan. "The Hopi people believe that the kachinas (ancestral spirits) live on the mountains, which make it a holy place, a sacred place." He told government officials considering the plan that for his people, the San Francisco Peaks were like a sanctuary of a church, adding, "you would not want to desecrate such a place."
There's one key distinction, though, between those two holy places. A church is private property. The mountains are on public land, and are managed by federal officials, who may not legally endorse any religion. Coconino National Forest district ranger Gene Waldrip said, in approving the snowmaking plan, the Forest Service had tried to balance several competing interests. "We have perspectives all the way from the Native American, a religious and spiritual viewpoint, to the skier, to the hiker, all the other thousands of people who want to use the Peaks. So beyond just the spiritual and religious conflict with the Native Americans, we've also got cultural conflicts with the public itself."
This conflict is the latest on a list of dozens of lawsuits across the west over sacred sites on federal land. New Mexico tribes are trying to block a proposed new road through Petroglyph National Monument. Utah tribes oppose a natural gas drilling plan near the country's largest concentration of the ancient rock paintings.
Indian tribes thought these battles ended 27 years ago, when Congress passed the American Indian Religious Freedom Act. The law was intended to protect Native Americans' ability to practice their traditional religions, which sometimes required access to restricted properties or the use of prohibited substances, like hallucinogenic plants and parts of endangered animals.
Taos Pueblo Governor Vincent Lujan invoked the act two years ago during Zuni Pueblo's fight to stop a proposed coalmine near a sacred lake. In his view, "The act was intended to change the policy of the U.S. from one of outlawing and disrespecting traditional Native religion into one of protecting and respecting them."
But the law hasn't proven to be the panacea Indian tribes had hoped. In the late 1980s, northern California tribes sued the Forest Service to stop a logging road through a sacred forest, and won. But the Supreme Court overturned their victory. Activist Toby McLeod calls that "a very depressing decision for native people."
Mr. McLeod has studied the issue in depth as director of the Sacred Land Film Project, which produces documentaries about efforts to protect Native American sacred places. He says the effects of the decision were felt beyond California. "I think it came down to the idea that in western culture, that religious freedom is more about the freedom to believe than it is about the freedom to practice." He compares the two types of holy places. "In a Judeo-Christian culture, you build a church anywhere you want and you're free to believe and practice in the church, but for native people…the sacred places are integral to the landscape, like the San Francisco Peaks."
Without a specific policy in place to protect sacred sites, tribes have instead relied on other laws, designed to protect the environment or historic property. Toby McLeod says they've had mixed success. "It's like a roller coaster ride, in the southwest there have been a couple really good decisions in the last few years …but then at the Peaks you have a forest supervisor going against the tribes, so it goes back and forth."
But the film director sees reason for hope in two recent compromises crafted by national park superintendents. At Devil's Tower in Wyoming, the park asks rock climbers to voluntarily refrain from climbing during June, when several Lakota ceremonies are held. And at Rainbow Bridge National Monument near Lake Powell, park officials have posted signs asking visitors not to walk under the famous arch, which is sacred to the Navajo and other tribes.
But according to William Perry Pendley, president of the conservative Mountain States Legal Foundation, even those modest requests represent un-constitutional federal support for a specific religion. He insists there can be no compromise. "When a religious item is held up as having religious significance and is embraced and endorsed by a governmental entity, that violates the establishment clause, there's no middle ground on that issue. That's the irony of these cases. Were this an action by the (federal government) with endorsing Native American spirituality; rather it's simply accommodating and respecting those beliefs. The forest service is making the same argument in Arizona…it says allowing snowmaking on the San Francisco Peaks wouldn't prevent Native Americans from practicing their religions. A decision is expected in the case early next year.