Posted by on Jan 19, 2012 in Uncategorized

In the Shadow of the Sacred Mountain

By: Jihan Gearon

Jihan GearonYa’at’eeh lastrealindian readers. My name is Jihan Gearon. I come from Old Sawmill, AZ. For those of you who don’t know where that is, it’s near Fort Defiance, AZ. For those of you who don’t know where Fort Defiance is, it’s near Window Rock, AZ – the capitol of the great Navajo Nation. As a guest writer, I will be contributing to this blog every month. I’ll be contributing stories and information about my work in environmental justice and Indigenous Peoples rights. This month I want to talk about Dookoosliid, also known as the San Francisco Peaks, as it’s been weighing on my mind.

In my worldview, Dookoosliid is the western boundary of Dine Bikeyah, and combined with the other sacred mountains, it forms the hooghan that is our home and universe. The mountains teach us the many cycles that influence us – environment and seasons, time, decision-making, and life! I am not claiming to be an expert in Navajo culture or tradition, but I do know a few things. I know that Dookoosliid is our grandmother. I know she takes care of all of us. I know I love and respect her.

To me, the mountain is magic. I can see it from my bedroom window and sometimes I just sit on my bed and contemplate her. I think about how the holy people planted her from the soil of the previous world. I imagine an abalone shell as her crown. I think about the life that exists on her- how’s she’s an island in this desert. I think about all that she’s seen, the changes in the environment, and the coming and going of civilizations. I think about all the people who have and still love and cherish her. When I began to look to her throughout the day, I noticed that she changes. Sometimes she looks gigantic and fills the whole northern sky. Other times she looks tiny and compact. Sometimes she’s enveloped by low hanging clouds and other times she reflects the blazing sun. Sometimes she’s white and cold. Other times she’s green and warm. I’ve come to think that she is breathing and that she is indeed alive.

For the past four years and ten months, I’ve lived in the shadow of this sacred mountain, in a place called Flagstaff. Flag – as us locals like to call it – is a little blue island in the burning red state of Arizona. It’s home to Northern Arizona University and Lowell Observatory, where the ex-planet Pluto was discovered. It’s 30 minutes from the Navajo Nation and two and a half hours from my hometown. It’s a transient community with students partying it up fall through spring. In the summer tourists from all over the world party through on their way to the Grand Canyon. It’s home to artists and environmentalists, outdoor enthusiasts and new agers, students and 2008 Obama supporters. Flagstaff residents pride themselves on being “progressive”. Yet just 15 miles north lies Dookoosliid, an overshadowing symbol of Flagstaff’s biggest contradiction to that pride.

Since 1938, the San Francisco Peaks have been home to the Arizona Snowbowl Ski Resort. All those students, all those tourists, all those Phoenix folks, come up to Flagstaff to ski on the sacred mountain. As if that isn’t bad enough, in 2005 Snowbowl and the Forest Service approved reclaimed sewage water for snowmaking at the resort. Since then, the use of reclaimed water – or to be a bit more blunt – the use of poop water for snowmaking has been an extremely controversial issue, especially in Flagstaff.

This past week people flew, caravaned, and BARTed their way to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, CA where the court was hearing the latest arguments in the Save the Peaks Coalition et al vs. the United States Forest Service. The case argues that under the National Environmental Policy Act and the Administrative Procedure Act, the Forest Service failed to adequately consider the impacts associated with ingestion of snow made from reclaimed sewer water in its Environmental Impact Statement. I wasn’t able to go myself but I heard the Save the Peaks lawyer Howard Shanker was complimented by the judge. Keep an eye on for updates. In addition to showing up in San Francisco, supporters were asked to pray together on the same day and at the same time.

Here, my friends, is where our power lies moving forward. Not only in prayer, but in positivity in general. Since I moved to Flagstaff, and I’m sure far before that, the peaks issue has been this community’s collective struggle, painted in black and white – “Save the Peaks” vs. “Reclaim the peaks”, backwards Indians vs. modern people, anarchists vs. good citizens. There are those of us who stand in front of the city council building with our fists up, holding banners and chanting, and there are those who drive by yelling racist slurs. The issue has grown to divide us into good guys and bad guys, the roles being subjective to which side of the line you stand on.

Yet most importantly, there are all those people who live in the gray area. These are the people who I believe have their hearts in the right place, but don’t know what to do about it. They are put off by the black clothes and aggressive fists in the air, so they don’t join us in front of the council building. They like to ski, but feel bad about doing it and so don’t ski on the mountain. We tend to leave them in an overall feeling of confusion and therefore hesitancy and eventually complacency. We need these people to create the Flagstaff we can truly be proud of and we need to incorporate more positivity in our work to do this. I’m encouraged by the newly formed “We Eat Snow” group, which is a group of predominantly mothers concerned about their children’s health. Check them out at to see the positive spin they use to protect the peaks.

Also, I think we need to address the fact that Indigenous Peoples are invisible to the majority of our society, even in Flagstaff. As I mentioned before, Flagstaff is a transient community. I still regularly meet people here who have never been to the reservation. I once spoke to a class at NAU and none of them even knew the reservation existed a mere 30 minutes away. In my work in environmental justice, I always hear, and even say myself that “Indigenous Peoples must lead”- but what does that mean in practical terms? Do we expect all non-Natives to simply do what we say? If that’s an unrealistic expectation, as I believe it is, than what is it that we’re really asking of people? Furthermore, how can we expect them to respect our values when they don’t even know we exist?

For many Dine people, the threat to Dookoosliid feels like a threat to our grandmother. We are sad, worried, scared and angry for the mountain. It is not a fake feeling, it is real because we love and respect the mountain as our grandmother. How can non-Natives understand this feeling and therefore support our fight to stop Snowbowl? How can we support them to one day embody this feeling for themselves and therefore ensure long-term protection of the mountain?

I suppose the simplest answer is to teach these people, but how do we do that? There I think lies one of the greatest challenges for our generation. This is a question I think all of us should be thinking deeply about and also practicing. I understand that in a society riddled by disrespect and appropriation of Indigenous culture – from feathers worn by young hipsters at concerts to traditional knowledge being bought and sold by the United Nations and World Intellectual Property Organization – it is a scary mandate. However, any realindian knows that we must practice what we preach and embody the teachings of our peoples to the greatest extent available to us.

One of my favorite teachings cradled in Dookoosliid is about k’e. I believe this teaching is what has kept the Dine Nation alive and strong for so long and I believe it is what will keep us alive and strong in the future. You may have heard this word describe the Navajo clan and social system, but I think on a deeper level it simply teaches us how to treat all people as relatives. For me, this includes not only us “activists” and not only us “Natives”. It includes everyone.

I’d like to end this blog by saying ahehee’ to all of you who have been fighting for Dookoosliid and all sacred sites for so long. I’m looking forward to the time when all of us will again understand and embody the many teachings of this mountain.