I was about 12 years old when I discovered skiing. At first it was simply a fun activity, but as I matured both as a skier and as a human being, I began to understand that skiing meant a lot more to me. It became a language through which I could give meaning and validity to the rest of my life. I have never been a very religious individual and while it would be a stretch of the imagination to label skiing as my personal religion, it helps describe the spiritual and pure feeling I experience when coming down a mountain.
Naturally, the problem posed by ski resorts built on sacred lands piqued my interest. I could not decide whether to side with the Native Americans, who have occupied some of these lands for thousands of years and established deeply spiritual relationships with the land through their practices, or the local skiers who certainly have their own special, and potentially spiritual, connection to these mountains. One example in particular occurred in Arizona when the owners of the Arizona Snow Bowl proposed expansion and the use of sewage water to make artificial snow.
The Arizona Snowbowl is located near Flagstaff, Arizona in a range of mountains called the San Francisco Peaks. It stands 12,300 feet tall and is the second highest mountain in Arizona. While 13 tribes see this land as sacred, two in particular, the Hopi and the Navajo, view this peak as “indispensable to their religious beliefs and practices” (Cragun). Many tribes see this mountain range as a sort of “boundary” that indicates where they truly belong and where they can practice their rituals and pray with strength and meaning.
The Navajo call the mountain Dook’o’oos liid” (meaning “Shining on Top”) and view the mountain as a physical body or living God. They pray directly to the mountain and use its peaks and its herbs for healing practices. They also bury the umbilical cords of their babies here. The Hopi tribe knows the mountain as “Nuvatukya’ovi” (meaning “The Place of Snow on the Peaks”). Instead of viewing the mountain as a direct deity, the Hopis believe that sacred spirits called Kachinas come to the mountain for six months every year and act as spiritual bridges between the tribe members and their God. Just as the Navajo, the Hopis collect medicinal plants from the mountainside for healing purposes.
The Arizona Snow Bowl has actually been in existence since the early 20th Century. It began as a tiny resort accessed by a towrope running on a car motor. It was established in 1937 and it wasn’t until the 1970s when discussion of serious expansion began. In multiple lawsuits, notably Wilson vs. Block, the Navajo and Hopi people came together against the Skibowl and Forest Service, citing injustices done in regards to AIRFA, the Endangered Species Act, the Wilderness Act, and the National Historic Preservation Act.
In 2005, in reaction to increasingly difficult environmental factors posed by climate change, the ski resort proposed both expansion of the resort and the use of “100% sewage effluent to make artificial snow” (MacMillan). This would allow for up to 1.5 million gallons of reclaimed water, transported from Flagstaff via a long pipeline, to be used each day. While the issue of expansion was irksome for the local tribes, the use of reclaimed water posed the largest threat to their religious life and practices. From their point of view, the spraying of untreated water would be unnatural, unsacred, and ruin the pure image of the mountain for these people. It would also impair their ability to collect the necessary objects and plants from the mountain necessary for their religious rituals. Some groups even believe that if untreated snow is made on the mountain it will break their ties with the afterworld, prohibiting their spirits from entering heaven.
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In 2012, after seven years of legal battles involving disputes over AIRFA and other legislation, a federal appeals court ruled in favor of the ski resort and its plans to make artificial snow with reclaimed water. The court ruled that, “The diminishment of spiritual fulfillment [caused by wastewater usage]—serious though it may be—is not a ‘substantial burden’ on the free exercise of religion” (Glowacka et al.).
Ultimately this dispute comes down to two opposing views of land. The Native Americans view the Snowbowl as a living, sentient being that holds a spiritual relationship with its people. The Forest Service and the ski resort owners view the land as economic potential. I can’t help but think of Dr. Seuss’s story of the Lorax and the themes of greed, possession, and decimation. Just as the Once-ler saw an industry and profit in the Truffula trees before him, the ski resort owners looked at the Arizona Skibowl and saw the potential for profit through increased terrain and increased snowmaking capacity.
There is a side of me that wants to sympathize with the Snowbowl skiers and owners. This side tells me that the mountain and the sport of skiing are sacred to the non-Native people in Arizona and that the they should be able to share this land and appreciate it for its worth simultaneously with the Native Americans. But the other, and seemingly more rational side of me, tells me that the United States of America is a very large area and that there are thousands of other mountains we could be skiing on. While I do have personal attachments to the mountain in Maine that I grew up skiing on, the sacred nature of skiing is internal for me. It is something I carry with me regardless of the particular mountain I am skiing on. This is where my “religion” and these Native American’s religion divide. Grounded in their religion is the connection to a particular land that has been viewed as sacred for a long time. Just as stated earlier, this land is indispensable to their religious life. Without their land, the religions of the Navajos, Hopis, and all other Native tribes are essentially reduced to nothing. This is something that needs to be respected in my opinion, and as these court rulings continue to strip away the foundations of these peoples’ religious lives I can’t help but wonder…what will we take from them next?
Cragun, Boone. (2005). A Snowbowl Déjà Vu: The Battle between Native American
Tribes and the Arizona Snowbowl Continues. American Indian Law Review. Vol. 30, No. 1 pp. 165-183.
Glowacka et al. (2009). Nuvatukya’ovi San Francisco Peaks: Balancing Western
Economies with Native American Spiritualities. Current Anthropology. Vol.
50, No. 4, pp. 547-561.
Indian Country Today Media Network (ICTMN) Staff. (2012, February 10). Sacred
Site Faces Legalized Desecration From Arizona Snowbowl Wastewater. Native Strength. Retrieved from http://nativestrength.com/tag/culture/page/98/.
MacMillan, Leslie. (2012, September 26). Resort Snow Won’t Be Pure This Year;
It’ll Be Sewage. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/27/us/arizona-ski-resorts-sewage-plan-creates-uproar.html?_r=1&.
Wagner, Kent. (2011, December 16). The Sacred Peaks. Retrieved from