Our team of eight dynamic women – legal, policy and business experts – convened in Elko, Nevada to begin our journey. There, we learned from Western Shoshone elder and longtime land rights activist Carrie Dann about the ravaging of sacred Mt. Tenabo by Barrick Gold Mine. For the Western Shoshone and many other tribes in the region, all life emerged from Mt. Tenabo; now, this sage and pinon-covered range is the site of the largest open pit cyanide heap leach gold mine in the United States. The Shoshone say that because of the 1.8 billion gallons of water per year that will be drawn from within the mountain, along with the 2,200 ft. deep mine pit and the toxic cyanide tailings ponds, the mountain itself will die if protective action is not taken.
We then traveled to Flagstaff, Arizona, where Jeneda Benally and the Save the Peaks Coalition shared with us the epic legal and grassroots campaign to protect the San Francisco Peaks. These holy Peaks hold the utmost spiritual significance to thirteen tribes, and are at risk of total desecration through the use of reclaimed wastewater to make artificial snow at a ski resort. For the Navajo, putting 180 million gallons of wastewater annually on the mountain would irreversibly contaminate the mountain’s holy purity, tearing the Navajo Nation’s spiritual fabric just as the use of sewer water to wash the Western Wall or the Vatican would.
Finally, we traveled to the magnificent Grand Canyon, where Havasupai leader Carletta Tilousi explained the grave threat of uranium mining to the tribe’s sacred Red Butte mountain, to the community’s health, and to the safety of the regional aquifer. Since 2005, because of a major spike in uranium price on the world market, over 10,000 new uranium claims have been filed on the land surrounding the Grand Canyon, the traditional homeland of the Havasupai. Uranium mining – including one mine just a few miles from the Havasupai’s holiest mountain shrine and from the rim of the Canyon, situated directly over the aquifer that provides water to the tribe’s village and many other communities – would expose the air, water, land and community to toxic and carcinogenic contamination through the extraction of hundreds of thousands of pounds of uranium ore.
What explains these many grievous threats to the mother earth? Our land use and environmental policies, while allowing for the constitutional protection of some religious freedoms, do not yet protect sacred land for its own sake or for the people who revere it. We have seen that when economic development clashes in court or in the legislature with the protection of Native American holy places, development usually wins – no matter the devastation of the natural resources and human community that may result.