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
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
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, "Hopimarket.com" (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
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
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