Peaks Protesters Cite Rights Violations 

by Alastair Lee Bitsoi
Navajo Times 
29 Sept 2011

FLAGSTAFF—Over 130 people turned out for a hearing held by the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission in Flagstaff on Sept. 23, which focused mostly on human rights violations rather than the sanctity of Dook'o'oosliid.

The hearing was another chapter in the ongoing controversy over the use of wastewater to make snow for the Snowbowl ski resort.

"We would make the respectful request that we don't go through that discussion again," said Duane H. Yazzie, chair for the commission. "Very obviously, it was those testimonies we heard through public hearings, where we brought the issue to where it is today."

"The main reason why we're organized is to respond on acts of discrimination of Navajo people in border towns or whenever," Yazzie said. Rodney Tahe, the commission's policy analyst, said the purpose of the public hearing is to gather new information from current issues surrounding the Peaks.

Tahe said the testimony from the hearing would be used for a new report, which will be submitted to the U.N.'s Special Rapporteur, Professor James Anaya.

On Sept. 21, Anaya presented his report - Report by the Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples - to the 18th session of the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland.

Anaya's report included the testimony of the Navajo Nation and Hopi Tribe on the San Francisco Peaks - a mountain both tribes consider sacred.

"We are not here to hear again the significant religious premise, beliefs as related to the Peaks," Commissioner Steve Darden said before testimony began.

Darden also said those individuals testifying need strong evidence to back up their claims of any human rights violations.

In total, 20 Navajos and non-Navajos provided testimony about criminalizing protests and issues regarding property, health, environment, policy and indigenous human rights.

Three of those testifying included Klee Benally, 36, of Black Mesa, Ariz., Lyneia Begay, 21, of Flagstaff, and Marlena Garcia, 17, also of Flagstaff.

When Benally spoke most in the crowd raised their hands when he asked if they felt their human rights were violated during their recent protests and encampment on the Peaks.

"I'm here before the NNHRC to address specific violations and request for immediate relief from those violations," Benally said.

To date, Benally has been arrested twice and faces a total of three charges: obstruction to a public thoroughfare during an Aug. 7 march and disorderly conduct and trespassing from Aug. 13 protest.

Benally showed video footage of an incident when he was asked to leave the Snowbowl premises on the opening day of the ski resort's winter season.

Benally said Snowbowl security officials interfered with prayer gatherings and his group has been singled out and harassed by local police and he has experienced racism, among other violations.

Benally also said the Arizona Daily Sun has been biased in its news coverage. The Navajo Times and other papers covering tribal communities have largely ignored the issue, he said.

Benally recommended the commissioners visit areas being desecrated and witness what many of the young Native and non-Native protestors have faced when being arrested.

"The time for inaction has far been over," he said. "If it is true, what has been taught to me, what I have heard countless times at ceremonies, in sweat lodges, at flea markets, if it is true that our cultural survival is at stake, then declare a state of cultural crisis and take action accordingly."

In her testimony Begay said she has experienced racism and hatred for being a strong advocate for the preservation and protection of Dook'o'oosliid.

"Go get a life," "return to your teepee on the reservation," and "there goes the squaw" are some of the racial remarks Begay said she has heard while living in Flagstaff.

"It's time we take care of our youth," Begay said, "before it's too late. Which begs the question, when is too late? Right now, you're asking for documentation, evidence, a bureaucratic process that emulates the very justice system that has made it impossible to prosecute non-Natives who rape Native women. Do you see the correlation? I hope so."

Marlena Garcia, 17, also of Flagstaff, said Coconino County sheriffs nearly choked her to death when she was arrested during a June 16 protest against the Snowbowl's construction of pipelines.

"I told police officers they were choking me and they told me I was fine," Garcia said. "It was not until I started to lose consciousness that they let me go. The officers denied everything. Within hours, I had bruises and was really sore."

Flagstaff Mayor Sara Presler attended the hearing and said she's looking forward to receiving a report and to share the testimony with the city council and other community leaders.

Vice Mayor Celia Barotz was also present but no members of the city council attended the hearing.



Reprinted as an historical reference document under the Fair Use doctrine of international copyright law.