by Alastair Lee Bitsoi
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
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
"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
"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
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.