Indigenous Peoples and Human Rights

June 13, 2012

Religious Freedom on Trial: Klee Benally Sacred Mountain Defense

Outside court as Klee Benally on trial/Indigenous Action Media

Religious Freedom and Expression on Trial in Klee Benally Sacred Mountain Defense Case
No Verdict After 3 Hour Trial

French translation:
Tuesday, June 12, 2012
By M. Begay, Contributor,

Indigenous Action Media
Posted at Censored News
FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. -- Klee Benally, Dine' (Navajo), was on trial today for a prayerful action taken in August, 2011 to protect the Holy San Francisco Peaks from desecration due to ski area expansion. During the 3 hour hearing, the state prosecutor presented witnesses from the U.S. Forest Service, Arizona Snowbowl & Coconino County Sheriff's department who testified that Mr. Benally was "trespassing" and had committed "disorderly conduct" on the Holy Mountain.
In the packed courtroom, testimony and questions centered around whether or not the area where Snowbowl's desecration of the Holy Peaks was clearly marked with "no trespassing signs" and whether or not Klee was "disorderly" in his actions.
"Religious freedom and the right to express opposition to desecration of the Holy San Francisco Peaks is what was on trial today." stated Klee, "The struggle to protect Dooko'osliid (San Francisco Peaks) continues, we must defend our ways of life and the natural law. As long as our hearts beat with an understanding that our actions are for future generations and cultural survival, then this struggle is not over."
Hunger strikers for the Peaks
Dozens of concerned community members walked to Flagstaff "Justice" Courthouse from City Hall where two community members initiated a hunger strike for the Peaks one week ago. The hunger strikers, Joseph Sanders & Jessica Beasley, have vowed not to eat until three requests are met, "The cancellation of the wastewater contract with Snowbowl, Snowbowl’s removal of the pipeline and remediation of areas damaged by their expansion," and "The creation of an agreement with the city of Flagstaff that there will be no further destruction of the San Francisco Peaks by Arizona Snowbowl, or any others."
On August 13, 2011, after a Snowbowl excavator operator repeatedly disrupted a weekly prayer gathering, Klee chained himself to an excavator that was used for tearing into the earth six feet deep for pipeline trench intended for transporting 180 million gallons of contaminated wastewater for snowmaking on the Holy Peaks. The prayerful action lasted approximately 2 hours, when law enforcement agents offered Klee an option of being cited and released or going to jail. After consulting with Louise Benally, who was part of the prayer gathering, Klee agreed that his point was made and would release himself.
Matt Brown, of Brown & Little, P.L.C., who represented Klee during trial, argued that the area was not clearly marked as being "closed" and that the action was peaceful and respectfully conducted. Additionally, Mr. Brown argued that the prayerful action was an expression of constitutionally held rights.
Forest Service "law enforcement" agent Mark Camisa testified that he had been surveilling the prayer gathering for 30 minutes from a hidden area in the woods.
Due to time constraints Judge Howard Grodman did not make a ruling on the case but stated that he would either issue a written verdict on the charges or announce his decision in court on June 28, 2012.
Rudy Preston & local author Mary Sojourner were also arrested for standing in defense of the Sacred Mountain on August 13, 2011.
Mary expressed in a previous statement, “I took action not just for the Mountain, but for my friend, Klee Benally, who I saw chained to a monstrous extractor, the pipeline trenching machine that had been ripping into the mountain and the peaceful morning air as thirty of us prayed for the Mountain; and so that older women and men would see that one doesn’t have to be young to stand up for a place and community that you love.”
Mary accepted an offer of community service instead of going to trial. Rudy, who represented himself at his own 6 hour trial, was found guilty of trespassing and disorderly conduct charges resulting from actions on August 8 and 13, 2011.
Rudy was sentenced to 12 months unsupervised probation and 20 hours of community service. He was also ordered to pay $62.63 in "restitution" to Snowbowl for his actions.
"My eyes will never again close to this injustice. And my body will not perpetuate it." expressed Rudy in a previous statement, "…we all love the mountain and you don’t need to wait for a ‘known organizer’ to tell you what to do next.”
Since June 16th, 2011, nearly 30 people have been arrested during protests or other actions addressing Snowbowl desecration and eco-cide on the Holy Peaks. Most have taken deals offered by state prosecutors which have resulted primarily in community service, with about 8 cases still pending.
"How can I be “trespassing” on this site that is so sacred to me? This is my church. It is the Forest Service and Snowbowl who are violating human rights and religious freedom by desecrating this holy Mountain…" said Klee in a previous statement, "Their actions are far beyond 'disorderly'.”
In August 2011, The Havasupai Tribe, Klee Benally, and the International Indian Treaty Council, filed an Urgent Action / Early Warning Complaint with the United Nations (UN) CERD Committee, on the desecration of the Sacred San Francisco Peaks. The complaint addressed Arizona Snowbowl’s clear-cutting of 74 acres of rare alpine forest and the laying of 14.8 miles of a waste water pipeline in furtherance of a US Forest Service and City of Flagstaff supported project to spray artificial snow made of wastewater effluent on the Holy San Francisco Peaks.
The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, known internationally as the CERD Committee is charged with monitoring compliance with the International Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD).
“The Forest Service, the City of Flagstaff, & the courts have proven that they do not understand or respect our spiritual ceremonies and practices and our spiritual relationship to the Earth,” said Klee, “We have no guaranteed protection for our religious freedom as Indigenous Peoples in the United States.”


Background story:
Photo credits:
Peaks Hunger Strikers.jpg - Klee Benally
Klee Benally Court.jpg - PDB
Drum Chained jpg - Ethan Sing

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