Native American protesters clash with snowmakers

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by S.J. Wilson
Flagstaff, Arizona (NFIC)

Klee Benally, outside of NAU's Walkup Skydome.

Photo by SJ Wilson

Snowmaking is a hot topic in Flagstaff as the chasm widens between Native Americans and their supporters and those who support artificial snowmaking on the sacred San Francisco Peaks.

The tension was thick as J.R. Murray, General Manager of the Arizona Snowbowl ski resort, faced down outside the Northern Arizona University Walkup Skydome during November. Murray was on campus for the annual Snowbowl Job Fair held at the Skydome.

A steady flow of job applicants continued to walk through the doors – closed to all others – many admitting that they either did not know or did not care about the snowmaking issue. A young man who gave his name as Jeff Machinski (admitting afterwards that he made the name up) said that he did not want to get involved in the issues, and admitted that he had applied for a job.

“I just need the money,” he said. “I [urinate] in the woods anyway. We will all have A-1 class reclaimed water in our pipes soon – it all comes around anyway. I just want to snowboard, make some money, meet some girls and have some fun.”

Other job applicants were not as patronizing, but several expressed that they really didn’t know anything about the issues – they simply needed a job.

“You people need to learn how to share,” another young man said loudly after refusing an information pamphlet offered politely by a protester.

Klee Benally, a tireless defender of the Peaks, said that Murray and other supporters of snowmaking were “fearful of our culture.” He went on to describe an exchange between himself and Murray.

“J.R. asked if I was going to beat my drum,” Benally stated. “I told him that most likely we would sing ceremonial songs. He told me that this was not appropriate, and that we were harming his business.”

When Benally indicated that he would stay and sing, Murray told him to “go do it over there,” according to Benally, who gestured away from the Skydome towards a large parking lot.

“We have the right to freely express our feelings and practice our religion,” Benally said into a loudspeaker. “J.R. Murray, you’ve tried to deny us this way of life. Of course we are going to sing our songs here and on the sacred Peaks as we have done for generations. We are not trying to block your event, as you are trying to block our culture.”

“J.R., I won’t tell you when or where you can pray,” Benally added.

Benally said that the protesters were present to educate the public with the hope that people would see that “there are better and more respectful businesses to work for.”

Murray disputed Benally’s story about telling him to take his drum away from the immediate vicinity of the Skydome.

“I just told him that it [the drum] might be too loud, and it might interfere with the business we are conducting inside,” Murray said.

“We’re just hoping for a successful job fair,” Murray said in response to a question of how he felt about the protest. “I don’t think it [the protest] will have any effect on tonight’s job fair as far as applications are concerned.”

Murray pointed out that the Arizona Snowbowl provides two to three hundred job opportunities to the community.

Later, Murray, who was bracketed by a pair of protesters holding signs indicating that he represented corporate greed and was a racist, reacted by approaching Flagstaff activist and author, Mary Sojourner. Murray slid up to Sojourner several times, and she in return slid away. Finally, Murray actually walked up to Sojourner and attempted to settle an arm around her shoulder.

“Don’t touch me!” Sojourner admonished.

Murray explained that he was trying to “pose” for a picture with her.

“He asked me, ‘Do you want your picture taken with me?’” Sojourner said afterwards. “I told him not to touch me and he kind of backed up. I found his actions invasive and patronizing, but he wouldn’t know what that meant.”

Sojourner confirmed that Murray touched her without her consent, and that the police officer stationed at the door to maintain order did nothing to prevent the incident.

“I would suspect that the disrespect of men like J.R. Murray is for both the earth and for women,” Sojourner concluded.

A long-time Flagstaff resident sat patiently on a bench near the protest, watching as Murray continued to observe protesters.

“J.R. is very upset,” she noted. “Money is his God. He is obviously feeling very threatened.”

“The whole thing, the outcome, will be determined by the courts,” Murray expressed.

Sacred site and environmentalists look forward to the battle.

“We will see you in Pasadena,” Benally announced to Murray.

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