Doing a little research today, I came across some remarkably interesting facts about the scenic San Francisco Peaks near Flagstaff, AZ. These volcanic mountains are an integral part of the region’s ecology, holding the largest freshwater aquifer for many miles in its hollow caldera – the same vessel that once was pulsating with hot lava!
San Francisco Peaks are also home to an incredible variety of plant and animal life, thanks to the fact that it contains at least four distinct climates: Ponderosa forest, Conifer Forest, Subalpine Forest and even Alpine Tundra. This diverse range of elevations and rainfall make the mountains absolutely breathtaking to behold.
But the importance of the San Francisco Peaks to the surrounding area and peoples extends far beyond the physical. Thirteen different Native American tribes believe that these mountaintops are more than just enchanting… they’re inhabited.
For the Hopi people, the San Francisco Peaks were like an axis mundi, a physical and spiritual landmark that anchored their place in the world. The cloud-covered mountains are said to be the realm of the Kachina spirits, the mostly benevolent astral beings that in times of legend taught the Hopi all that they needed to know to survive.
The Kachinas often take the form of clouds, and they are summoned to Earth by the annual rain dances of the Hopi tribe. Living in the Arizona desert, the first rain of the season is understandably a cause for celebration. During Kachina ceremonies, Hopi tribespeople will don elaborately carved wooden masks, which contain the spiritual power of the Kachinas they represent. These masks are treated with great respect, and are controversially sold to collectors for many thousands of dollars.
Amazingly, the Hopi people were able to determine when the Winter Solstice had arrived by using the San Francisco Peaks. When the sunset would align between the peaks and their settlement in the Black Hills, they knew that a new year had begun – with a new planting season and the growth of new life. Through many generations of careful study, the Hopi were able to use the peaks as a method of calendar keeping!
Unfortunately, the San Francisco Peaks are also a classic example of the friction between the ancestral traditions of native tribes and the interests of modern land development. The popular ski resort Arizona Snowbowl made a move in 2002 to start creating artificial snow to augment natural snowfall.
Doesn’t sound so bad, right? Well, wait. Snowbowl was going to cut costs by producing that snow with treated wastewater… like sewage. Understandably, native peoples were incensed by this crass capitalistic plan and actively protested the building of the wastewater pipeline for over a decade. In 2012, a federal court ruled in favor of Snowbowl using wastewater, so for the last two ski seasons vacationers have been carving powder on a sacred mountaintop on snow made out of… well, you know. Desecration much?
From a certain point of view, you could say that it’s just recycling, or even a wise use of wastewater. I’m not so sure.
Anyway, the San Francisco Peaks are an amazing piece of American geographic and cultural history. For the tribes that have an ancestral claim to these mountains, the beauty and mystery of the peaks will be a source of inspiration for generations to come.