Blackhorse: Highway Expansion Threatens Moahdak Do’ag, a Sacred Place of Healing

Graphic courtesy Amanda Blackhorse / The Loop 202 expansion – a 22-mile, 8-lane highway, which will run west from Chandler, Arizona, threatens the Moahdak Do’ag sacred site.

Blackhorse: Highway Expansion Threatens Moahdak Do’ag, a Sacred Place of Healing in Arizona.

If you’ve visited Phoenix, Arizona or live there, you will know the sacred mountain Moahdak Do’ag as “South Mountain.”

It sits on the south side of the city of Phoenix and it has tall satellites which light up red at night. Moahdak Do’ag is a mountain, but also a city park – about 17,000 acres of it. To give you an idea of its size, it’s 20 times larger than Central Park. Parts of the mountain seem like a desert wilderness and are home to several endangered species. You will often find horseback riding, cycling, hiking and running trails there. You can also find ancient petroglyphs or “ruins” the ancestors left behind. It is a very beautiful place, and in the midst of the bustling city, this mountain is a natural refuge.

But the proposed Loop 202 expansion – a 22-mile, 8-lane highway, which will run west from Chandler, Arizona, parallel to the south of Moahdak Do’ag territory, through the community of Ahwatukee – will cut through the west end of Moahdak Do’ag, and run north to connect to the well-traveled Interstate 10 to Los Angeles, California.

As the nations sixth largest city, Phoenix is also one of the most Native populated cities with about 43,000 Native Americans. This is not surprising since Arizona is home to 22 Native tribes. With the diversity of the indigenous population in the Phoenix region, many forget the original people of this territory.

Moahdak Do’ag is a sacred site to our O’otham/O’odham [pronounced Ah-a-thum] relatives. The term can be spelled a couple different ways depending on the region. Our O’odham relatives have descended from and occupied these lands for thousands of years. O’odhams are known today as the Gila River Indian Community, the Salt River Pima Maricopa Indian Community, and the Tohono O’odham Nation. Over the years, the O’odhams took in the Pee Posh [Maricopa] and the Ak-Chin tribes. They’ve been incorporated into the tribe[s] and co-exist. O’odham territory is much of what is now called southern Arizona and into Mexico.

The west end of Moahdak Do’ag which will be leveled for Loop 202. Photo courtesy Amanda Blackhorse.

As an outsider – a Diné (Navajo) not Native to this region (my homeland is in northern Arizona on the Navajo Nation) – I’ve known Phoenix as a city of opportunity. When I was a young girl visiting Phoenix was a treat. There are many amenities here and if you can stand the 110-degree heat in the summer (actually Phoenix is getting hotter, each year thanks to climate change) Phoenix can be a place to find a good paying job or, at least, better paying than what is on the rez. There are great universities here and, for many, there is the opportunity to live a more “American lifestyle.”

Natives seem to flock to Phoenix for better opportunities, sure, but many Natives were forced to move here. Whether it was through boarding schools or urban inflation, many Natives were pushed to the city, to be assimilated into the Western American culture.

Since moving back to Phoenix almost one year ago, I began to understand how non-O’odham people and non-tribal people must acknowledge and pay respects to the original people of this territory. I’ve learned this from friends and relatives. I learned we should always honor our relatives and the territory we occupy. It is our duty if we live here. The O’odham own the very water we drink. The sophisticated canal system which sustains this city, it’s agriculture, energy, and utilities were created by great O’odham engineers thousands of years ago. It is imperative we listen to the indigenous voice.

The Adverse Impact on the Gila River Indian Community

Over the summer I caught up with a friend and proponent in the fight against the Loop 202, Linda Paloma Allen, who is Akimel O’otham, Tohono O’odham, Chicana and white. “I don’t know why this issue came to me 6-year-ago, but it did,” she said. Allen believes that it impacted her greatly because she is an educator, mother, and community member. She informed me how the most vulnerable populations [children and elders] will be affected. Allen is an early childhood educator and has seen firsthand how Native children suffer high rates of asthma. She discussed the correlation between illness and absenteeism in children. This is especially troubling as the proposed Loop 202 will be about one mile from the GRIC community ‘Komatke’ where there is an elementary school, elder care center, and health clinic. Allen worries about the children and elders who will be affected, and also how many of them are not being informed of the adverse effects currently.

Allen also informed me of how interstate freeways have historically impacted the Gila River Indian Community. The massive I-10 divided the community when it was built in the 1960s. At that time, the community was promised the potential for increased economic development in the area, but obviously this did not happen until more recently when the tribe got involved in the gaming enterprise.

But this does not solve the problem, because the I-10 cuts directly through the community [north to west]; the interstate serves as a divider to the people, the culture, and to the eco-system. The area is home to herds of wild horses sacred to the tribe and other Native groups in the region.

Graphic courtesy Amanda Blackhorse.

In addition to Allen, there are many community members who oppose the Loop 202. Like the Akimel O’odham Youth Collective who have been raising awareness in their community as well as Gila River Alliance for a Clean Environment, and GREY [Gila River Environmental Youth]. Not only that, in 2012 the Gila River Indian Community members voted for a “no build” on GRIC boundaries.

For our O’odham relatives, the direct decedents of the land, Moahdak Do’ag is a way of life. The mountain is respected and revered as it is home of their most powerful deity. Many visit there for prayer and healing. It is a place of healing, a lifeline, a church, a temple and a representation of the existence of the O’odham. Allen states that the road will only serve to divide the people from their place of prayer and from their place of origin.

So much like how the four sacred mountains are sacred to the Diné or how Mauna Kea or Oak Flat is sacred, Moahdak Do’ag is just that. The growing trend in Phoenix, or in Arizona for that matter, is to buy out, silence, or shut down the indigenous voice. At least that has been what I’ve seen first hand.

GRIC and PARC File Suit Against the Federal Highway Administration

In the summer of 2015, PARC [Protecting Arizona’s Resources and Children] filed a lawsuit and preliminary injunction citing violations of the National Environmental Policy Act and the Clean Air Act. Soon after, the Gila River Indian Community filed suit as well. GRIC cited adverse environmental impacts to the community, desecration of sacred sites, and not considering the voice of the community. The preliminary injunction filed by PARC was an attempt to stop the build from continuing in the summer of 2016 and also to stop the pre-build from occurring.

For sometime now, the Arizona Department of Transportation [ADOT] has been clearing the path of the freeway through buying out homes, businesses, and real estate along the path. So far, ADOT has spent over 190 million dollars to clear their path. Although the road will not be in GRIC tribal land [it will still be within feet of the tribal boundaries], it will also impact the community and other non-tribal communities as well. Neighboring communities in Ahwatukee also have concerns and are represented by PARC in the lawsuit. Plaintiffs are groups like The Foothills Community Association, The Sierra Club, Don’t Waste Arizona, and Gila River Alliance for a Clean Environment among others. When it is all said and done, the project alone will cost anywhere from $1.75 to 2 billion. This is mostly funded by taxpayer dollars.

Oral arguments in the case were heard in July 2015. Soon after, PARC’s motion for preliminary injunction was denied. United States District Judge Diane Humetewa denied their motion stating PARC failed to show sufficient evidence of irreparable harm to the community. This means the build will continue and is set for July 13, 2016. In the mean time, legal proceedings continue.

Members of GRIC say the Loop 202 has been planned for years and the intent is to not include GRIC or other indigenous groups. They say that ADOT and MAG have refused to discuss alternate routes all these years. At one point, the plan was to build through the GRIC reservation boundaries. The tribe voted and the outcome was a “no-build.” ADOT then switched its plans to build through the community of Ahwatukee.

ADOT has stated on their website and on a video they produced on YouTube that they’ve been working on this plan for years with GRIC, but there seems to be no consensus in this.

“I was a child in 1983 and I was not able to fight for the mountain,” Allen said. “Now I come home to a child everyday who can’t fight the freeway. If you can, fight for your children. If our children know what we know, they would want to stop the freeway. We need to be good ancestors.”

The Adverse Environmental Impact of the Loop 202

Phoenix has been labeled as a vehicle-dependent city due to its very poor public transportation. It is a city that continues to sprawl with no signs of slowing down. Cities such as Vancouver, British Columbia, Curitiba Brazil, Cape Town South Africa, and San Francisco, California were named as committed to environmental protection (BBC Travel) and sustainable development. To the contrary, Phoenix seems to be putting more money into building unnecessary multiple-lane highways for commuters and semi trucks driving to or through Phoenix.

“The South Mountain Freeway is the last piece to complete the Loop 202 and Loop 101 freeway system necessary for high-quality regional mobility,” ADOT said.

In a city where residents are no strangers to the regular warnings of hazardous air quality, why would a city support the increase of an 8-lane highway to run parallel to a natural preserve?

The road will bring more noise, trash, and congestion to the area. Not only that, there will be significant environmental impacts on the health and wellness of the tribal community as well as other nearby non-tribal communities.

Allen encouraged that environmentally-friendly mass transit is needed more than ever. If this road is built, it will send the message that nothing is sacred anymore. Native or not, this will affect everyone. This requires the city of Phoenix and the State of Arizona to shift its culture of consumption (taking from the O’odham community) to one of giving back – the idea of reciprocity. The O’odham have sustained themselves for thousands of years off of the land, but yet now it seems consumers must now sustain the environment from themselves.

Amanda Blackhorse. Photo courtesy Malcolm Benally.

Amanda Blackhorse, Diné, is a mother and activist. She and four other plaintiffs won a case against the Washington football team that stripped it of six of its seven trademarks. Follow her on Twitter @blackhorse_a. She lives in Phoenix, Arizona.

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