Members of the Gila River Alliance for a Clean Environment (GRACE), a grassroots organization on the Gila River Indian Community reservation in Arizona, have filed a civil rights complaint against the Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT) for proposing and promoting construction of the South Mountain Loop 202 Freeway, a project that would negatively and disparately impact Akimel O’odham (Pima) and the Pee Posh (Maricopa) Indigenous Peoples of the Gila River Indian Community.
A new phase in the long-standing struggle against Loop 202, the complaint alleges that ADOT violated the civil rights of the Gila River Indian Community by purposely designing the proposed freeway through sacred South Mountain, despite recognizing and acknowledging that the South Mountain Loop would have devastating negative cultural, spiritual and religious impacts on the community.
The complaint was filed in late July with the Federal Transit Administration (FTA). The FTA currently provides funding to ADOT making it subject to Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Title VI states that “No person in the United States shall, on the ground of race, color, or national origin, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”
According to GRACE, ADOT discriminated against the Gila River Indian Community through inadequate consultation and exclusion in the public participation process as well as proposing disparate impacts on Indigenous Peoples.
Examining these impacts in a detailed April 2013 statement, Samantha C. Skenandore, Of-Counsel, The Shanker Law Firm, PLC, notes that South Mountain, “known in the Pima language as the Muhadag Do’ag and in the Maricopa language as Avikwaxos”
“Consists of the Ma Ha Tauk, Gila, and Guadalupe Mountain Ranges. The mountain range abuts the northern territory of the GRIC and is the immediate landscape of the northern boundary of the GRIC reservation. A portion of main ridge north and main ridge south of the South Mountain is on GRIC land and serves as the ‘Community’s main, direct physical link to the South Mountains.’ […] GRIC tribal members and the tribal government hold the South Mountain sacred and see it as central to its creation story.”
She goes on to point out that “The O’odham concept of creation is not something in the past but is an ongoing process – one that GRIC members are intrinsically a part of and are obligated to participate in [through ceremony]”. As such, in 1989, the Gila River Indian Community Tribal Council adopted a resolution to preserve the lands of their ancestors, by approving the “Policy Statement of the Four Southern Tribes which outlines the Four Tribes’ intent to protect, promote, and preserve cultural affinity to the HuHuKam [whom the O’odham are descended].”
This was followed up in 2007 with tribal resolution GR-41-07 designating the South Mountain range as a sacred place and a traditional cultural property. The resolution affirms that South Mountain is “a sacred place/traditional cultural property… that… must be kept inviolate thereby recording the sacredness and significance of South Mountain to the people of the GRIC and its tribal government.” The resolution also states that the GRIC “strongly opposes any alteration of the South Mountain Range for any purpose” … and that any alteration “… would be a violation of the cultural and religious beliefs of the Gila River Indian Community and would have a negative cumulative effect on the continuing lifeways of the people of the Gila River Indian Community.”
In her April 2013 statement, Skenandore goes on to point out that, in preparing the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) for the project, ADOT and The Federal Highways Administration (FHWA) “failed to make reasonable and good faith efforts to consult all federally recognized Indian tribes that may attach religious and cultural significance to the Area of Potential Effects.”
As a result, the DEIS omits the negative cultural, spiritual and religious impacts of the proposed freeway; and fails to identify all burial and archeological sites and ancient shrines throughout the project area.
According to GRACE, the DEIS also provides “inaccurate and false estimates of population projections and users of the South Mountain Loop 202 Freeway” while making “narrow assumptions of potential alternative transportation modalities” going so far as to “eliminat[e] any alternative that would not have a disparate and a negative cumulative effect on the Gila River Indian Community and its people.”
Further, GRACE points out that ADOT “failed to analyze the South Mountain Loop 202’s disparate health, environmental, and economic impacts on the tribe and tribal members who already experience higher rates of diabetes and asthma that would be exacerbated if the South Mountain Loop 202 were constructed.”
These and other violations amount to a failure to honor, observe and uphold the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (“UNDRIP”).
The DEIS appears to fit perfectly with the attitude and temperament with at least some of the freeway’s proponents, including Arizona Department of Transportation spokesman Tim Tait who called the DEIS “well researched” to Roc Arnett, president of the East Valley Partnership, who was recently quoted as saying that he “can’t imagine there are any issues that can’t be resolved.”
Despite their apparent lack of vision, the proposed eight-lane freeway would cut gouge a 40-story high, 200-yard wide cut into South Mountain thereby destroying wildlife and habitat, increasing local air pollution, and decimating Indigenous culture, history and religious practices.
The federal civil rights complaint against ADOT aims to put an end to the threat by requesting that the federal government cease its funding of South Mountain Freeway because of the disproportionate impacts on the people of Gila River Indian Community.
There is a chance, however, that ADOT won’t always depend on federal funding. A group of companies–led by Kiewit Development Co., Kiewit Infrastructure West Co., Sundt Construction, Inc. and Parsons Corporation–have submitted an unsolicited proposal to build the South Mountain Freeway with private investment. ADOT is reportedly reviewing that proposal.
GRACE, meanwhile prepares to take the struggle to the international stage by filing complaints with the UN Special Rapporteurs on human rights and fundamental freedoms of indigenous people, cultural rights, and freedom of religion. GRACE may also approach the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR), which is well known for ruling in favor of Indigenous Rights.
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