background image

The Significance of Mountains to the O’odham and Piipaash

"No 202 Freeway" spray-painted on a water stand pipe near the corner of Camelback Road and Center Street. Multiple water stand pipes in the Community are tagged with "No DAPL" and "Water is Life."

To the O’odham and Piipaash people, all mountains have a story.

Those stories are a key reason why so many O’odham, Piipash and other Native Americans have objected to the highway construction on and around South Mountain in Phoenix.

The Gila River Indian Community filed a lawsuit in federal court to challenge construction of the $1.9 billion, 22-mile highway corridor at South Mountain. People have protested the highway construction for years, but it wasn’t enough.

In October, the U.S. District Court ruled not to halt construction on the highway project. Work remains on schedule, and it’s expected to open in 2019.

The new roadway will connect Pecos Road in Ahwatukee in the East Valley to 59th Avenue in the West Valley. The highway will cut through parts of South Mountain Park. The project will damage three ridges of South Mountain and destroy many trails and shrines that have been there for decades. Between 120,000 to 190,000 vehicles will use the road each day, according to the Arizona Department of Transportation.

Picturesque Red Mountain in the eastern part of the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community symbolizes the homeland of the O’odham and Piipaash. South Mountain, near the Gila River Indian Community, is on traditional O’odham and Piipaash land and has equal significance as Red Mountain, and hundreds of other mountains.

Each mountain is rich with cultural and archaeological significance that many non-Native Americans don’t quite understand, said Shane Anton, Cultural Preservation Program manager with the Community’s Cultural Resources Department. Many non-Native Americans struggle to grasp the concept of mountains as animate objects.

“Any mountain form has some significance,” Anton said. “There is a lot of history to it, a lot of culture.

“Some of that has been lost throughout time, as far as us knowing and it being passed down [through the generations], because we are an oral-tradition society. Still, the sacredness remains.”

Mountains are homes to a deity, or god, in traditional creation stories, Anton said. Along with the cultural history, mountains have the archaeological history of O’odham and Piipaash people. South Mountain is known as Muhadagi Do’ag in O’odham, which translates to Greasy Mountain in English.

“In certain times of the year, it’s kind of a black glossy [color] and it looks like the mountain is covered in grease and comes off as shiny,” Anton said.

The mountain’s story matters little to outsiders. Voters approved the highway project years ago and legal proceedings have favored the federal and state highway project.

“I don’t run a road through the middle of the church and say it’s going to be OK,” Anton said. “It’s going to desecrate the spirituality of that church. It’s the campus of that church, all the things that surround it. That’s what I think the federal government doesn’t get. If you chop off my hand, I can probably still survive, but I don’t think I’ll be OK.”