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Native American protesters were quickly and peacefully ejected by Phoenix Police Tuesday night after they tried to make a public statement prior to the Arizona Department of Transportation's presentation on the South Mountain Freeway.
About a dozen Native Americans, most of whom had just finished a 10-mile prayer run from a camp they have set up in the Gila River Indian Community to protest the freeway, first were told they could not bring their walking staffs into the meeting at Desert Vista High School.
Then after one protester began shouting and saying they intended to stop the freeway "by any means possible," uniformed and plainclothes police escorted them out.
The meeting, held by ADOT to update people on the changes in the freeway's design, drew close to 500 people, some of whom stood for the hour-long presentation.
ADOT representatives spent about 40 minutes discussing changes to the design, and left 20 minutes for a controlled question-and-answer session: No questions were allowed from the floor and audience members ahd to write them on cards which were then screened by ADOT representatives.
The meeting left a number of people disgruntled over both the quality of the presentation and treatment of the Native Americans.
"The presenters for ADOT were so painfully awkward and uncomfortable during their PowerPoint," one resident wrote on Facebook. "How can we possibly have any confidence in their decision-making moving forward with this superhighway?"
The poor quality of the school's public address system often made it difficult to hear presenters.
And at times chatter from the back of the large multipurpose room got so loud that the moderator had to call for quiet, at one point threatening to end the meeting if they didn't stop talking.
Pat Lawlis, president of the Ahwatukee-based freeway opponent group called Protect Arizona's Resources and Children, criticized both ADOT and city police on the PARC Facebook page.

"Once again, ADOT has proven without a doubt that they have no real interest in public opinion," she wrote. "Their public meetings are just for show. And once again, officials have shown without a doubt that they have no respect for Native Americans and their culture."

Native Americans consider the mountain, variously called Moadag or Moahdak Do’ag, sacred and contend that the freeway desecrates it.

That argument is central to the Gila Community’s legal efforts to stop the freeway, as it says state and federal officials did not do enough to protect the culturally and religiously important site.

PARC has filed a separate but related challenge and both groups are awaiting a federal judge’s ruling on their request for a preliminary injunction stopping construction pending an appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. The request has been before U.S. District Judge Diane Humetewa for a month.

“Moadag is one of the most sacred sites to the Four Southern Tribes of Arizona, which are the Gila River Indian Community, the Ak-Chin Indian Community, the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, and the Tohono O’odham Nation. There are over 20 Arizona tribes which attach cultural significance to the South Mountain Range,” camp leaders said in a prepared statement.

The camp was set up by the Akimel O’otham tribe, meaning “River People.” That tribe and the Pipaash, or Maricopa, are the two tribes that live on Gila Community land.

Noting that they are set up on “land that is used for prayer gatherings and is known to the community as a place of spiritual power,” leader Linda Paloma Allen told the Ahwatukee Foothills News that the camp “is a few hundred yards from the footprint of the freeway design.”

“When we say we are making our stand at camp, we mean that we are praying for the mountain, and for the animals and plants there,” she said, adding, “We have donations and campers coming in every day.”

“There will be many actions, rallies, prayer runs, gatherings and demonstrations happening around this issue of protecting Moadag,” said Allen, who broke down in tears last month addressing the Ahwatukee Foothills Village Planning Committee.

Whether the camp evolves into the equivalent of the giant settlement that for months has been protesting a four-state oil pipeline in North Dakota remains to be seen, said James Riding In, head of Arizona State University’s American Indian Studies program.

Community ‘sick and tired’

“That’s a huge encampment,” he said of the North Dakota protest, adding that the South Mountain camp organizers “are only doing a campaign to create more public awareness of the impact of the freeway.

“There is hope their actions will generate a movement to stop this freeway and preserve the mountain,” Riding In said.

His office at Rome 380, 250 E. Lemon St., Tempe, is one of three drop-off sites for donations to the camp, which PARC members have been encouraging in Facebook posts over the past week. The other two drop-off sites are Ash Avenue Comics, 806 S. Ash Ave., Tempe; and Firehouse Gallery, 1015 N. 1st St., Phoenix.

Riding In said the camp represents Native Americans’ frustration with state and federal highway officials.

“To quote a famous phrase,” he said, “they are sick and tired of being sick and tired.”

In court proceedings in May before Humetewa, attorneys for ADOT and the Federal Highway Administration maintained that they had taken great steps to minimize the impact of construction on South Mountain.

Lawyers said the freeway would take over less than one percent of South Mountain’s total land mass.

In its lengthy environmental impact study, ADOT stated that the freeway cut into the mountain “would not prohibit Native Americans from continuing to practice their beliefs because only a small fraction of the mountain would be affected, replacement lands would be provided, access to the mountain would be maintained and mitigation would be implemented based on input by Native Americans.”

The freeway will take up 31.3 acres of the 16,600-acre park.

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Humetewa last month rejected the claims by the Gila Community and PARC, declaring that as far as tribal concerns were concerned, “the court cannot find that the agencies overlooked the harm to the community and brushed aside its concerns in approving the project.”

She also noted that the Gila Community will be getting money to preserve and expand historic and cultural sites on the mountain as part of the highway agencies’ efforts to compensate Native Americans for the freeway cut into South Mountain.

ADOT ‘showdown’ threatened

ADOT also said that after more than 100 consultations with various Native American tribes, the freeway plan “accommodates and preserves to the fullest extent possible from the available alternatives access to the South Mountains for religious practices.”

Two Native American websites, indigenousaction.com and indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com, have devoted lengthy stories about the freeway fight written by Amanda Blackhorse.

The Phoenix resident is one of five plaintiffs in a case against the Washington Redskins football team that stripped it of six of its seven trademarks over its refusal to change its name.

Likening the freeway fight to the protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline, Blackhorse wrote about the two camp leaders, quoting Allen as saying, “indigenous people are tired of outside interests not understanding how deeply we are connected to our land and what we will do to defend it.

“In North Dakota, it’s Energy Transfer Partners and the Dakota Access Pipeline,” Allen said. “In Arizona, it’s Arizona Department of Transportation, Snowbowl, and Resolution Copper. It’s the same injustice since 1492.”

She also quotes camp co-leader Andrew Pedro as saying, “Though it has been a time of pain, the O’odham people will not take it laying down. So if ADOT wants a showdown, they are going to get one.”

During the protest in front of the planning committee last month, Allen and several other tribe representatives said they were prepared to lie down in front of bulldozers if construction begins in earnest as scheduled early next year.

Blackhorse also has written that the Native Americans on the Gila River Indian Community also fear the freeway’s impact on their health, especially children.

“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 eight-lane highway to run parallel to a natural preserve?” Blackhorse wrote.

“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,” she added.

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