As the vote for the Loop 202 extension approaches, Gila River Indian Community District 6 residents are continuing their fight for a no-build option to, as they say, stop pollution from entering their community and to save South Mountain.
On Feb. 7 Gila River Indian Community (GRIC) residents will either vote to build the freeway on the reservation, build it off the reservation on the Pecos Road alignment, or not build the freeway at all. The last option was not originally on the ballot until community members began to speak up.
Michael Tashquinth, an elder in the tribal community, said that the GRIC has been opposed to the freeway on tribal land from the beginning, but that time after time they have been approached. Tashquinth said talks to approve the freeway go directly against a resolution written by the GRIC District 6 in 2000 to not allow any truck bypasses then or in the future across District 6 or South Mountain.
Danelle Spring, a District 6 resident and Tashquinth's niece, said their community is not opposed to economic development, and that they don't want to see South Mountain destroyed either, but they have been encouraging a "no build" option to protect their land and their culture. Their biggest concern is pollution and destruction of their land.
"They call it undeveloped, we call it pristine," Spring said.
According to a memorandum written in 2007 by Daniel Blair, of GRIC's Department of Environmental Quality, to David White, GRIC community manager, "South Mountain prevents air pollution from the greater Phoenix area from transporting on to community lands. If the proposed South Mountain freeway is built, air pollution from the freeway will be trapped on the south side of the mountain and dramatically affect air quality at GRIC."
The placement of the freeway on GRIC land would require homes to be lost, just like the Pecos Road alignment, and the freeway would be very close to community centers and schools in the GRIC.
"The pollution will cover this whole area," Tashquinth said. "With that freeway coming through here, it'll kill us. That pollution will make it hard for elders to breathe."
Tashquinth added that all the economic benefit studies he has read do not talk about the benefits for the tribal community. He believes landowners will get a one-time payment for their land and then they will have nothing left.
"They may for a brief instant hold 1 million dollars in their hand, but after that they lose the land, they lose everything," Tashquinth said. "That's what ties us to this earth. It's who we are. We are the caretakers of the earth. When the earth was created we were given this job to live in harmony with the animals, and the plants, and everything that is here. Now, they want to take it away from us with that freeway."
Tashquinth and Spring are not just fighting for their own land. They're encouraging a no-build option because they don't want to lose the mountain either. According to tradition, South Mountain is the center of the universe, Tashquinth said. It is the home of Elder Brother, and ancient stories say if it is ever broken into it could mean the end of the world, he said.
Devin Redbird, leader of a group called REZiSTANCE, which is encouraging GRIC residents to vote "yes" to the freeway on the reservation, said that the Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT) has promised a no-build option in the past, but that it's not realistic. Redbird believes if they do not allow the freeway on GRIC land it will mean the destruction of South Mountain and all the sacred sites therein. Spring has documents declaring the no-build option and said it is being studied just like every other option.
"We did our research, and even the ADOT website right now says no build is an option," Spring said. "They have to study it, they can't not study it. Nothing is finalized. They say we can't tell the state of Arizona not to build it, but we can fight with them. They can't just blast through whatever they want. Once we get a ‘no build' on the reservation that is about us on the reservation, but then we have to go to the state and begin fighting for ‘no build.' We need people in Ahwatukee who feel the same to fight with us.
"Either way, if it comes on our land or over there it affects them the same as it does us. We're talking about an issue that is the same for them as it is for us."
Tashquinth said no matter what the outcome of the vote they will continue to fight.
"My blood runs up and down this reservation," Tashquinth said. "That's how close we are. I know they want money, but at what price? This is home. That's why I am so opposed to having that freeway come through. I don't want to see my people die or disappear. Tribes are slowly dying off everywhere. I don't want that to happen to my people. No matter the outcome, we'll continue to fight. We're not going to give up."
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