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In the Desert, a Soul's Journey vs. Water Risk

A tribe aims to remove a treatment plant from the Topock Maze area, which it views as sacred.

June 21, 2005|Marc Lifsher | Times Staff Writer

TOPOCK, Ariz. — In the Mojave Desert, just west of the California-Arizona border, an ancient pattern of lines inscribed on the desert floor marks out the pathway to heaven for a small group of American Indians.

Once covering 50 acres, the so-called Topock Maze is held sacred by the Fort Mojave tribe as a place of final atonement, the destination of a soul's lifetime journey along the Colorado River from Spirit Mountain, 40 miles to the north in Nevada.

These days, however, tribe members say that modern civilization -- in the form of a Pacific Gas & Electric Co. water treatment plant -- is blocking their road to the afterlife. The tribe claims that the plant, completed but not yet operating, is close enough to a surviving portion of the maze to disrupt their spiritual journeys. It is suing the utility and state regulators in an effort to have the facility torn down or moved.

PG&E and state regulators contend that the treatment plant is vital to an emergency effort to stop highly polluted groundwater from reaching a stretch of the Colorado River that provides drinking water for 22 million people in Southern California and neighboring states. But that argument doesn't mollify the tribe.

"This shows a total lack of respect for our beliefs about where we go to after we pass from this life," Nora McDowell, chairwoman of the 1,100-member Fort Mojave tribe, said during a recent interview at the tribal offices in Needles.

McDowell said the tribe was readying all of its resources, which include a small empire of casinos and local businesses, to bankroll its legal and lobbying effort to protect the maze.

"By God," she vowed, choking back tears, "you're going to hear from us."

As part of their campaign, tribal leaders took a group of state lawmakers and other state and federal officials on a tour of the site Friday. The political push won backing last week from the National Congress of American Indians, which urged the U.S. Congress to hold oversight hearings.

Mojave officials acknowledge that some tribal members attended state-sponsored workshops about the pollution cleanup effort. But they allege that plans to build the treatment plant were pushed through with little input from the tribe.

"PG&E knew that the Mojave hold deep spiritual and cultural ties to the Colorado River, the Topock Maze and other cultural and sacred places in the region," the suit alleges. "PG&E never 'worked closely' with the tribe 'to identify potential impact to cultural or biological resources.' "

PG&E spokesman Jon Tremayne declined to comment on the suit, noting that the San Francisco-based utility was holding settlement talks with the tribe. Although PG&E is "very respectful" of the Mojave's spiritual beliefs, he said, it strongly supports state officials' conclusion that construction of the Topock water treatment plant was a crucial step in protecting the Colorado River.

The conflict over the Topock Maze is the latest in a series of campaigns by Native Americans to protect sites in California that they consider sacred.

Over the last few years, tribal activists have blocked a Canadian company's plan to open a gold mine in the state's southeastern corner and have challenged a power company's effort to tap geothermal energy sources by drilling into underground pockets of steam near the Oregon border.

American Indians also oppose a proposal to raise the height of the Shasta Dam on the Sacramento River, which could lead to the flooding of dozens of ceremonial sites. And Native American lobbying in Sacramento last year persuaded Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to sign the first-ever law requiring local governments to consider protection of sacred sites as part of their long-range land-use planning.

"Their most important places have to be protected, and it's not necessarily a physical place," said Christopher McLeod, a San Mateo County filmmaker who made a documentary about Native American sacred sites. "It has historical and personal implications because these are cultures that really take their spiritual responsibilities seriously."

The origins of the Topock Maze are hazy. But the dozens of roughly parallel windrows of earth and sun-blackened pebbles -- some running for hundreds of yards -- have long been central to the religion of the Mojave, who call themselves "the people of the river" in their ancestral language. As the endpoint of a soul's transit along the Colorado, the maze "is the essence of what it means to be Mojave," tribal spokeswoman Gentry Medrano said.

Less than a third of the original maze survives on the creosote bush and sage-dotted bluffs near the Colorado River narrows. The California Southern railroad was pushed through the middle of the maze in the 1880s. The fabled U.S. 66 came through the area in 1926 but pointedly skirted the maze, as did a PG&E Corp. pipeline built in the 1950s.

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