Human rights march covers a range of issues
Credit: Human Rights March
Human rights march covers a range of issues

Dozens of organizations and concerned citizens will gather in Flagstaff, Ariz. today for a Human Rights March “For Justice and a Healthy Future for Coming Generations!” Their call to action is in response to escalating threats to indigenous and immigrant communities in their state.


It is hard to estimate how many will arrive, according to Klee Benally, an organizer of the march. More than 1,000 people attended a similar march in Flagstaff in March 2006, in response to escalating anti-migrant actions, and amid the struggle of indigenous peoples to protect their sacred sites, land, air and water from corporate interests.


“We are under attack,” said Benally, Navajo and life-long defender of sacred sites. Benally is an advocate to protect the environment of his own indigenous communities in Northern Arizona. “The question is how are we going to come together to have each others' backs and what tactics do we need?”


As major corporations and local, state, and federal governments wage a perceived war on human rights, it is clear that Arizona has become, in many ways, the frontlines of that war.


From the recent Mexican-American studies ban to the passing of the controversial law Arizona Senate Bill 1070 in 2010, to corporate actions harming sacred areas and the environment in indigenous communities, to violence at the U.S.-Mexican border against undocumented immigrants, it appears the response to these atrocities is warranted.


These human rights are interconnected, Benally said. He believes the communities at risk have reasons to join together to recognize that and fight it.


“The main thing is definitely to realize that we are in the face of serious ecological crisis and social crisis. It is a cultural crisis. I would tell people of the earth that everyone needs to clean the air, the land, the water. People need to be able to thrive, not just survive,” he said.


Anti-immigration legislation


On April 23, 2010 Governor Jan Brewer signed into Arizona state law the “Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act” or Senate Bill 1070 or SB 1070. The bill has become known as the broadest and strictest anti-illegal immigration measure in recent U.S. history.


SB 1070 enables state law enforcement officials upon reasonable suspicion to determine immigration status of an individual during a "lawful stop, detention or arrest".


The law also requires immigrants to carry their registration documents with them at all times. Immigrants caught without the required documents can be charged with a misdemeanor. SB 1070 even cracks down on those sheltering, hiring and transporting undocumented immigrants.


“The struggle for migrant rights is an indigenous struggle,” Benally said. “SB 1070 is state sanctioned racial profiling and criminalizing.”


Though the provision requiring police to determine the immigration status of people they lawfully stop has been temporarily blocked by a federal judge, Arizona continues attempting to reverse that decision in the federal appeals courts.


Ofelia Rivas, a traditional elder of the Tohono O’odham Nation, has seen her indigenous community hurt by the border wall, military presence, minute men militias and SB 1070. Her nation is located on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border.


Rivas will be a speaker at the march. Her testimony was crucial to a recent report from Amnesty International that detailed numerous human rights violations happening at the border, titled "In Hostile Terrain: Human Rights Violations in Immigration Enforcement in the U.S. Southwest".


“The border wall is severing their community,” Benally said. “Not just cutting them off from their own people, but also their sacred places, their ceremonies. With militarized checkpoints, drones, and a heavy army presence, indigenous folks are being put in detention camps and private prison camps as well. It’s this whole industry that is built on profiting off of that.”


Banning books


Shortly after SB 1070 was made law, in May 2010, Gov. Brewer signed House Bill 2281, prohibiting a school district or charter school from including in its program of instruction any courses or classes that “promote the overthrow of US government,” “promote resentment toward a race or class of people,” “advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals” or “are designed for pupils primarily of a certain ethnic group.”


In December 2011, the Tucson Unified School District's Mexican-American studies program was the district's only course of study said to be in violation of this law. Arizona State Superintendent of Public Instruction John Huppenthal threatened to take away millions of dollars of funding if the school board did not end the program.


The TUSD school board reacted swiftly. While students attended classes, books were taken and boxed up from their classrooms. Books that were deemed “divisive,” included Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire, Chicano! The History of the Mexican Civil Rights Movement by Arturo Rosales and even Shakespeare’s The Tempest.


Oppostion was strong on a national level, with caravans bringing banned books to Tucson, to ensure students had access to books containing content on race, colonization and oppression. Simon Ortiz, professor at Arizona State University, will be speaking at the march to address HB 2281.


Reproductive health battles


Last month, Gov. Brewer signed H.B. 2036, authorizing the state to outlaw abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy. According to the legislation, however, the state considers the starting point of the life of a fetus to begin on the first day of the mother’s last menstrual period, essentially establishing life to begin two weeks before conception.


Benally pointed to the state’s threat to remove funding from healthcare providers who provide abortion information or services to their clients. He recalled the forced sterilization of indigenous peoples in the United States and Canada.


“Now to have our bodies under attack again - it’s an extension of that,” he said.


The struggle to protect sacred lands, the environment


Preserving indigenous culture, religion and lands are escalating concerns for the Human Rights March.


“On all levels, the struggle to protect sacred places is a struggle for cultural survival just as the ethnic studies ban is an attack on culture and identity. Any attack on our sacred places is an attack on who we are,” said Benally.


One of Benally’s longtime fights has been resisting the desecration of the holy San Francisco Peaks, outside of Flagstaff, Ariz.


The Snowbowl Ski Resort struck a deal with the City of Flagstaff to pump waste water up the mountain for the purpose of making snow. They are already halfway done with building a pipeline, which would be introducing sewage effluent into the water, land, plants and animals on a mountain held Sacred by over 13 Native American Tribes and Nations.


The coalition of allies and tribes, Save the Peaks’ outrage has been heard in the Supreme Court of appeals numerous times over the years of battle. The Hopi Tribe recently filed to sue the City of Flagstaff for violating state laws in regards to usage of waste water where there is runoff that can affect the communities below.


Lawyer Howard Shanker has been fighting this battle for citizens and tribes since 2005. He reported that the last attempt at rehearing was denied just two weeks ago.


“I am pretty cynical of the systems of justice: they are all fatally flawed and broken,” Shanker said.


From an environmental perspective, Shanker offered these word about protecting mother earth: “We are the only species I am aware of that actually destroys its own habitat. Once mother earth is gone, we have nowhere to go.”

Now there is a new act proposed by Senators Jon Kyl and John McCain being lobbied by the Navajo Nation, The Navajo-Hopi Little Colorado River Water Rights Settlement Act of 2011 or S.2109, which would provide funding for water projects, but would also allow corporations such as coal giants Peabody Energy an unlimited water supply without compensating tribes.


Opponents to S.2109 are concerned about tribes losing their water rights; the unregulated usage of the water affecting the water table in an already drought-ridden environment; and the harm that these corporations benefiting from the bill would bring to their water, land and air with their coal and energy projects.


Shanker responded to the main message of the Hopis and Navajos against the Kyl Bill: “‘Water is life’ speaks for itself. Indigenous people should be able to preserve their water rights. A lot of experts in the various fields are saying water will be one of the most valuable commodities. People do need to be aware that we don’t need to privatize water.”


Benally reported the climate of the Chapter house meetings on the Navajo Nation, recently held to “educate” the communities about the water bill.


“They are called ‘public forums’ but they aren’t presenting concerns- they are only trying to convince them,” Benally said. “These forums have been highly policed with snipers on the roof and children and community members not being allowed to speak. Freedom of speech is being completely censored- it’s difficult to face that for my own people, and of course when you look at it in the larger picture, it is about serving the interests of these corporations. Not about mother earth.”


With these and more issues plaguing the state, numerous organization will sponsor the march. These include: Flagstaff Action Network,, Repeal Coalition, Center for Biological Diversity, Protect the Peaks, Dine’ Citizens Against Ruining our Environment, Laguna Acoma Coalition For A Safe Environment, Indigenous World Association, Outta Your Backpack Media, Radio Free Flagstaff, Taala Hooghan Infoshop, The Shanker Law Firm, PLC, Indigenous Action Media, Northern Arizona University M.E.C.H.A, and more.


The Rally will begin at 3 p.m. at the Wheeler Park parking lot in downtown Flagstaff across from City Hall. Immediately following the rally, they will march through downtown Flagstaff.


The uniting of the issues is intended to be a positive outcome, as march supporters vow to continue their work fighting human rights violations in their state and beyond.


“People don’t need to look anywhere but their own community,” Benally said. “These struggles are happening right where you’re at! There’s opportunities to take action, especially for indigenous folks amidst the ‘settler conscience’. Instead of developing, decolonize! (The United States) is already occupied, now how do we move beyond that?”


About author

Mano Cockrum's picture

Mano Cockrum is a Hopi/Diné artivist in the visual and sonic arts. She performs in her band Sounds For Fathers, and frequents shows to record video for her ManoART10 Youtube channel, featuring her favorite bands on her music blog

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