Praying for Dzil Ligai

Largest fire in Arizona history threatens White Mountain Apache homelands

By Marley Shebala
Navajo Times

WHITERIVER, Ariz, June 16, 2011

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(Special to the Times - Donovan Quintero)

View a video of a firefighter from San Carlos on the scene of the fire. (Please allow a while for the video to load.)

The smoke from Arizona's largest wildland fire, the Wallow Fire, gently drifted over the mountains northeast of the White Mountain Apache tribal headquarters here.

On June 5, the fire was raging out of control as it entered Apache land on the White Mountain and San Carlos reservations. As of Wednesday, it had consumed more than 12,909 acres of forest belonging to the White Mountain Apaches and was five miles from the tribe's economic heartbeat, the Sunrise Ski Resort.


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More than 160 wildland firefighters have kept the fire at bay by creating a buffer of cleared land using bulldozers, handsaws and other hand tools.

They also have created a similar buffer between the fire and Dzil Ligai (White Mountain), known in English as Mount Baldy.

Ramon Riley, White Mountain Apache cultural resource director, said June 10 that the tribal elders don't want the Wallow Fire to enter Dzil Ligai because it's a holy place.

Riley, who is Roadrunner Clan born for Eagle Clan, said he didn't use the word "sacred" to describe it, because that's the word white people use for the White Mountain Apaches' holy places.

He also emphasized that the correct name for Mount Baldy is Dzil Ligai. At 11,420 feet, it is the highest point on the 1.6 million-acre White Mountain Apache Reservation.

Nearly a third of that, about 475,000 acres in the western part of their reservation, was consumed by the 2002 Rodeo-Chediski fire, until now the largest wildland fire in state history.

White Mountain residents recalled that during a June 10 community meeting with Dugger Hughes, a zone commander in the Wallow Fire firefighting effort, they pleaded with Hughes to protect their land.

Otherwise, they said, their children and their grandchildren would lose the opportunity to experience the full beauty of the White Mountain Apache homeland as they did.

They also asked about the Sunrise Ski Resort and Dzil Ligai.

As Riley carefully explained why Dzil Ligai was holy to the White Mountain Apache, he looked at an Arizona Republic reporter and with a hint of exasperation said it's hard to explain to a non-Indian.

"As White Mountain Apache people, we don't give out all our information," he said. "You just have to be an Apache to know."

Riley said it takes a lifetime for a White Mountain Apache to learn and understand the tribe's way of life, which he emphasized is not a religion.

"Non-Indians just don't understand," he added.

The White Mountain Apaches' priority for fire protection showed "a different world view," said Margaret Hangan, Zone 3 fire information officer, who was among the small group of reporters and tribal and federal fire management officials meeting with Riley.

Hangan, who is from Kaibab, Ariz., said understanding was easier after she and another fire information officer, Marty Christensen of Minnesota, watched a video about the tribe's creation, titled "The Creation Story." In it, Riley speaks entirely in Apache with English subtitles as he describes his people's origin. He explains in the film that he is sharing only a small part of the story.

On June 10, Riley shared an even smaller portion.

Dzil Ligai has medicinal plants, he said, comparing it to a pharmacy where non-Indians go to get medicine.

The mountain is also home to animals, insects and microorganisms that have existed since "life began," Riley said.

The White Mountain Apache, like other Apache bands, have a creation story that tells what is holy, he said.

Riley said he was taught that life began for the White Mountain Apache between four sacred mountains - the Black Mountain or Sierra Madres to the east, the Blue or Turquoise Mountain to the south, the Red Mountain or Four Peaks to the west, and the White Mountain or San Francisco Peaks to the north.

"We did not migrate," he said. "We came from here."

Riley's remark alludes to the viewpoint, widely held in Western science, that indigenous North Americans originally came from Asia and crossed the Bering Strait land bridge during the last Ice Age to reach this continent.

In White Mountain Apache teachings, everything began from the east including life, which is why the prayers and ceremonies of the White Mountain Apache begin in that direction and go clockwise, he explained.

At Friday's meeting, Riley also discussed the Four Spiders that created the earth, saying the story taught his people the earth is round.

Riley said if the Wallow Fire reaches Dzil Ligai, the wildlife would run and make their home in another place, where they would reproduce and eventually return to Dzil Ligai.

But he said the insects, like the spiders, and microorganisms would be unable to outrun the fire.

Riley said the trees, grass and other vegetation would eventually return. Adding, "We probably will not live long enough to see that."

Riley said that some of the elders have been conducting private sweat lodge ceremonies to ask the fire to spare the land.

"We use fire and water in our prayers because they are part of the elements of life," he explained. "Fire is cleansing."

Riley looked at the smoke from the Wallow Fire and noted that he was a wildland firefighter in the 1960s.

The weather has changed since then. Today there's more drought and the fires are more ferocious, he said.

"The earth is getting ready to refurbish itself," Riley said softly.

He said that there is one teaching that the White Mountain Apache people have tried to shared to the non-Indians: "Take care of the earth. If you don't, it will destroy you."

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