History PhD candidate wins scholarship to research Indigenous sacred land battles in Arizona

A wide photo of the Grand Canyon

Photo of the Grand Canyon courtesy of pexels.com.


The Grand Canyon Historical Society is a nonprofit that was founded in 1982 to promote the study and preservation of the Grand Canyon region's cultural and natural history. Each year they award a scholarship to one researcher whose work supports their mission. This year's recipient is ASU history PhD candidate William Holly, for his dissertation research.

“Dissertation research and writing can really be a lonely experience, and sometimes you will be working so hard on something and wonder, ‘Is it good?’ or ‘Does it matter?’” said Holly. “So, it is quite a thrill when a group of people who share your love of history look at your proposal and give it a thumbs-up like this.”

Holly earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in history from Central Washington University in Ellensburg, Washington. Before that, he attended Northern Arizona University for a year and lived in Flagstaff for a few years.

“I grew up in a few places,” said Holly. “I spent time in Oklahoma, Wyoming, Arizona … and I went to high school in Colorado. I have always had family in Arizona, so it is kind of home to me. The cultural atmosphere of Flagstaff and northern Arizona has always intrigued me. Flagstaff is many things to many people; a college town, a ski town, a tourist destination, where you go to shop or escape the Valley heat.”

The mix of prominent Indigenous cultures and imagery, people and ideas in Flagstaff appealed to Holly and inspired him to dig deeper into how they all intertwined.

“My research is a legal and cultural history of conflicts surrounding proposed expansion of the Arizona Snowbowl ski area on the San Francisco Peaks north of Flagstaff, primarily during the 1970s,” said Holly. 

Holly researches the development proposals and the controversies about the ski expansion that played out primarily in local government meetings and courtrooms, although it almost went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“The San Francisco Peaks are sacred to numerous Indigenous nations of the American Southwest, and representatives from the tribes, especially the Diné and Hopi, were active in attempting to stop further development on sacred lands,” said Holly.

His research of this time is important, considering that the cases he is looking at represent some early instances of Indigenous nations going to court to protect sacred lands that are also deemed public lands and overseen by the U.S. Forest Service.

William Holly

History PhD candidate William Holly.

Another central component of his research is based on the 1978 Congressional passage of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act (AIRFA), which protects the rights of Native Americans to exercise their traditional religions by ensuring access to sites, and the federal case Wilson v. Block, one of the first cases to use AIRFA as a means to protect sacred, but public, lands from development.

“Wilson became kind of a guide for Indigenous nations on how to use and not use AIRFA for this type of case,” said Holly. “Unfortunately, because the plaintiffs were unsuccessful in their case, it also set a precedent for judges to rule against these types of cases, which has impacted Indigenous lands across the country.”

These conflicts over the San Francisco Peaks are still happening today. For example, Snowbowl ski resort made a proposal to use treated wastewater to make snow, and tribes sued, unsuccessfully, in federal and state courts in the late 2000s. 

Today, there are a few issues Holly is following, including the further expansion of the ski area and a company that hopes to create a forest of memorial trees — trees grown with cremated human remains — on the peaks.

“Putting human remains on the peaks is very taboo to some of the nations that hold that ground sacred,” said Holly. “My hope is that my research connects the past with the present and maybe sheds some light on why these places are sacred, why they need to be protected and how we can work towards protecting them.”

Julian Lim, associate professor of history and Holly’s dissertation chair, is happy to see his work being recognized with the scholarship.

“Paying attention to the diverse stakeholders in the region, both Native and non-Native, William is exploring important questions about land, community, culture and law that reshaped Flagstaff's tourist industry,” said Lim. “His research on relations between the Navajo, Hopi, non-Indigenous residents and various federal agencies not only connects local histories to broader themes in the history of the U.S. West, but also promises to deepen our understanding of Indigenous activism in the second half of the 20th century.”

The research scholarship will allow Holly to spend time this summer in the special collections archive at Cline Library at NAU. The archives contain tourism and tourist marketing for the area and legal documents concerning the Hart Prairie controversy — the decadelong fight to prevent Summit Properties and its parent corporation, the Post Company, from developing the more than 350 acres of land in the Hart Prairie area of the San Francisco Peaks.

“I would be out of line if I did not give credit to my wife and our kids,” said Holly. “They have been supportive and patient with this whole process, and that is not an easy thing to do. Sarah, my wife, has also been very helpful in letting me bounce ideas off of her, and for giving me feedback and support when I need it. I also want to acknowledge Dr. Julian Lim. She has been the best mentor I could ask for, and I cannot thank her enough for her guidance and enthusiasm for this project.”

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