Mike Jackson, leader of the Quechan Indians, looked out past his tribe's casino and the modern sprawl of Yuma and pointed to the sandy flatlands and the rust-colored Gila mountain range shimmering in the distance.
"They came this way," he said, describing how his ancestors followed the winding course of the Colorado River and ranged over hundreds of kilometers of what is now western Arizona and southeastern California. "There's a lot of important history here, both for the Quechan and the US."
And if it is up to him, that history will go a long way in determining the future of this corner of the West, one of the fastest-growing parts of the country and a place where developers are increasingly running up against newly powerful but tradition-minded American Indian leaders like Jackson.
As president of the Quechans for the last decade, he is leading a new kind of Indian war, this time in the courts. The battlegrounds are ancient sites like the religious circles, burial grounds and mountaintops across the West that Indians hold sacred and that are protected by federal environmental and historic preservation laws. After successful smaller battles, Jackson is challenging a bigger project, arguing that the construction of a planned US$4 billion refinery in Arizona could destroy sites sacred to his tribe.
What makes this case different from more traditional fights between Indians and developers is that the refinery is not on the Quechan reservation or even next to it. In fact, the refinery is planned on a parcel of land some 63km to the east, on the other side of Yuma and the Gila mountain range. But Jackson and the tribe's lawyers argue that before the land can be transferred to the company building the refinery, Arizona Clean Fuels, or construction can start, an exhaustive archaeological and cultural inventory must take place.
The Quechans are not a large tribe. Also known as the Yuma Indians (they prefer the name Quechan, which means "those who descended"), they number about 3,300. Their reservation on the California-Arizona border covers roughly 113km2, a small fraction of the size of lands the federal government set aside more than a century ago for better-known nations like the Apaches or Navajos.
Jackson has already stopped two planned projects - a low-level nuclear dump and a US$50 million gold mine on the California side of the border - both also well away from the Quechan reservation. This year, he helped defeat the nomination to a federal appellate court of a Bush administration official who favored the mine.
Like the land itself, the fight over the refinery reflects a tangle of cultures and centuries of bitterness between Indians and newcomers. Jackson says it is about respect for Quechan culture and a new willingness on the part of Indians to stand up to the local establishment after centuries of not having a say.
Business and political leaders in Yuma argue that it is little more than a land grab by Jackson, a dubious attempt by the tribe to block much-needed development and assert claims to territory lost long ago. What is more, says Glenn McGinnis, chief executive of Arizona Clean Fuels, a preliminary inspection failed to turn up evidence of ruins near the site, which was privately owned for decades by local farmers but was later bought by the federal government to acquire water rights.