Oak Flat, a land inside Arizona’s Tonto National Forest, has been cherished by the Apache Native American tribe for generations and was hallowed ground for sacred traditions, rite of passage ceremonies and burial services. Recently, that land has come under threat thanks to Republicans and greedy mining corporations.
In the past, the Apache tribe could rest assured that their holy land was protected by the federal government. That was, until an aggressive copper mining project proposed to take over the flat, organized by Resolution Copper and two multinational corporations rooted outside of the U.S.
The mining operation came as a result of the National Defense Authorization Act, a military spending bill that was pushed through at the end of last year. The project was added on at the last minute by Arizona Senators John McCain (R) and Jeff Flake (R) and resulted in 2,400 acres of Arizona (including Oak Flat) being traded for 5,300 acres of their own private land. Federal land isn’t normally given to foreign corporations, and this questionable deal is believed to be one of the first instances of such an agreement taking place.
The deal outraged Arizona’s Native American population, who had long been fighting against Republican attempts to broker agreements just like this over the years. Native Americans are currently doing everything in their power to protest and roll back this agreement, claiming that it shortchanges American taxpayers because profits are being made outside of the United States. Environmentalists and Apache people have also joined in protest because the copper mining project is very hazardous to the area’s water – a sacred element to Native Americans and one that they are spiritually obligated to preserve.
Many Apache Native Americans feel a connection to this land. One Apache woman by the name of Sandra Rambler explained what Oak Flat meant to her: “I have a great-grandmother who is buried at Oak Flat, we want to respect her, let her rest in peace. My granddaughter had a [religious] dance there last year, and I’m hoping that my future grandchildren will dance there as well.”
Because of the tribe’s spiritual connections to Oak Flat, this mining project could be considered a violation of the 1978 American Indian Religious Freedom Act. Under this law, it is the federal government’s duty to protect the religious liberty of Native Americans – sacred sites included.
Carrie Sage Curley, another Apache woman, said: “It’s the same thing as a church. We protect these temples, why can’t we do the same for our sacred land?”
Meanwhile, reps from Resolution Copper are dismissing the Apache tribe’s claims and have been promising to comply with “laws that protect Native American cultural and sacred sites” and the National Environmental Policy Act. Representatives also claim that they will stay clear of “Apache Leap,” a historic site where Apache warriors once hurled themselves off a cliff to avoid surrendering to Americans in 1870.
For obvious reasons, those assurances are not being taken seriously by Native American and environmental groups. They are pushing back against the agreement and gathering reinforcements from federal lawmakers. One of the lawmakers involved, Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ) introduced the “Save Oak Flat Act” in June to protect the sacred grounds from mining. Grijalva’s bill reads:
“As a result of previous Federal land policies that resulted in the significant loss of lands of American Indian tribes, many sacred areas of tribes are now located on Federal lands. The United States has a trust responsibility acknowledged by Congress to protect tribal sacred areas on Federal lands. [The deal] sets dangerous legislative precedent for the lack of protection of tribal sacred areas located on Federal lands … [and] will require significant amounts of water that will likely affect the local hydrology, including the underlying aquifer, and will result in polluted water that will seep into drinking water supplies.”
Although the bill has two dozen cosponsors and an endorsement from the National Congress of American Indians and the Sierra Club, it won’t be an easy win with lawmakers. To raise more awareness for this issue, advocates have recently gotten op-eds in publications such as the New York Times, gathered support from Native American reservations and held protests in New York City. This week in Washington, D.C., the Native American advocacy organization Apache Stronghold put together several protests that included a spiritual “run” through the city, prayer services in front of the White House, and rallies in front of the U.S. Capitol building.
Wendsler Nosie Sr., an Apache elder and former tribal chairman, said during a speech, “We have a freedom of religion. Congress shouldn’t ignore rights of people … It’s not right. Congress should repeal the law.”
Rambler herself was in attendance. Through tears, she said:
“I feel violated — I feel like I’ve been raped. I feel that the earth has been raped. The Native American people are the caretakers of Mother Earth. When she’s violated, we’re violated. When you desecrate the land, you desecrate us. When you take that away, you take away the identity of the Apaches.”
It’s currently uncertain if Congress will repeal the bill that McCain and Flake snuck in, however skeptics are expected considering that throughout American history, Native Americans have been repeatedly robbed of their land. Curley and other protesters aren’t quick to give up, though – they are using their faith for strength. Curley said, “We’re going to win this fight. It’s a spiritual thing, and I know in my spirit, we’re going to win.”
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Opinion columnist and former editor-in-chief of Occupy Democrats. He graduated from Bennington College with a Bachelor's degree in history and political science. He now focuses on advancing the cause of social justice and equality in America.