Indigenous nations are continuing their fight against a proposed copper mine at a sacred Apache site in Arizona – a six year battle which has lasted through three administrations.
On March 1, the U.S. Department of Agriculture rescinded their approval for a proposed copper mine which threatens land sacred to the San Carlos Apache and other indigenous tribes. The USDA move came just days before the agency was set to transfer 2,400 acres of federal land for the project. However, the San Carlos Apache and the Apache Stronghold do not believe the battle over Oak Flat is over.
Some of the lands are considered sacred by multiple Native American communities, including the Oak Flat campground. The area is not recognized as part of the San Carlos Apache Reservation, but it has historically been used by the Apache for trading purposes and spiritual ceremonies. The Oak Flat area holds particular significance among the San Carlos Apaches, as it is near the Apache Leap cliffs where Apaches jumped to their death to avoid capture by American troops in the 1870s.
As a result of the last minute withdrawal of the “Final Environmental Impact Statement”, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals denied an appeal of a previous ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Steven Logan. The appeal and lawsuit were filed by the advocacy group Apache Stronghold, which had sought to force a vote by the U.S. Forest Service in an effort to stop the project. When the Biden Administration withdrew the statement the court was forced to rule against the tribes. Prior to this withdrawal, the giveaway of Oak Flat would have happened by March 11, 2021.
“The U.S. Government’s last-minute pickup of its dirty dealing at Oak Flat just temporarily paused the emergency before the 9th Circuit Court,” said Apache Stronghold attorney Michael Nixon. “While the Government reshuffles, we look ahead to a straighter deal in court, both for the Apaches’ religious freedom and for their 1852 Treaty rights to the land at Oak Flat.”
The Apache Stronghold formed in December 2015 in response to a last-minute legislative provision included in the the National Defense Authorization Act of 2015. The provision at issue in the annual Defense Department funding bill grants Resolution Copper Mining, a subsidiary of Australian-English mining giant Rio Tinto, a 2,400-acre land parcel in Arizona where it will create the continent’s largest copper mine – this includes parts of the protected Tonto National Forest. The project was supported by former Arizona Senator John McCain and Jeff Flake. The Stronghold set up camp on the site in February 2015 and pledged not to leave until the deal is dead.
Although the court denied the Apache Stronghold appeal, Appellate Judge Bumatay indicated that he believed the San Carlos Apache have the law on their side. “It is no overestimation to say that Oak Flat is the spiritual lifeblood of the Western Apache peoples, connecting them to the Creator since before the founding of the Nation,” Bumatay wrote. “The law affords the Western Apaches more than promises. … Apache Stronghold has established a strong likelihood of success on the merits.”
San Carlos Apache Chairman Terry Rambler said the withdrawal was the “right move” by the USDA. “The Resolution project will desecrate Chich’il Bildagoteel, also known as Oak Flat, which is the heart of our religious and cultural beliefs,” Rambler said in a statement. Rambler also noted that the San Carlos Apache are already suing the U.S. government for approving the copper mine on January 15. The statement was one of the last actions taken by the Trump administration. “As noted in our federal lawsuit, the U.S. Forest Service failed to follow the law in the preparation of a sham final environmental impact statement that was being used to justify trading away our sacred land to further enrich wealthy foreign mining companies.”
On March 15, U.S. Rep Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.) announced the introduction of the Save Oak Flat Act to permanently protect the Oak Flat area of Tonto National Forest from destructive mining proposals. Grijalva said he plans to move the bill forward to protect the land and “establish that you don’t get to push around Native American communities just because you can make a profit.”
Despite the new bill and the withdrawal of the environmental impact statement, the Apache Stronghold are planning on continuing the fight. “No this isn’t the end of our Battle. If we have to argue and protect our religious rights and it takes us to the Supreme Court, we are ready,” Wendsler Nosie Sr., chairman of the Apache Stronghold, told TLAV. “Indian country has been suppressed for over 500 years from federal policies. It must end so that native people can freely exercise our religious beliefs.”
Nosie said those who are concerned about the fight to save Oak Flat can help by contacting the U.S. Senate and the House to support the Save Oak Flat Act.
Watch this 2015 mini-documentary from Derrick Broze and The Conscious Resistance Network on the fight to save Oak Flat.