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Photo courtesy Apache Stronghold

Recently, a delegation of San Carlos Apache tribal members resolutely stood in front of the Capitol steps and spoke of the threat to Oak Flat, a holy site to the Apache people. They had traveled more than 2,000 miles from Arizona, staying with various tribes and friends, educating the public about a gross violation that occurred with the passage of the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) last December.

The Apache people have performed coming-of-age ceremonies for young women at Oak Flat since time immemorial; it is a place inextricably tied to their culture and identity. The importance of Oak Flat even managed to reach the ears of the Executive during the Indian Termination era – in 1955, President Dwight Eisenhower designated Oak Flat closed to all mining due to its cultural significance.

Nizhoni Pike, 14, left, and Naelyn Pike, 16, stand in front of the Capitol. Photo courtesy Tara Houska.
Nizhoni Pike, 14, left, and Naelyn Pike, 16, stand in front of the Capitol. Photo courtesy Tara Houska.

But under Oak Flat lies one of the largest copper deposits in North America. Resolution Copper, a mining company jointly held by Britain’s BHP Copper and Australia’s Rio Tinto, has been after the site for years. Over the course of a decade, Rio Tinto repeatedly lobbied Congress to pass legislation that would allow them to mine Oak Flat. Again and again, they failed to garner enough support on either side of the aisle.

By 2014, Rio Tinto was tired of waiting. Operating under a temporary suspension of the rules, the Southeast Arizona Land Exchange and Conservation Act was added as a rider to the NDAA. The Act gave 2,400 acres of national forest land to Resolution Copper, including Oak Flat. The rider method allowed a bypass of a house floor vote on the additional provision, and instead sent the entire must-pass NDAA over for one hour of consideration. It became law on December 19, 2014.

The block cave mining method chosen by Rio Tinto will cause the destruction of the chosen drilling location. A cubic mile will be dug from beneath Oak Flat, resulting in the overhead land to crack and cave in. Although Rio Tinto is required to consult with Native Americans, the consultation takes place after the land exchange is complete, and the fact remains that the site will ultimately be no more.

Rio Tinto has been quiet about the 40,000 acre-feet of water per year the mining operation will require; for reference, that’s roughly 11 trillion gallons of water, the amount needed for California to recover from the current drought. For a state that has dramatically increasing concerns over lack of water, one wonders at the decision to further task such a limited resource.

The destruction of Oak Flat will signify a continued history of dispossessing lands from Native Americans and disregard for Native religions. Though Oak Flat is part of the Tonto National Forest, it is through no fault of the Apaches that their sacred site was not included in the boundaries of the reservation. Indeed, the nearby Apache Leap is so named for the Apache people that jumped from the mountain to their deaths rather surrender to U.S. troops in the late 1800s.

But there is a glimmer of hope. On June 16, Representative Raul Grijalva (D-AZ) introduced H.R. 2811, the Save Oak Flat Act. The legislation would repeal the NDAA rider and prevent the destruction of a sacred site.

“Indigenous people aren’t dust under the carpet, they can’t keep pretending we’ve been swept away and don’t exist,” said 16-year old San Carlos Apache member Naelyn Pike. Her 14-year old sister Nizhoni went through the coming-of-age ceremony last October.

“I know they can hear us and they’re watching,” Naelyn continued, “when we walked here from the White House, we were followed by the CIA, the police, and undercover people…they were afraid of us.”

The gathering at the Capitol was a mixture of Native Americans clad in Oak Flat t-shirts and business suits alike, curious tourists, and watchful security. The Indians were in D.C., and they were angry. The U.S. government was continuing its long history of taking from Native Americans, and it had almost gotten away with it sans mainstream scrutiny.

But the spotlight is on. Despite the efforts of Congressional members to diminish the site to a “campground”, more and more attention is being brought to the rider that quietly passed in December. Environmental organizations, churches, local mining groups, and the media are joining the cause to save a Native American sacred site.

Destruction of a holy site that can never be replaced, even if unfamiliar to traditional notions of Westernized religion, does not sit well.  The United States obliterating the culture of peoples who have endured government-sponsored genocide and assimilation isn’t appealing. Giving part of a national forest to a foreign mining operation seems irrational at best.

As for Naelyn and Nizhoni Pike, “Oak Flat is our future, and when we go back we will continue to occupy and protect what is ours.”

*Note: This is a cross-post of an article originally published in Indian Country Today 

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