In Arizona, a heated struggle over a patch of land has pitted Native Americans against Republicans in Congress as Apaches seek to regain protection for an area considered holy to their people. Members of the San Carlos Apache Nation are fighting tooth and nail to protect the land held as sacred for generations. The land in question, called Oak Flat, is situated about an hour east of Phoenix, and became endangered in December when Republicans slipped some fine print into a military spending bill that allowed Congress to sell away access to the Native holy land to a foreign mining company.
Oak Flat has been under protection since 1955, when President Dwight D. Eisenhower declared the area closed to mining. Despite the legal protections in place for decades, Congress agreed in December 2014 to give Oak Flat to a private, Australian-British mining company. This was made possible when Republican Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake—both of Arizona—added some fine print allowing the trading away of Native American holy land to the National Defense Authorization Act, a military spending bill that would not be held back regardless of what atrocities were attached to it. Resolution Copper Mining aims to turn the sacred land into an open-pit copper mine.
Defenders of Oak Flat have a host of reasons to resist a mining takeover. The Apache want to protect the history and traditions associated with the land they consider holy. Many are concerned about the devastating environmental impact of a large, foreign-owned mine which would create a two-mile-long and thousand-foot-wide chasm after it collapses on itself. The mining company itself likened the effect to a nearby meteor crater. Apache protesters also argue that, since Oak Flat is public land, Congress owes it to citizens to have a public debate prior to surrendering natural resources and sacred lands to foreign interests.
To protest the title transfer and attempt to protect the sacred lands, a group of Apache men, women, and children set up camp at Oak Flat on February 9, and they have not left. Their continued occupation has garnered some attention, but to make sure their protests were being heard, a delegation of around 50 Apache individuals made a pilgrimage to Washington, D.C. this week to speak on Capitol Hill. The protests, led by Wendsler Nosie Sr. and his granddaughter, 16-year-old Naelyn Pike, consisted of speeches, prayers, and songs, vowing to save the land they consider holy. In a separate rally on Tuesday, over 200 supporters joined the Apache Stronghold coalition to show support for a new bill written by Democratic Representative Raúl Grijalva (AZ) that would overturn the previous fine-print rider. The protests weren’t met kindly by Arizona’s Republicans in the capitol and, according to a statement from Apache Stronghold, Republican Representative Paul Gosar threatened to have protestors arrested. The group of “mostly grandmothers and young women” refused to leave the building where his office is located, and the women were then escorted by police from the building.
The movement has gained attention and support from a variety of sources. The Sierra Club, the National Congress of American Indians, and countless other tribes have expressed support for the bill and the Apache people defending their holy land. Last week, protest leaders Nosie and the young Pike brought their grievances on stage and opened for Neil Young, a long-time defender of native rights. The Apache Stronghold even organized a flash mob in New York’s Grand Central Station to raise awareness of the struggle, which we will continue to follow as it unfolds.
Images via Apache Stronghold