Apache Stronghold caravan seeks to save sacred site from mining giant

The San Carlos Apache community association, Apache Stronghold, held a rally on June 30 in Tucson,  Ariz., to save Oak Flat, a sacred site in the Tonto National Forest that is endangered by a planned copper mine of a goliath mining company. On July 5, Apache Stronghold began a long caravan trek from Tucson to Washington, D.C.  stopping at cities and reservations nationwide to gather support and to request the federal government to support the Save Oak Flat Act, a bill introduced by Arizona congressman, Raul Grijalva, in mid-June.

The Tucson rally was organized by the Indigenous Alliance Without Borders and Tucson Supports Oak Flat to support Apache Stronghold’s efforts to save the sacred site from destruction by a mining mammoth.

The vehicle caravan will be traveling through  Phoenix, Denver, Minneapolis, Chicago, Philadelphia and will arrive in Washington, D.C. on July 21, and will hold a protest rally on the U.S. Capitol lawn on July 22.

This issue is of particular concern to this writer as having lived for several years in Tucson and visited San Carlos Reservation on a number of occasions with friends who were tribal members.   

The background of this valiant struggle is that Oak Flat or Chi’ Bildagoteel in Apache has been used  since time immemorial by the San Carlos Apache Tribe and other tribes in the region for sacred ceremonies and the gathering of medicinal plants. It has been protected from mining since 1955, when President Eisenhower issued an Executive Order to preserve the site culturally and naturally in perpetuity.  

Since 2005, Resolution Copper Mining- a subsidiary of global mining marauders Australian BHP, Billion, Inc., and British Rio Tinto have been trying, through legislation, to obtain a certain 2,400 acres (on which sits Oak Flat) of the Tonto National Forest. This acreage holds a massive copper deposit. The legislation is titled the Southeast Arizona Land Exchange. A dozen versions of the bill had been defeated previously by the tribe.     

But along comes Sen. John McCain , R-Ariz., with a  “dirty trick bag,” which included slipping the land swap through Congress in December by stuffing it into the must-pass National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA),  one of the loathsome government practices that is standard fare for U.S. politics.  

The area, in addition to containing the site sacred to the Apaches, has other lands held dear to hikers, birders and rock climbers.  

The mining villain has admitted that Oak Flat will be “damaged” by the mine. “Damaged” is an understatement as Resolution Copper foresees a two mile wide, 1,000 foot deep crater will result from the mining. Oak Flat, Chi’ Bildagoteel, will be utterly destroyed.

Under the land swap legislation the exchange trades 5,300 acres owned by Resolution for the 2,400 acres of copper rich land in the Forest. The copper mine, if realized, is projected to be largest in North America.  

In February, after learning of the smoky backroom land swap, the Apaches set up a protest encampment at the site to protect it. Weekend events organized by the protesters were attended by supporters , in the hundreds, from Tucson and Phoenix. The protesters demanded a repeal of the underhanded legislation that awarded the thousands of acres to the rapacious mining behemoth.

Native nations, near and far, are backing the Apache resistance. The National Congress of American Indians , the Inter-Tribal Council of Arizona and the National Indian Gaming Association have publicly stated their opposition to the threatened mining invasion and the privatization of land sacred to the Apache and Yavapai peoples.

The opposition of the San Carlos Apache Tribe to the land exchange is based on the following objections:

First, the planned copper mine, which would be nearly two miles beneath the earth’s surface would destroy the tribe’s  place of worship and its  traditional way of life.  

Second, the copper mine would deplete the entire region’s water supply.

And third, the exchange would be a giveaway of tens of billions of dollars of U.S. resources to foreign mining corporations.

As a result of consistent tribal opposition, over the years to the land transfer, the U.S. House was forced to pull the bill from consideration on other occasions in the 113th Congress. But, as this 113th Congress came to a close, sleazy proponents of the shifty exchange crafted a closed-door agreement to include the bill as a rider “Section 3003” in the FY 15 NDAA.  The NDAA is considered must-pass legislation to fund U.S. troops and the Defense Department. The FY 15 passed Congress and was signed as Public Law No. 113-291 by President Obama on December 19, 2014.  

“They declared war on our religion, we must stand in unity and fight to the very end, for this is a holy war,” said Wendsler Nosie  Sr., San Carlos council member and former tribal chairman, on Apache Stronghold’s website.  

The land swap deal is also violative  of the spirit and the language of the American Religious Freedom Act of 1978. Moreover, this  ravenous, hateful land swap took place without any consultation with the tribes. The heinous legislation must be repealed.

Photo: Saving Oak Flat Campground Facebook page


Albert Bender
Albert Bender

Albert Bender is a Cherokee activist, historian, political columnist, and freelance reporter for Native and Non-Native publications. He is currently writing a legal treatise on Native American sovereignty and working on a book on the war crimes committed by the U.S. against the Maya people in the Guatemalan civil war He is a consulting attorney on Indigenous sovereignty, land restoration, and Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) issues and a former staff attorney with Legal Services of Eastern Oklahoma (LSEO) in Muskogee, Okla.