On Thanksgiving Day 2019, Wendsler Nosie, a San Carlos Apache who has served his people as a tribal council member and chairman, began a three-day walk from his house on the San Carlos Apache Reservation to Oak Flat, a traditional sacred Apache place now within the Tonto National Forest in Arizona. A stately and ancient grove linked to an oasis-like riparian corridor in the northeastern Sonoran Desert, Oak Flat is replete with historic cultural evidence and handed-down stories of residence and reliance by Apaches and other Native Americans.
Called Chí’Chil Biłdagoteel (“a broad flat of Emory oak trees”) in the Apache language, Oak Flat is threatened by Resolution Copper, a subsidiary of foreign conglomerates Rio Tinto and BHP. (Despite its self-professed “relationship management” with Indigenous peoples, Rio Tinto was behind the knowing destruction of 46,000-year-old Aboriginal sacred places in Western Australia last month, for which it is “not sorry.” Before Thursday of last week, BHP had planned at a different location to destroy at least 40 ancient Aboriginal places.) For its part, Resolution Copper is intent on making Oak Flat into the largest copper mine in North America. In defense against the proposed irrevocably destructive mine, Nosie has reclaimed his homeland and he plans to stay put, indefinitely.
The late US Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) attempted to ridicule Nosie and his fellow Apache defenders by claiming that Oak Flat only became a sacred place in reaction to the mining proposal. Rep. Paul Gosar (R-AZ-4) also tried to add insult to injury by claiming that Apaches and other American Indians are “wards of the government” and must do as they are told. Such political pronouncements obscure the historical record and misguide other Americans.
Apache resistance to encroachments on their ecologically unique lands began prior to the Civil War. The US government and military coveted Apache lands in the Southwest. Eventually, territorial governments and military officials aligned with business boosters to kill and remove Apaches, by whatever means necessary, to access and take their lands, bountiful natural resources, including water, and other riches. Every effort was made to protect mining interests at the expense of Apaches and their livelihoods, including those at Oak Flat.
It was precisely in this part of Arizona that, in 1864, US Army General James Carleton ordered the Apaches’ “removal to a Reservation or by the utter extermination of their men, to insure a lasting peace and security of life to all those who go to the country in search of precious metals.”
Such genocidal American orders were well known to the Apaches. As one competent interpreter and soldier presciently observed in 1868, “The Apaches entertain the greatest possible dread of our discoveries of mineral wealth in their country. They have had experience enough to assure them that the possession of lucre is the great incentive among us to stimulate what is termed―‘enterprise.’ They know and feel that wherever mineral wealth exists to such an extent as to render it available, the white man fastens upon it with ineradicable tenacity.”
For the various surviving Apache families forced onto reservations, it was obvious that miners and their military allies would stop at nothing. Given Apache tenacity in battling invasions and US military forces, it is bitter irony that the San Carlos Apache Tribe actively and successfully opposed this mine for years until last-minute inclusion of an appropriations rider by McCain and other lawmakers under the influence of Resolution Copper in the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act.
Apaches view McCain’s dirty sleight of hand, during one of the daredevil showdowns over federal government functions that have come to define US politics, as another cowardly stab in their back. McCain previously sponsored, in the waning days of the Reagan administration, the desecration of the Apaches’ sacred mountain, Dził nchaa si’an (“Big seated mountain,” aka Mount Graham), in a last-minute rider to an appropriations bill to install a compound of big telescopes in the middle of the endangered Mount Graham red squirrel’s critical habitat.
This current struggle over Oak Flat shows no sign of ending. A recent appraisal revealed taxpayers are on the hook for a $112 billion giveaway for the land swap upon which Resolution Copper’s scheme hinges. The National Forest Service is currently processing the 34,000 citizen commentsprovided in response to its Draft Environmental Impact Statement. The National Congress of American Indians formally condemns the mine. Op-ed columns continue to relate Oak Flat’s sacredness to Christian holy places, where such a massive government-approved act of desecration and obliteration would be out of the question.
For Apaches, as for most Indigenous peoples globally, sacred places are also biodiversity hotspots. The environmental risks and impacts to the surrounding landscape associated with copper mining in this region are tremendous. Apaches understand and firmly believe that the tons of earth, water, and minerals at Oak Flat that the current mining company seeks to privatize and extract only fulfill their essential natural roles in this world if they remain unmolested in that place.
Indeed, home, lands, water, and the protection of essential places are at the center of Apache resistance to Resolution Copper and other colonial oppressors. As Apache elder Annie Peaches stated in 1978, “The land makes people live right. The land looks after us. The land looks after people.”
On March 4, 2016, the US National Parks Service agreed with Apaches’ nomination to list Chí’Chil Biłdagoteel (Oak Flat) Historic District Traditional Cultural Property (TCP) in the National Register of Historic Places. It is not only official US government approved proof of Apache families’ deep connections to this place but also acknowledges the landscape’s unique natural, cultural, historical, and enduring national significance.
It is important to understand the history on which the current Apache resistance rests and recognize that it is morally necessary to return such looted territorial spoils of a genocidal U.S. government campaign to the Apache people.
In March of this year, Apaches brought to Congress further details of their opposition to the proposed copper mine. Nosie was a key witness in the Apaches’ public testimony before the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Indigenous Peoples of the United States. As Nosie explained to all concerned: “We need to begin to treat these places like home.”
J.R. Welch contributed to this article.