The air full of chants and the beating of drums, hundreds marched from San Carlos, Arizona to the Oak Flat Campground this weekend to protest the proposed building of a copper mine on sacred Native American land.
The march, which lasted two rainy days, ended on Saturday at Oak Flat with a ceremonial blessing of the land and speeches from tribal leaders. An evening music festival accompanied a traditional, Apache dinner.
The march to Oak Flat marks the third year the Apache Indian Tribe has battled against a land exchange that places their sacred site into the hands of two of the largest mining corporations in the world.
While the land exchange has already passed through Congress, some politicians are taking steps to try and reverse it. Rep. Raúl Grijalva plans to reintroduce the Save Oak Flat Act to Congress this year with the support of Bernie Sanders, according to Ruben Reyes, a spokesperson for Grijalva. The bill aims to immediately reverse the exchange of sacred Oak Flat land and protect the entire Oak Flat area against the Resolution Copper mining project.
Located east of Phoenix in the Tonto National Forest, Oak Flat is an outdoor recreation area that’s popular for camping, hiking and rock climbing. Home to places of historical and ritual significance such as Apache Leap and Devil's Canyon, Native Americans consider the land to be a sacred place of prayer and ceremony where Apaches have gone for generations.
“Arizona and the indigenous lands seem to be a main target for the greed of mankind to go in and do with it as they feel,” said James Uqualla, a medicine man from the Havasupai Indian Tribe. “And they don’t realize that, though it seems desolate to the main world, we were divinely placed into some very profound, sacred lands that we are meant to watch over.”
The controversial land exchange was part of an amendment attached to the National Defense Authorization Act of 2015, an unrelated bill passed by congress which outlines the U.S. Department of Defense’s budget every fiscal year. The last-minute amendment (attached by Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake) facilitated giving 2,400 acres of the Tonto National Forest to Resolution Copper, an underground copper mine, in exchange for several other parcels.
Owned by British-Australian mining companies Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton, Resolution Copper has wanted Oak Flat for over a decade due to the rich copper deposits that lie beneath it, one of the largest untapped deposits of copper in the world. For years, the land exchange has been shot down in Washington, D.C. due to environmental concern and the sacred nature of the land. After being attached to the must-pass NDAA, however, the land exchange passed through Congress with little opposition.
“It’s funny because this administration is all supposedly pro-American jobs and all this stuff, yet why would they tolerate giving this resource away to foreign mining corporations,” said Tucson activist Dwight Metzger. “They’ve shown they don’t have regard for the earth, they don’t have regard for human life…they don’t care about the environmental protection laws.”
In addition to destroying sacred land, the mine poses environmental concerns. Due to the mining method, water and ore will be extracted below ground creating large “caves” that the surface land will collapse into, leaving a waste pit roughly the size of Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport.
It would be the largest copper mine in North America, and its daily water usage would be the same as that of the city of Tempe.
As of Feb. 7, the Apache tribe has occupied Oak Flat for three years in protest against the land exchange. Despite efforts to shut the occupation down, Apache wickiups stand tall year-round at Oak Flat.
"I’ve been camping here for two years,” Apache spiritual leader Anthony Logan said.
Logan marched on Washington, D.C. and sang prayers in front of the Capitol Building to protest the land exchange in 2015.
“This is a holy place,” he said. “This is where I come to sing.”
In a speech to the crowd gathered at Oak Flat, Apache leader and former Tribal Chairman Wendsler Nosie Sr. reaffirmed his faith in the movement to protect his tribe’s sacred land.
“We do have a long struggle, we all do," Nosie said. "But it’s a struggle that we can overcome.”
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