SUPERIOR, AZ—Just minutes from Oak Flat campground in Arizona’s Tonto National Forest, a rough gravel road took us to what appeared to be a nondescript patch of dry land slightly sunken into the earth. No one was around, but a few pickup trucks were parked nearby and a construction tower hovered over the site with a sign reading “Private Property—RC.” RC stands for Resolution Copper, a mining company that recently began construction in the area. We got out of the car. Vansler Standingfox expressed his dismay at the scene as he took it in.
“I’ve never seen this place without water,” he said. “We used to swim in here. This has always been a pond. Where is the stream? Did they reroute this? What did they do?”
Standingfox is an artist and a father who dabbles in tribal politics. He is also a young leader in the Apache Stronghold, a nonprofit organization committed to stopping Resolution Copper, a joint venture owned by Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton, from mining the sacred Oak Flat area near Superior, Arizona; a place he, his family, and thousands of other Apache people have always revered as a special ceremonial place.
“Can somebody take a picture?” Standingfox said after staring at the absence of water for a few more minutes. He took out his phone and started texting. “We need to contact our lawyers. They’re not supposed to do this. I don’t think they can do this. This is so messed up.”
The dried-up pond and stream, Standingfox explained, was one of only a few uncontaminated water sources in the region. Local wildlife relied on it as a main water source.
“We even saw a black bear here recently,” Standingfox said.
He pointed to a couple of small turtles that were poking their heads in and out of a 3-inch pool of muddy water, the deepest visible remnant of the recently flowing stream.
“I wonder how long they will survive,” he thought out loud.
The Apache Stronghold and their allies have been working to prevent the Resolution Copper mine from destroying Oak Flat, or Chi’chil Bidagoteel as they know it, for many years. Their efforts garnered widespread attention in 2015 when the Apache gathered en masse to march and camp at the site, demonstrating their commitment to protecting the area shortly after Arizona’s Republican senators, John McCain and Jeff Flake, initiated a deal in which Oak Flat, a part of the Tonto National Forest, was sold to Rio Tinto Group and BHP Billiton Ltd. as part of a last-minute land exchange added to a rider on the National Defense Authorization Act.
As the Apache spoke up about Oak Flat, indigenous people across the country watched closely. This idea of indigenous people banding together to legally and physically protect an area from outside threats helped inspire another even bigger movement: the #NoDAPL or “Rezpect Our Water” prayer camps in North Dakota where thousands have gathered near the Standing Rock Indian Reservation to keep a potentially disastrous pipeline away from the Missouri River.
From the Apache in Arizona to the Sioux in Standing Rock, the emergence of a collective indigenous demand for environmental protections has become a uniting point for all tribes. Perhaps now more than ever, people are paying attention to the political battles that indigenous people face daily to protect the health of their nations and the integrity of their lands.
“We are so diverse, and our beliefs and culture are so different from tribe to tribe,” Wendsler Nosie Sr., a San Carlos Apache Tribal Councilman, former chairman of the tribe, spiritual teacher, older brother of Vansler Standingfox, and a long-time grassroots leader in protecting Apache sacred sites, explained. “If there’s one thing we do all have in common it’s that we respect the Earth, and we are all fighting for our land.”
Nosie Sr. pointed out, as Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s chairman David Archambault II has also stated along with many other tribal leaders, that indigenous people are fighting these environmental battles unselfishly.
“Native people are not only standing up for native people, but for all people in this country,” Nosie Sr. said. “What’s at stake here is preserving life and wellbeing for future generations.”
The environment as a global concern is what has motivated Nosie Sr. to support and visit the prayer camps at Standing Rock to show solidarity, as many tribes have, with their efforts.
“We do not compete with Standing Rock or any other tribe for attention to our issues,” he said. “A win for one is a win for us all. We respect each other’s holy places. The most important thing is to stand in solidarity and to remember that this is a spiritual fight. If you can’t be there, pray.”
By win, Nosie Sr. isn’t only refering to drawing mainstream media attention to the issues and the tribal nations’ struggles. He’s referring to wins in federal court, whether it be in regards to land rights, water rights, or other legal issues at stake. All tribes maintain a nation-to-nation relationship with the federal government, and often a legal decision for one tribe sets precedent for other tribe’s future legal battles. Since the founding of the United States, it’s been in the tribes’ interest to bolster their sovereignty through gaining rights in court. This isn’t always easy, as U.S. courts and the court of public opinion often don’t see the world the same way that the tribes do. This clash in worldviews has long exacerbated the challenges faced by Apache in their struggle to save Oak Flat.
For the Apache and their allies who have come to understand their culture, Chi’chil Bildagoteel is their Vatican, their Mount Sinai, their Mecca. For them, it is among the most sacred places in the word. It is the place where many bring their babies immediately after they are born so that they have the opportunity to begin their lives the right way. It is the place where Apache teenagers have undergone coming-of-age ceremonies since time immemorial. It is a place where they cleanse, where they gather medicines, and where they pray in their traditional way. For the Apaches, it has always been this place.
Unlike comparable holy sites around the world, however, the Apaches have never placed a permanent structure on Chi’chil Bildagoteel because in their eyes, to develop this land would be to desecrate it.
For the Australian-British multinational corporation Resolution Copper, the fact that there are no developments or buildings on Oak Flat is part of the reason why they do not believe that the Apaches revere it to the degree that they claim. To them, Oak Flat is a piece of property in central Arizona, 100 miles east of Phoenix, that is worth millions of dollars in untapped ore for the company and untold dollars in campaign donations for their political allies. Fusion reached out to Resolution Copper for comment multiple times, but they did not reply.
The area is technically not on any of the nine Apache reservations, which legally makes the fight to save it more challenging for the tribe. But then again, the Apache are not the only entity who value it.
“In our opinion and by fact, it is a very environmentally destructive project and mining method and we are very much not only concerned about it but we want it stopped,” said Roy Chavez, former mayor of Superior, Arizona, retired miner, and chairperson of the Concerned Citizens Retired Miners Coalition of Arizona, a nonprofit dedicated to stopping Resolution Copper from mining Oak Flat.
Chavez explained that while he does not oppose all mining efforts, he is staunchly against the destruction of Oak Flat.
“It would take out where we’re standing,” Chavez explained while set up near the entrance of the Oak Flat campground with a scaled model of the project an engineer had made based off Resolution Copper’s own plans. The model shows the Oak Flat campground situated near the edge of a future crater.
“I’ll tell you what, McCain has never seen this model,” Chavez guessed. “Anybody in their right mind who saw this would say ‘what the hell—who’s letting this happen?’”
Technically, Oak Flat is public land held under the protection of the Tonto National Forest Service. It holds recreational and natural value for many, just like any other national or state park. The site first came under special protection of the federal government in 1955 when President Eisenhower signed an executive order closing the area off from mining due to its cultural and natural value. In 1971, the Interior Department, under Richard Nixon, renewed the mining ban.
It remained undisturbed until 2014, when Congress, led by Arizona’s senators, put together a back-door deal that handed the parcel over to Resolution Copper by sneaking a land swap negotiation into the defense bill. Opponents to the deal said the swap wouldn’t have gone through except that the last-minute rider didn't have to face public scrutiny like several previous failed attempts to initiate a land swap. John McCain has argued that the mine would provide nearly 4,000 jobs and would benefit the state of Arizona by adding $60 billion to the economy.
In the deal, 5,300 acres of private land owned by Resolution Copper / Rio Tinto (the companies already mine significantly in areas surrounding Oak Flat) were traded for 2,400 acres of Forest Service land above the copper deposit, including Oak Flat.
Since then, Senator Bernie Sanders, out of respect for Apache interests and in opposition to McCain’s deal, introduced the Save Oak Flat Act, which repeals Section 3003 of the Southeast Arizona Land Exchange Act of the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act.
Most recently, in a small victory for the Apache, in March the National Park Service officially acknowledged the historic significance of the site, listing it as the Chi’chil Bildagoteel Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places.
Some were not happy with this designation. Representative Paul Gosar, R-AZ, released a statement indicating that the designation was “sabotaging an important mining effort.”
There is no clear political supporter in the fight to save Oak Flat, and Nosie Sr. said that in Arizona, the upcoming election is lose-lose. Arizona Democratic candidate for senate, Ann Kirkpatrick is also in favor of developing Oak Flat.
Health concerns are another reason the Apache hope Democrats can retake the Senate, so allies like Sanders can continue to support them with even more of an impact. Under Republican control, the efforts have been stifled.
“If the Senate remains dominated by Republicans, they’ll never look at the [Save Oak Flat Act],” Nosie Sr. said.
Meanwhile, the Apache Stronghold will continue to work toward solutions, thinking of ways to collaborate with other tribal nations and capitalize on the resurgence of interest in indigenous environmental issues.
“This country was founded on religious freedom,” Nosie Sr. said. “And when John McCain made this backdoor deal with a foreign mining company, he undermined the religious freedom of the Apache but also of all Americans.”
Chelsey Luger writes about indigenous people and the things that matter to them. She is an enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, a lifelong Ninja Turtle fanatic, and hopes to raise a pet turtle one day.