Citing Religious Freedom, Native Americans Fight To Take Back Sacred Land From Mining Companies

CREDIT: ThinkProgress/Jack Jenkins

Advocates for the protection of Oak Flat protest outside the U.S. Capitol on July 22, 2015.

For generations, members of the Apache Native American tribe have viewed Oak Flat as a holy, sacred place. Located about an hour due east of Phoenix, Arizona, the land has long served as a site for traditional acorn gatherings, burial services, and rite of passage ceremonies for young women. The flat is tucked inside Arizona’s Tonto National Forest, and has historically been protected by the federal government.

“It’s our sacred land — it’s where we come to pray,” Carrie Sage Curley, an Apache woman, told ThinkProgress.

But last year, the land quietly became something else: A proposed site for a massive copper mining project spearheaded by Resolution Copper, an organization run by two multinational corporations based in the United Kingdom and Australia.

The aggressive mining operation resulted from a last-minute addition to the National Defense Authorization Act, a “must-pass” military spending bill pushed through in December 2014. The language, which was inserted at the 11th hour by Arizona Senators John McCain (R) and Jeff Flake (R), essentially traded Resolution 2,400 acres of Arizona (including Oak Flat) in exchange for 5,300 acres of private land they already own. The swap is believed to be one of the first instances of federal land being given to a foreign corporation.

Arizona’s Native American population was outraged by the deal, having fought against several efforts by Republicans in Congress to broker similar agreements over the years. Some locals have argued that the land grab shortchanges American taxpayers, since profits will go primarily to companies rooted outside the United States. In addition, environmentalists and the Apache people have repeatedly expressed fears that, since the mining industry is often exempt from portions of environmental laws such as the Clean Water Act, the invasive copper mining project could damage the area’s water — a resource many Native Americans claim a spiritual obligation to protect.

“I have a great-grandmother who is buried at Oak Flat — we want to respect her, let her rest in peace,” said Sandra Rambler, an Apache woman from San Carlos, Arizona, told ThinkProgress. “My granddaughter had a [religious] dance there last year, and I’m hoping that my future grandchildren will dance there as well.”

The religious connections to Oak Flat are so powerful that mining the land could constitute a violation of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act. That law, which was passed in 1978, stipulates that the federal government has an obligation to protect the religious liberty of Native Americans — including guaranteeing access to sites they hold sacred.

“It’s the same thing as a church,” Curley said. “We protect these temples, why can’t we do the same for our sacred land?”

Representatives from Resolution Copper have rejected such claims, insisting they intend to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act and “laws that protect Native American cultural and sacred sites.” They also note that the deal doesn’t include any reservation lands and mandates protections for nearby historic site “Apache Leap,” which is reportedly where Apache warriors threw themselves off a cliff rather than surrender to American forces in 1870.

Advocates for the protection of Oak Flat dance outside the U.S. Capitol.

Advocates for the protection of Oak Flat dance outside the U.S. Capitol.

CREDIT: ThinkProgress/Jack Jenkins

But Native Americans and environmental groups remain skeptical of such promises, and several groups are beginning to fight back against the land deal — this time with the help of federal lawmakers. In June, Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ) introduced the “Save Oak Flat Act,” which would protect the land from further mining operations.

“As a result of previous Federal land policies that resulted in the significant loss of lands of American Indian tribes, many sacred areas of tribes are now located on Federal lands,” the bill reads. “The United States has a trust responsibility acknowledged by Congress to protect tribal sacred areas on Federal lands. [The deal] sets dangerous legislative precedent for the lack of protection of tribal sacred areas located on Federal lands … [and] will require significant amounts of water that will likely affect the local hydrology, including the underlying aquifer, and will result in polluted water that will seep into drinking water supplies.”

But while the bill lists 24 bipartisan co-sponsors and is endorsed by both the National Congress of American Indians and the Sierra Club, it is expected to face significant hurdles before it can be considered by lawmakers. As such, Native Americans have begun mobilizing to draw attention to the issue: Over the past few weeks, advocates have solicited op-eds in the New York Times, visited Native American reservations across the country to drum up support, and held dramatic protests in Times Square and at the United Nations in New York City.

The campaign crescendoed this week in Washington, D.C., when a group organized largely by Native American advocacy organization Apache Stronghold staged a series of protest actions over the course of two days. In addition to a procession at Rock Creek Park, Native Americans embarked on a spiritual “run” throughout the city on Tuesday that concluded with a prayer service in front of the White House. And on Wednesday, a hundred or so supporters rallied on the West Lawn in front of the U.S. Capitol building to dance, chant, and give speeches expressing their frustration with the mining project.

“We have a freedom of religion,” Wendsler Nosie Sr., an Apache elder and former tribal chairman, told the crowd. “Congress shouldn’t ignore rights of people … It’s not right. Congress should repeal the law.”

Spirit run participants pray outside the White House on July 21, 2015

Spirit run participants pray outside the White House on July 21, 2015

CREDIT: ThinkProgress/Jack Jenkins

Participants at the rally hailed from a number of different tribes, but they were unanimous in their condemnation of efforts to mine Oak Flat.

“I feel violated — I feel like I’ve been raped,” Rambler said, choking back tears as she spoke about the possible destruction of a place she calls holy. “I feel that the earth has been raped. The Native American people are the caretakers of Mother Earth. When she’s violated, we’re violated. When you desecrate the land, you desecrate us.”

“When you take that away, you take away the identity of the Apaches,” she said.

It remains to be seen whether Congress will repeal what Rambler called the “sneaky rider” that McCain and Flake used to create the controversy. There is ample reason to be skeptical, as American history is rife with examples of Native Americans consistently losing fights with the federal government over land. As the Huffington Post noted this week, Native Americans in Hawaii and California are currently embroiled in efforts to keep outside groups from developing on their sacred spaces.

Yet Curley and other attendees at this week’s protests expressed dogged determination and a surprising degree of righteous optimism, pulling strength from the same source that drew them to Oak Flat in the first place: Their faith.

“We’re going to win this fight,” Curley said. “It’s a spiritual thing, and I know in my spirit, we’re going to win.”