Don’t let them poison sacred ground

August 4, 2015

Brian Ward reports on a national caravan organized by Apache activists to prevent the latest attempt by Congress to give away sacred land to mining companies.

LAST YEAR, Arizona Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake and Representatives Paul Gosar and Ann Kirkpatrick slipped a clause into the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that would allow for copper mining in the Tonto National Forest that include Apaches sacred sites of Oak Flat and Devil's Canyon.

"[The area is] like Mount Sinai," said Wendsler Nosie Sr., a district council member and former chairman of the San Carlos Apache Tribe. "Tell the people who believe the Bible that... It's no different. Why do we treat it different?"

Nosie is the founder of Apache Stronghold, the organization that has been at the forefront of the fight to save the sites.

Taking a page from the history of American Indian resistance, the group decided to caravan and travel from their homelands in southwestern Arizona all the way to Washington, D.C. to voice their dissent and bring awareness and education along the way.

The name Apache Stronghold is in reference to the name given by American soldiers to place where Geronimo and his band successfully remained undetected for months in their efforts to resist being forced onto a reservation. Despite the hardships, the Stronghold was a sacred place for these Apaches where for a brief time they enjoy their old way of life.

Members of Apache Stronghold at Oak Flat
Members of Apache Stronghold at Oak Flat

The plan to mine these sacred sites is a clear violation of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, passed by Congress in 1978 after years of pressure from the Red Power movement and the American Indian Movement, which states:

That henceforth it shall be the policy of the United States to protect and preserve for American Indians their inherent right of freedom to believe, express, and exercise the traditional religions of the American Indian, Eskimo, Aleut, and Native Hawaiians, including but not limited to access to sites, use and possession of sacred objects, and the freedom to worship through ceremonials and traditional rites.

The provision about the rights to access sacred sites is what often put American Indian at odds with U.S. policy makers and resource corporations. It is one of the most important pieces of legislation that helps protect American Indian cultural rights, and there have been many fights to defend it from mining companies in the Black Hills in South Dakota and Black Mesa in Arizona.

President Eisenhower decreed the Oak Flat region off limits to mining in 1955, a decision Arizona politicians have been trying to reverse ever since. They were never able to get a bill passed on its own, which is why they resorted to sneaking it through the "must-pass" NDAA as Section 3003, the "Southeast Arizona Land Exchange and Conservation Act."

THE COMPANY benefitting from this land grab is the Australian-British based company Resolution Mining, which is part of the British-Australian mining giant Rio Tinto. The bill calls for the company to give the Forest Service 5,300 acres in exchange for 2,400 acres that included the sacred sites.

It should be noted that Rio Tinto has been a huge contributor to McCain and that Flake was a Rio Tinto lobbyist before becoming a senator.

Resolution's plan for "block cave mining" is especially devastating, as Roger Hill explained in Truth Out:

This process involves a series of deep underground detonations, essentially collapsing the mountainous terrain in on itself and extracting the ore and materials from a series of tunnels dug in the earth. This process creates more toxic material than traditional surface mining and produces greater contaminants affecting the groundwater with acid runoff.

Speaking on Democracy Now!, Nosie described how the mining will affect his community:

If you look at the mining coppers towns around us, you know, you see the abundance of contamination. You see how it affected the aquifers and the riverbeds, and then how groundwater has been affected. And then, on top of that, you know, you see how people have lived through mining because there's a lot of ailments that come from that, that people are not aware of. And then, you could look at the cemeteries and look at all the massive graves that come from mining. And so, what really fears us is that it's just an outline on a reservation with now Resolution Copper wanting to do this greater mine that would really destroy the reservation, because now it's going to affect water flow. It's going to affect what is airborne.

Immediately following the passage of this land grab, there was an outpouring of support for the Apaches across Indian Country. The Great Plains Tribal Chairman's Association wrote a letter including asking for Section 3003 to be struck from the NDAA, as did the 57 tribes of the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians.

There is almost full agreement in Indian Country around this issue, and the Apaches are also getting support from many environmental groups.

THE APACHE Stronghold caravan made its way through Lakota reservations in South Dakota to Chicago and then onto New York City, where members staged a flash mob on July 17, singing and dancing in the middle of Times Square. This has been a very popular tactic of the Idle No More movement based in Canada's First Nations communities.

From New York, the activists traveled to its final destination, Washington D.C, where on July 20 they staged a protest on the west lawn of the Capitol building denouncing Congress for its shady tactics.

Hundreds of different tribes and activists around the country met up with the caravan in D.C. Speakers called on Congress to make good on its treaties with Native Nations and end to stop environmental destruction.

Arizona Democratic Representative Raul Grijalva has been a supporter of the protestors and has introduced legislation that would reverse Section 3003. "This is a violation of sacred sites and a violation of trust responsibility," he told the Huffington Post. "And [it] continues a historic pattern of neglecting and overlooking and ignoring the rights of Native people across this country."

Commenting on the range of support that the caravan has received along the way, Ed Becenti of the Navajo Nation told Indian Country Today, "We have been given first-class treatment at every stop. We are not out to criticize or condemn, but to unite as one voice, to come together to protect sacred sites."

Becenti's comments show the importance of solidarity. American Indians cannot take on the Congress and mining behemoths by themselves. And they aren't only fighting for American Indian rights, but against environmental devastation that affects all working people and a destructive economic system that puts profits before the rights of working people and the air that we breathe.

Legislation like the American Indian Religious Freedom Act and Grijalva's bill are important, but laws are worthless if we can't enforce them. The only way we can do that is by continuing to build a movement for Indigenous rights and against environmental destruction that can hold Congress, the White House and their corporate cronies responsible for these violations.

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