San Carlos Apache Leader: ‘What Was a Struggle to Protect Our Most Sacred Site Is Now a Battle’
Washington lawmakers may think their passage of a bill giving the San Carlos Apache Tribe’s sacred land to a giant international mining company is a done deal, but they may have to think again.
The San Carlos Apache Tribe is organizing an all-out campaign to stop the transfer of Oak Flat, its 2,400-acre sacred ceremonial and burial site since time immemorial, to Resolution Copper, a subsidiary of the giant global mining corporation Rio Tinto. San Carlos wants to protect the land and water from the almost certain devastation of Resolution’s proposed massive underground copper mine, and preserve its natural state. San Carlos Chairman Terry Rambler told Indian Country Today Media Network.
“We’re not giving up on our sacred land,” Rambler said. “A law can be passed but a law can also be repealed or revised or amended. What was a struggle to protect our most sacred site is now a battle.”
With the San Carlos council’s commitment, the tribe is pursuing a four-pronged approach to saving Oak Flat: grassroots, legislative and legal action, and an educational outreach campaign to teach lawmakers and the public about the irreversible destruction the copper mine would cause. Legal action in an international venue such as the Organization of American States’ Inter-American Court of Human Rights will be an option, Rambler said.
The ironically-named Southeast Arizona Land Exchange and Conservation Act of 2013 (H.R. 687), gave the 2,400-acre sacred site to Resolution Copper in exchange for several parcels of land scattered around the state of Arizona. The bill was attached as a rider to the annual must-pass National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), passed in the Senate by a vote of 89-11 on December 11 and signed into law by President Barack Obama on December 19.
Oak Flat is part of the Tonto National Forest, rugged and spectacularly beautiful land that is one of the most visited public forests in the country. The land was placed in trust as a public forest in 1905 primarily to protect its watersheds around reservoirs, according to the Forest Service.
The land has been home to Indigenous Peoples since pre-historic times, according to the Forest Service. “A twenty-year struggle with the U.S. Army ensued (approximately 1866-1886), resulting in the removal of both the Apache and Yavapai to reservations at San Carlos and Fort Apache. Today the White Mountain and San Carlos Apache reservations border the forest on the east with the Tonto Apache Reservation located inside the forest at Payson, and the Fort McDowell Yavapai Reservation situated along the southwest edge. The Apache in particular still use the forest for gathering wild plants and other traditional practices.”
San Carlos is determined to keep using their ancestral land, Rambler said. “We’ve been strategizing and further strategizing … and right now we’re starting with or grassroots folks in the local area,” he said.
Local activists have called for a spiritual gathering and occupation of Oak Flat beginning with a two-day march to the site on February 5 and 6. A Holy Ground Ceremony will take place Saturday, February 7. A Facebook page called Save Oak Flat: Indigenous Leaders Present in Tucson has more information about this and other Save Oak Flat events.
In an open letter addressed to tribal leaders everywhere, Rambler calls on Indian people around the country to join the gathering on February 5. “We have a dream that one day our children and their children to follow may freely practice the religious ceremonies that come from our Creator. We must stand together and fight those, like Resolution Copper, that seek to take our religious freedom, our most human right,” he says in his letter. “If we do not, our beliefs, our spiritual lives, the very foundation of our language, our culture and our belief will no longer be in balance, and we will become undone. If we do not, the taking of one people’s human right threatens all human and religious rights.”
In an interview with ICTMN, Rambler said more and more people are speaking out because “they really don’t like what happened and they’re going to make an issue of it so it’s going to build up with other tribes like we’ve done in the past. And while the momentum builds he will continue to go to Washington on behalf of the council to let Congress know that the tribe intends to continue its protest until the land is protected. “We’re not giving up,” he said. “We’re drawing a line in the sand on this one.”