Oak Flat, a beautiful mountainous area in Arizona’s Tonto National Park, is not only a popular spot to hike and camp, it is also considered holy land to the Apache tribe in the area. The land is a part of the identity of the Western Apache – a place where deities are said to reside. This sacred area is now being threatened by what is suggested to be one of the largest copper mining operations in the United States.
For years, the Resolution Copper company has sought to acquire this land because beneath the surface is one of the largest untapped copper reserves in North America. The ownership of the land is set to be transferred within 60 days to Resolution Copper, due to a deal that was created in 2014.
This transfer is not going through without a fight. Apache Stronghold, a non-profit organization comprised of mining opponents, filed a lawsuit on January 12 to challenge the land transfer stating that it “violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and Apaches’ constitutional rights to religious freedom, due process, and petition and remedy, and is a breach of trust and fiduciary duties.” The group had also filed an emergency lien on the land stating that the United States gave the Apache rights to the site according to an 1852 treaty between the two groups.
Oak Flat has been regarded as a place of divine revelation for thousands of years. A place where people gathered for ceremonies, retreats, and prayer. Despite knowing how important this land is to many people, money seems to be the most important objective. Destroying a beautiful piece of land is apparently justifiable if there is an opportunity for money to be made. If the land transfer goes through, Resolution Copper stated that the mining would not begin anytime soon, perhaps not until a decade from now. Even so, transferring land to a private company creates a sense of uneasiness amongst mining opponents.
There are many negative consequences that would occur from the land mining with the main one being a complete devastation of Oak Flat and the potential runoff that could contaminate downstream aquifers. It may also harm a nearby population of endangered Arizona hedgehog cactus and other species like the yellow-billed cuckoo and endangered Gila chub. The repercussions of mining this area would be serious, destroying much of the land that is considered sacred to the Apache.
On January 10, many western Apache and opponents of the mine gathered to Oak Flat to hold a ceremony and pray for strength as they fight to protect their land. This isn’t just a fight to preserve one sacred piece of land – it can be seen as a fight for all. The oppression of Native Americans actively continues despite promises to listen to their voices and concerns. What happens at Oak Flat may be an indication of how Native American sites are going to protected moving forward. So the fight continues, as it should, for Native American voices to be heard and for their rights to be acknowledged and respected.