The San Carlos Apache tribe and supporters take on corporate backroom politics in a fight for the sacred lands of Oak Flats
If this were a title fight in the ring, it would be a mismatch—lightweight versus heavyweight: the San Carlos Apache tribe, (reservation population of 10,000) versus the United States Congress and its tag-team partners, Australian-British mining conglomerate Resolution Copper (parent company Rio Tinto) and BHP Copper (BHP Billiton subsidiary).
There’s a lot more than a title belt and bragging rights involved here. Apache tribal members (called Ndeh, The People, whose heritage is tied to Mother Earth) are fighting to save a big chunk of land they have long considered sacred. Resolution Copper just wants what’s under that land and they’re willing to destroy it to get to the prized metals below.
“We’re fighting a multi-billion dollar company as well as our own Congress, so we’re facing power and money and influence,” says Wendsler Nosie, Sr., former tribal chairman and coordinator of the Apache Stronghold protest. “This action constitutes a holy war where tribes must stand in unity and fight to the end.” To which current tribal chairman Terry Rambler adds: “What was once a struggle to protect our most sacred site is now a full-on battle.”
While an immediate reversal of this potential environmental disaster is akin to snowballs in either Hell or Arizona, opposition support is increasing. This is a David versus Goliath clash that Native Americans around the world are watching as momentum gathers for the cause.
In the fall of 2014, Arizona Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake (along with U.S. Reps. Ann Kirkpatrick and Congressman Paul Gosar) teamed up in subterfuge to underhandedly attach a land swap measure, the Southeast Arizona Land Exchange and Conservation Act, to a must-pass National Defense Authorization Act bill in which 2,400 acres of Apache holy land in and around Oak Flat Campground near Superior was covertly exchanged for 5,300 acres already owned by Resolution Copper.
It was a big-time sneak attack that Nosie called “the greatest sin of the world” and the New York Times termed “a sacrilegious and craven sell-off … an impressive new low in congressional corruption.” From the East Coast to the West Coast, dissention began to fester. The Los Angeles Times reported “the long fight over access to the federally-protected land has ignited a feud that has split families and ended lifelong friendships.”
A group called the Arizona Mining Reform Coalition also publicized: “This is the first and only act of Congress that gives a Native American sacred site to a foreign corporation.”
It might be pertinent to note here that McCain and Flake have both received campaign contributions from the multi-national mining operation. McCain points out that Arizona is the largest copper-producing state in the nation and insists that support for the controversial legislation is strong in his home state—depends on who you ask.
McCain further cites that over a six decade life of the proposed mine (reported to involve the largest undeveloped copper resource in the world), it would represent a $60-plus billion project offering employment to 3,700 workers with a payroll in excess of $100 million annually as well as increased local, state and federal tax revenues.
What he neglects to spend a lot of time in explaining is the fact that in the process of extracting this ore, the massive machine maws clawing at an ore body 7,000 feet below ground level would essentially destroy the natural state of hallowed land just east of the tribe’s reservation, land that has been home to indigenous peoples since pre-historic times where acorns and medicinal herbs are gathered and coming-of-age ceremonies are held.
Rambler acknowledged the Oak Flat issue as one of many challenges the Apache people were facing in trying to protect their way of life. “At the heart of this is freedom of religion, the ability to pray within an environment created for the Apache. Not in a man-made church, but like our ancestors have believed since time immemorial, praying in an environment that our creator God gave us. This is where Apaches go to pray and the best way for that to continue to happen is to keep this place from becoming private land. We’re against this specific project because it’s going to desecrate and destroy this whole area and the Apache way of life. We must stand together and fight—and we’re drawing a line in the sand on this one.”
“It’s atrocious the way this has been handled,” says tribal elder Sandra Rambler. “I came to Chich’il Bildagotell for my coming of age ceremony and that of my granddaughter’s. This is ancestral land used for ceremonies, graduations, funeral gatherings’—my great-great grandmother is buried here. It’s my turn to fight for it to be passed on to my children and the unborn yet to come.”
Back in February, protestors marched the 44-miles from San Carlos tribal headquarters to the campgrounds where 300 of them held a weekend-long Gathering of Nations Holy Ground Ceremony. It was a weekend of solidarity epitomized by preacher John Mendez who said, “This is a protracted struggle, but what the system doesn’t know, what Resolution Copper doesn’t know, is there is nothing that can break our spirit and keep us from moving forward to victory.”
Attendees expressed a common consensus. “This isn’t an Apache issue nor even a Native issue, it’s a human issue,” says Navajo Earl Tulley of CARE (Citizens Against Ruining Our Environment). He was joined by Sylvia Barrett, representing Concerned Citizens and Retired Miners, who graphically noted that “Resolution Copper has blatantly thrown the finger in our direction.” Retired miner Orlando Perea, who spent 40 years underground, says “They’ll create an environmental catastrophe here. As far as I’m concerned, Senator McCain can go to Hades for his underhanded dealings.” Standing nearby, Gila River tribal resident Bernadette Thomas chimed in: “Big money and politics want to destroy this sacred place and that’s just wrong.”
At the campground, after most had shown their support and departed, a core group set up an encampment digging in for the long haul. “We are organized as a spiritual mission with Apache Indigenous roots and intend to maintain occupation here,” according to Stronghold spokesperson Laura Medina.
“Living at this site is like coming home,” Nosie added. “The whole environment of this place brings spirituality and turns doubters into supporters. Call it an ‘occupation’ if you will, but the right words are ‘we are coming home’. We’ve created a fire that cannot be extinguished, and while it becomes a bit scary not knowing what tomorrow will be like, we are not going to vacate this area. The system and Resolution Copper may not know it, but this is a protracted struggle, and if we stay true to task, we will win.”
The Apache cause got a big boost two weeks ago when Congressman Raul Grijalva, ranking member of the Natural Resources Committee, introduced a “Save Oak Flat” bill seeking to repeal “the congressional giveaway of sacred Native American land.”
In his press release, Grijalva noted: “What this unpopular corporate giveaway was doing in the national security bill is anyone’s guess, but we shouldn’t wait any longer to repeal it. Congress shouldn’t be in the business of helping big corporations at others’ expense—and it certainly shouldn’t break faith with Native American communities. I’m proud to lead a three Republican, 12 Democrat bipartisan team in saying we should repeal this giveaway.”
Despite President Obama’s signature on the measure, even the White House had initially expressed displeasure as to how the legislation flew under the radar and into passage. “I am profoundly disappointed with the provision of the bill that has no regard for lands considered sacred by nearby Indian tribes,” said Interior Secretary Sally Jewel.
While Resolution wants the copper and Native Americans want their holy lands left untouched, the company’s Project Director, Andrew Taplin, thinks there is still room for some compromise. “This is often framed as an ‘either/or, one or the other’ issue, but my view is, with some constructive dialogue and understanding of the issues getting talked through, we could actually have both. This can be a wonderful project of benefit to many, done in a manner respectful of tribes that have traditionally used this land. I believe you can have respect for development of a project like this one and still have careful consideration of the religious and cultural concerns the San Carlos Apache tribe has.”
In fact, the company’s Frequently Asked Questions page answers “What are you doing to address the concerns of Native Americans” by stating, “We are doing our best to respect their sovereignty and be sensitive to the needs of all Native American tribes.”
“I’m confident we can respectfully and responsibly develop this project and do it in collaboration with tribal leadership. I consider my role to be that of a relationship builder, not just somebody who wants to dig a big hole in the ground.”
Resolution will do that, however, if things move forward as now planned in what will become the largest producer of copper in North America, an estimated billion pounds of copper per year, with production scheduled to get underway by mid-2020.
The former Magma #9 mine site (adjacent to the on-going installation of the Resolution #10 shaft) used a method called cut-and-fill to mine high grade veins of copper that played out at about 4,200 feet. They extracted and backfilled, not so with the Resolution Copper plan of attack. They’ve been transparent, albeit unapologetic, in acknowledging that their 2,400-page Mine Plan of Operation calls for block-and-caving protocol to get to the 7,000-foot level where they are confident a large deposit of 1.5 percent grade ore lies. Although the plan subtly alludes to the fact that “the area might be subject to adverse effects from project activities,” their actions will leave something resembling a giant meteor crater.
“Our planned method of mining is the only commercially viable option with the least environmental impact,” Taplin says, noting that other mines in nearby Miami and San Manuel have used the same method. “This particular method is not unusual in Arizona, it’s not new to the state. Because there isn’t enough strength in the rocks to support the material we’ve removed, it will result in a surface depression. Based on our modeling, we anticipate surface subsidence could be as much as 2 miles in diameter and crater-like in nature—up to 1,000 feet at its deepest point.”
Tailing dumps of up to 500 feet high could occupy as many as 10 square miles that would storm drain into nearby Queen Creek. “What people see in older mine tailings is not representative of what regulators will allow us to construct here,” Taplin adds. “We have an obligation for progressive reclamation, so there will be no impact on ground or surface water supplies.”
Reference the economic enthusiasm for the multi-billion-dollar project, company publicity calls it “a major job creator. We’re confident the headcount estimates are accurate and represent the number of people we will have on each shift, each day, to undertake the work needed,” Taplin says.
Later this year, one of the key components of the project, a NEPA environmental survey, will commence, expected to take a number of years to complete with numerous opportunities for public consultation. As far as the Oak Flat Campground occupied by protestors—”We listened carefully to the concerns of the San Carlos Apache tribe prior to the passage of the land exchange bill and addressed those concerns to the fullest extent possible. On going access to the campground will continue as long as it is safe to do so, and we expect access will continue for a number of decades. Another concern was for adequate protection of Apache Leap, so 800 acres have been put into permanent protection status and we’ve foregone any mineral rights in that area,” Taplin says.
Chairman Nosie remains unconvinced. “This project won’t benefit anyone, except Resolution Copper and its stakeholders,” he says. “The fight’s on, and from this point going forward, wherever it takes us, that’s where we’ll be.”
Repeal options now exist, but only ime will tell.