Protecting Oak Flat

A call to defend sacred land of the Western Apache

Apache members are returning to Oak Flat to protect their historic homeland. Dubiously authorized in 2014, the copper mine near Superior, Arizona would decimate a site of sacred ceremony and mar the surrounding lands. Apache protectors have found allies in the outdoor climbing community and the retired miner community nearby. They are asking people of faith as well as all who value the integrity of land to join the effort to defend this sacred place.

What is Oak Flat / Chi’chil Bildagoteel?

In 2014, then-Senator John McCain attached a last-minute rider to a must-pass National Defense Authorization Act. The rider authorized a land exchange between the federal government and Resolution Copper, turning the sacred Apache land known today as Oak Flat into the private property of two of the largest mining companies in the world. The land swap had been proposed and denied 13 times over 10 years using normal Congressional procedures. Right now, many Apache people are returning to their historic homeland and are working to repeal the bill.

Chi’chil Bildagoteel (Oak Flat) is where the covenant between divine and human was established. It is comparable to Mount Sinai, where Christians and Jews believe Moses received God’s promise of life-abundant and came to know God’s will for how humans should live in this world.

Apache Oak Flat is where the Ga’an spirits, or angels, reside. It is a corridor or direct connection to pray to Ussen (Creator of Mother Earth). It is also where generations of Apache girls have had their coming of age ceremonies and where they gather acorns for medicinal and ceremonial purposes. Chi’chil Bildagoteel is a place of beauty and abundance where the Apache honor and offer prayers to the creator and to their ancestors. It is a place deeply tied to who they are as a people.”

Oak Flat / Chi’chil Bildagoteel is a natural area about an hour east of Phoenix, Arizona held sacred by the Western Apache. They were forcibly removed from the land by the U.S. cavalry in the 1870s and were imprisoned on the nearby San Carlos Reservation.

Right now, the largest copper mine in U.S. history is threatening to destroy Oak Flat. The Resolution Copper Project, a joint venture by Rio Tinto and BHP, would use a block-caving method of mining that has never been done at the proposed depths anywhere in the world. It would create a sinkhole 2 miles wide and as deep as the Eiffel Tower. The cavern left behind would create a drain in the groundwater aquifer, potentially affecting the groundwater supply of the small community of Superior, Arizona.

Block caving is probably one of the most, I would say, environmentally dangerous types of mining that you have. It’s basically an upside down earthquake.

Henry Munoz Sr., retired miner / Superior, Arizona resident

Apache members are returning to Oak Flat to resist this proposed mine and to protect their historic homeland. They’ve found allies in the outdoor climbing community, who are also fighting to preserve the natural mountain area that has thousands of natural climbing routes, and in the retired miner community of nearby Superior, Arizona.

When this place is gone, they’re going to be walking to a crater, and I’m going to say, ‘Son or daughter, this used to have Emory oak trees. This used to have springs. This used to have animals and acorn and tocojay and cactus and yucca where we could build our homes. This had petroglyphs and artifacts, and your ancestors were buried here.’ How can I say that to them when they’re looking at a crater?”

Naelyn Pike, Apache Stronghold member / Chiricahua Apache

From the Organizers

Rio Tinto was recently caught destroying sacred aboriginal rock shelters in Australia, after which their C.E.O. was forced to step down and the company stated – “We are determined to ensure that the destruction of a heritage site of such exceptional archaeological and cultural significance never occurs again at a Rio Tinto operation.” They must be held to that promise.

In the days ahead, Chi’chil Biłdagoteel needs us. We have been given strong indication that the Forest Service will be making their decision on the Oak Flat land exchange. This will immediately begin the process of handing over a sacred site to one of the largest mining companies in the world. For more than a decade, people all over the world have had eyes on Oak Flat. And on the ground, countless people have been in solidarity with the Apache people as they fight to protect Oak Flat. Oak Flat needs all of us now to come together.

Dr. Wendsler Nosie Sr., former Chairman and Councilman of the San Carlos Apache Tribe, November 2020

Through an EcoDharma Lens

Oak Flat
Oak Flat. © Sacred Land Film Project

The land of Chi’chil Bildagoteel is critical to modern day Apache religion and culture. Privatizing this land so that it can be turned into a copper mine is not only an assault on the land, it is also an act of cultural violence that violates the sovereign right of the Apache to practice their religion. It is a clear violation of the second precept, to refrain from taking that which is not offered.

The fifth of the five remembrances reminds us that we are the owners of our individual actions. Everything we love and hold dear will be separated from us, and our actions will become our sole inheritance. Whatever we do, good or bad, of this we will become the heirs. What would it look like for Arizona and the rest of the United States to start to take responsibility for what was done to the Western Apache, to begin to use right action in the service of healing and reckoning with historical karma, to turn toward the harm that the U.S. caused the Western Apache in removing them from their land? Perhaps an amends process can begin with returning this land, in the hopes that the future will not be robbed from the Apache as the past was.

The foundation of our spirituality is connection to the land… Without Oak Flat, I would not know what it means to be Apache.

Naelyn Pike, Apache Stronghold member

Sacred sites are important to all religions. Were Bodh Gaya or Jerusalem to be destroyed tomorrow, it’s likely that millions across the globe would weep for the loss of not only history, but also the cultural significance we could never retrieve. Images of Notre Dame burning broke the hearts of millions, Catholic and otherwise. While Notre Dame is being rebuilt, we will not see Oak Flat recover from this proposed devastation in our lifetimes.

Get Involved

The Apache Stronghold and the fight for Oak Flat is a spiritual movement. Everything’s done through prayers, that’s how we are as indigenous people. Prayer was first before anything else. But we ask you to reach out to your governments, reach out to your congresses all over, because it’s forest land, it’s federal land. Anybody in this world can fight for it.

Vanessa Nosie, Apache archaeologist

Before the land transfer takes place and mining can begin, the Forest Service must conduct an environmental impact review of the proposed project. For now, they have withdrawn their report and delayed the land review. However, the language in the bill that authorized copper mining in Oak Flat makes it extremely likely that Resolution Copper will receive the land, which is currently federally protected national forest, regardless of what is found in the study. Given this, Representative Grijalva of Arizona and Senator Sanders of Vermont have introduced the Save Oak Flat Act to officially repeal the section of the 2015 defense bill that authorized the project.

Learn more and stay up to date with the most current actions at Apache Stronghold.

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