Wendsler Nosie Sr. speaks
with Apache activists in a 2015 rally to save Oak Flat in
Washington, D.C. (AP Photo/Molly Riley, File)
Leaders in the fight to save a sacred Arizona site from mining
share emotional remarks
The leader of the fight to save Oak Flat shared emotional testimony
Wednesday, along with his granddaughter, on the sacred land's religious
importance and why it should be saved.
Their remarks before a federal judge were the latest step in a
yearslong fight to stop a proposed copper mine in eastern Arizona.
Apache Stronghold recently sued the U.S. Forest Service for turning
over Oak Flat to Resolution Copper, a joint venture of global mining
companies Rio Tinto and BHP.
The group is seeking an injunction until a judge ultimately can
determine who has rights to that land, and whether mining would
infringe on Apaches' religious practices. The Forest Service says
it's doing what Congress mandated.
group sues over land swap for Arizona mine)
Apache Stronghold leader and former San Carlos Apache Chairman
Wendsler Nosie Sr. and granddaughter Naelyn Pike were two of the
three people to testify. Archaeologist and professor John Welch,
an Apache ally, was the third.
"When I go there, when I'm praying there, my prayers go directly
to our Creator, and that can't happen anywhere else," Pike said
in her testimony.
The in-person hearing in Phoenix lasted nearly three hours. Judge
Steven Logan allowed the public to listen via phone. Logan asked
the plaintiffs and the defendants to submit written arguments before
the end of the day Friday. He said he would issue an order no later
than 5 p.m. on Feb. 12.
Nosie, Pike and another granddaughter, Báásé
Pike, journeyed from Chi'chil Bildagoteel, or Oak Flat, to Phoenix
in a ceremonial run before the hearing. The three have been advocating
to save the land for years. A prayer vigil was held in Phoenix the
Pike and Wendsler Nosie Sr. on the Indian Country Today Newscast
on Aug. 6. (Screencap)
Much of Wednesday's testimony by Nosie and Pike stressed Oak Flat's
"We have the constitution of the United States that talks about
the freedom of religion. Well, how come we are not afforded that?"
Nosie said in his testimony.
Nosie and Pike held a virtual news conference after the hearing.
"In my own perception, you cannot mitigate our religion," Pike
said. "Resolution Copper, the United States, Tonto National Forest
can't mitigate our beliefs and who we are because that is the spirit
of Oak Flat."
Here is an overview of the case courtesy of The Associated Press:
THE LAND SWAP
Stand-alone legislation in Congress for the land exchange failed
for several years. In December 2014, the late U.S. Sen. John McCain
and former U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona slipped the exchange
into a must-pass defense bill.
The provision required an environmental impact statement before
Resolution Copper would exchange eight parcels it owns in Arizona
for 3.75 square miles of land in the Tonto National Forest. The
clock is ticking for the land exchange.
This 2015 photo shows
in the distance, part of the Resolution Copper Mining land-swap
project in Superior, Arizona. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin,
The provision caught environmentalists and tribes off-guard. The
area known as Oak Flat had been federally protected from mining
because of its cultural and natural value for decades.
Since then, they've supported legislation to reverse the land exchange.
Democratic U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva of Arizona has been a major supporter.
The Apache Stronghold lawsuit is one of three filed over the copper
mine, some of which have overlapping arguments.
The San Carlos Apache Tribe, and a coalition of environmentalists,
tribes and the Arizona Mining Reform Coalition also sued the U.S.
The lawsuits raise concerns over federal laws regarding historic
preservation, the environment, religious freedom, constitutional
rights and a decades-old agreement between Apaches and the United
In this Jan. 14 photo,
Oak Flat supporters hold a prayer vigil outside a Tonto National
Forest office in Phoenix. (Photo by Carina Dominguez, Indian
Country Today, File)
The U.S. Forest Service has declined to comment on the lawsuits.
In court documents, the agency said it doesn't question the sincerity
of the religious and historical connection that Apaches have to
the land known as Oak Flat.
"Congress has decided this land exchange should go forward, and
any construction, mining or ground disturbance at the site is not
imminent," attorneys for the agency wrote.
Apaches call the mountainous area Chi'chil Bildagoteel. It has
ancient oak groves, traditional plants and living beings that tribal
members say are essential to their religion and culture.
Those things exist in other places, but Apache Stronghold says
they have unique power within Oak Flat.
The site is also popular for camping, hiking and rock climbing.
Resolution Copper says it will keep the campground open to the public
as long as it's safe but eventually the area would be swallowed
by the mine.
Apaches have camped out there in protest. Nosie also moved to the
The Society for American Archaeology has said the area is of great
significance archaeologically within the U.S. Southwest.
WHO 'OWNS' THE LAND?
Apache Stronghold contends the land belongs to Western Apaches
under an 1852 treaty with the United States. Welch has worked extensively
with Apache tribes, says he hasn't found any evidence that would
The so-called Treaty of Santa Fe was one of a handful of treaties
negotiated with a broad group of Apaches, and the only one ratified
by the U.S. Senate, said Karl Jacoby, a Columbia University history
professor who has written about the treaty and isn't connected to
The treaty was meant as a peace accord at a time the U.S. was acquiring
territory from Mexico. It suggests that Apaches have a right to
their territory but it doesn't spell out that territory, Jacoby
Activists have been protesting
against the Resolution Copper mine at Oak Flat for years,
including this 2015 protest in Washington. (Photo by Jamie
Cochran/Cronkite News, File)
"What's been happening recently is Native people have been dusting
off these treaties, and saying, 'Look, you made this treaty, you
can't just walk away from it. You have to honor it, it's in your
constitution,' which is the supreme law of the land," he said.
Attorneys for the Forest Service said Apache Stronghold can't assert
ownership rights because it's not a federally recognized tribe.
Even then, the land isn't held in trust for any Apache tribe.
Land that includes Oak Flat became part of the United States through
the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848.
"The United States has never alienated title to the lands at issue
in this suit," attorneys for the Forest Service said.
Dalton Walker, Red Lake Anishinaabe, is a national correspondent
at Indian Country Today. Follow him on Twitter: @daltonwalker
Walker is based in Phoenix and enjoys Arizona winters.