They marched 45 miles in the sun with heavy signs and crosses. They slept eight months in tents surrounded by dirt with little food.
Apache tribe members in Central Arizona are fighting for what they believe is their territory and are determined to preserve what they say is an essential part of the culture.
The government wants to turn what they say is sacred ground — Oak Flat — into a copper mine.
Oak Flat is a campground near Superior, an hour east of Phoenix, that has been used by Apache tribal members to collect berries and acorns and to conduct religious ceremonies. This is a place where Apaches still go to practice their beliefs.
San Carlos Apache tribal member, Vansler “Standing Fox” Nosie, says that medicine men once lived at Oak Flat and the area means a lot to his Apache ancestors.
“For the Apache people, the Apache way is a religion and our religion originated here. Our songs, our ceremonies, stories, and just our way of life originated in this area,” Nosie said. “Do you really want another religion to be destroyed through this mining operation?”
Resolution Mining has proposed a block cave-type of mine to extract copper ore underneath the campground. For the last eight months, Apache Stronghold members have been occupying the land on Oak Flat, refusing to let a mining company take away their religious grounds.
On Jan. 15, members of the tribe marched 45 miles on from the San Carlos reservation to the Oak Flat campground. They set up camp and do not plan to move until they get their way.
“Coming back to a place like this and being connected to Earth in a spiritual way through prayer and having that connection… this is what the place gives you the opportunity to do because this is one of the places where our creator came and touched the Earth,” Nosie said. “It’s a really powerful place.”
Oak Flat is the area where Noise plans to bring his children for a cultural reference and a place to understand their religion and ancestors. When this place is gone, he said there will be no reference for his children.
In 1955, the Eisenhower administration ordered the Oak Flat land to be off limits for mining, but on Dec. 19, 2014, Obama signed a land-swap law called the Southeast Arizona Land Exchange that will give the sacred land over to the mining company.
As soon as the Apache tribe members heard about the bill, they started to occupy the land and vow not to give up until the land is theirs again.
“They threatened to throw us in jail, they’ve threatened to arrest us, but we told them where we stand… we’re doing it in a very ceremonial way,” Nosie said.
Noise believes that this issue is bigger than Oak Flat and it is bigger than his specific tribe. He said this bill with impact the United States as a whole.
“This bill set precedence that all religious laws and environmental laws don’t apply… it’s basically a window for corporations to come in and they don’t have to go through these laws anymore,” said Nosie.
The tribe members started a petition called “Save Oak Flat” and Arizona Rep. Raul Grijalva introduced the “Save Oak Flat Act.” This act repeals the Land Exchange Bill and aims to save the land. Members of the tribe are trying to get as many people involved as they can by November so they can stop Resolution Mining and get their land back for good.
Officials with Resolution Mining refused to comment on their plans.
“We’re still prisoners of war today,” Nosie said.
Kendra Hall is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org
This story has been corrected for a misspelling of Nosie’s name.