For Native Americans, racism hits home

Uddyalok Banerjee photographs the Grand Canyon at sunset on March 13, 2017. Banerjee is a hobby photographer. Photo by Steven Spooner.

After over 500 years of broken treaties and forceful domination from European settlers and the U.S. government, Native Americans in Arizona today still face racism in the most intimate part of their religion and identity: their home.

Today, a border wall, a copper mine and a reversal of the previous administration’s policies are a few examples of recent federal threats to the sacred native land and way of life.


“All we have left is our spirit and how it ties to the earth,” said Wendsler Nosie Sr., a 65-year-old former councilman of the San Carlos Apache Tribe. “We have to migrate back (to Oak Flat) regardless of what the federal government says or what anyone says. It’s rooted in our songs, our language, and the way we are every day.”

Native lands in the U.S. have been polluted and reduced in size over centuries, from racially suppressive policies, white settlement, industrialization, violence and relocation.

Arizona is no exception. Before Europeans arrived, native tribes controlled all of Arizona’s land, but today, reservations make up only 27 percent of the state, or roughly 19.8 million acres.

Oak Flat, located 90 miles east of Phoenix in the Tonto National Forest, is a space considered a religious and sacred site by the San Carlos Apache, who reside on the reservation there. It also is a rich desert landscape that draws campers, rock climbers, hikers and outdoor enthusiasts to its trails and river bend.

The status of Oak Flat changed on Dec. 19, 2014, when President Obama signed the National Defense Authorization Act into law.

Michelle Cook protests on the UA campus on Feb 2, 2017. Several political groups met to hold a press conference and to protest Wells Fargo in solidarity with the Dakota Access Pipeline protest. Photo by Steven Spooner.

Late in the process, three pages were added by Arizona Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake concerning an unrelated land transfer agreement between the U.S. Forest Service and Resolution Copper.

The agreement detailed that 5,300 acres of Resolution Copper Company’s private land parcels would be traded to the U.S. Forest Service for 2,400 acres in and around Oak Flat. This  incensed Native Americans and environmentalists. 

“Oak Flat will accommodate the largest copper pit in North America,” said Manuel Pino, sociology professor at Scottsdale Community College.  “Many Indian Nations like the Navajos, as a result of the development, are stuck with contaminated land areas, contaminated water, contaminated grazing areas.

“So even though coal mining created all these jobs and economic contributions to the tribal budget, was it all worth it, to have contaminated communities people live in? Is the economic benefit worth the destruction of the earth? It’s outright environmental racism,” he said.

Resolution Copper sought Oak Flat for over a decade, because, according to the company, the sacred site sits 7,000 feet above one of the largest untapped deposits of copper in the world.

McCain has said that the mine would boost the local economy, which has a high unemployment rate, but it’s not exactly clear how many of the 1,400 promised jobs will be given to residents or Apaches.

There has been debate about Oak Flats sacredness, but Nosie argues otherwise.

“By the United States taking Oak Flat away, we have a social downfall. To take in the American way, the western way… is to stop telling us to be the way we are, as stewards of the earth, of our mother.

“Confining us to something that destroys the mother really destroys the social community of belief and the way of the religious spirit. It’s killing us in spirit. We have to go back, regardless of what they do or say,” he said.

Warren Goklish, a 20-year-old University of Arizona student and White River Apache tribal member, whose reservation borders the San Carlos Apache reservation, understands the anger about Oak Flat.

“I feel the same as they are feeling” Goklish said. “I’d feel furious and disrespected if the government decided to to deforest Mt. Baldy, one of the sacred mountains of the Apache,” he said.

Goklish said the issue won’t be fixed anytime soon.

“I feel the only way this will be resolved is if someone is in office who understands and respects situations like this instead of sweeping it under the rug.”


For the Tohono O’odham, Yaqui, Kickapoo, and other southern tribes who travel across the border, interference from the U.S. government began long ago. Until the Gadsden Purchase of 1854, the Tohono O’odham’s largest parcel of reservation land sat undivided.

Now, a 70-mile fence goes down the center, leaving half of the reservation in Mexico and the rest on U.S. soil. 

Tohono O’odham members and other southern tribe members hang a flag at the U.S.-Mexico border. Photoby Alejandaro Higuera.

We didn’t even know about the Gadsden Purchase or the (Treaty of) Guadalupe de Hidalgo,” said Jacelle Ramon-Sauberan, a UA American Indian Studies Graduate student and Tohono O’Odham tribe member.

“After a while, there was a fence put up and we didn’t know why it was there on our land or what it meant… We had people being on the wrong side of the fence that ended up being Mexican citizens and they didn’t have a choice.”

This caused problems for many who were not able to return to where their family, their community and village has always been, she said.

Over the years, as immigration, terrorism and drug smuggling became more significant issues to the federal government, border security tightened dramatically, making travel and traditional ceremonies more difficult for all Native Americans.

Following the 9/11 attacks, and former President George Bush’s 2006 Secure Fence Act, the barrier went from a barbed-wire fence to metal, waist-high vehicle barriers, and the number of federal border agents skyrocketed.

Border security came into the spotlight again in the 2016 presidential campaign, with Donald Trump proposing a heavily-reinforced border wall between the U.S. and Mexico to keep out “murderers and rapists.” Shortly after his inauguration, President Trump signed an executive order to do just that.

“They don’t care. The Trump administration doesn’t care,” said Jose Matus, Pascua Yaqui tribe member and leader of Indigenous Fronteras, a human rights activist group.

In tribal land, the U.S. government isn’t solely responsible for border security efforts . The tribe spends $3 million per year on border-related issues, which include migrant autopsies, police, detectives and other expenses.

Issues of racism arise on their land, particularly with the Border Patrol.

“They come onto our reservation thinking that they own the land and that they do not have to respect us or our traditions….They try to enforce their ‘authority’ but they don’t do it correctly. They have to realize that this is our land and it has always been our land,” said Ramon-Sauberan, who is stopped often at the Tohono O’odham reservation’s borders.

“They have no right to come onto it and treat us like dirt. A lot of those Border Patrol agents don’t know anything about the O’odham culture. They don’t know anything about us.”


In the past year, the Trump administration began looking to reopen areas around the Grand Canyon for uranium mining and to reverse a uranium mining ban enacted in 2012.

 In 2014, the National Mining Association sued to challenge the ban, but Arizona Federal Court ruled that it must be upheld. They found that lifting the ban would have resulted in 700 uranium exploration projects and 26 new uranium mines, and the contamination of at least 1.2 billion liters of water, enough to fill 4,800 swimming pools.

“We’re very concerned about President Trump’s recent mandate that they will reopen the possibility of uranium mining on the north rim of Grand Canyon,” Pino said.

“There’s over 1,000 uranium mines on the Navajo Nation that have not been cleaned up. Why would you want to open a new uranium facility when you have 1000 abandoned uranium contaminated mines in the state? It’s backwards thinking,” he added.

The Environmental Protection Agency lists over 500 uranium mines left abandoned from the Cold War era, when nearly 30 million tons of uranium ore were extracted from 1944 to 1991 to make nuclear weapons.

The legacy of uranium contamination in reservation lands has led to high levels of kidney failure, cancer and, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, uranium present in babies being born today. 

Arizona Rep. Raul Grijalva, as the top Democrat of the House of Natural Resources Committee, voiced opposition to the Trump administration’s plan in an interview with the Washington Examiner on Nov. 1.

President Trump wants to turn one of the world’s greatest natural wonders into a strip mine,” Grijalva said. “There are no boundaries to his need to spite President Obama’s legacy and everyone he perceives as his enemy.”

The Future:
Grijalva’s spokesperson, Ruben Reyes, said that Grijalva, with the support of Senator Bernie Sanders, plans to reintroduce the Save Oak Flat Act to Congress this year.

“Grijalva has really been a champion in environmental protection in Arizona on these issues and how this mining is going to affect the water,” Nosie said.

Nosie said the rules are unclear and everyone will be impacted by these changes.

“It’s no longer an Apache issue, it’s an American issue,” he said.

The land swap between the U.S. Forest Service and Resolution Copper requires an environmental review of the mine proposals, but the agreement guarantees the company the land 60 days after the review is complete, even if the findings are negative.

Nosie, who attended a San Carlos Apache Tribal meeting with legislators on Nov. 9, said that there was hope, however, because the state seemed interested in the findings of the environmental assessment, especially concerning water run-off pollution.

But problems still persist. Sovereignty over land is still not fully granted to Native Americans in the U.S., and, as federal trust lands, there is little legal protection against mining or other federal projects.  

Federal or local compensation for Native American land does not mean much to tribes trying to regain land.
“They don’t want it. They don’t want it because of what’s occurred all these years,” said Ramon-Sauberan. “They don’t want a billion dollars, they just want their land, their traditional land back. Money is nothing to us. It causes nothing but trouble.”

Many Native Americans feel excluded from the U.S. identity because of a lack of respect shown or control granted over their lands.

“You can use the flag for an example. America can argue the point respecting the flag, but for us natives, those stars represent the takeover of our land,” Nosie said.

“America still yells and screams at us, and we say, ‘Wait a minute, there’s a star in that flag that represents the takeover of Arizona.’ For natives that hold true to who they are, it hurts,” he said.

Sarah Covey is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News Service. To contact her, please email :

Click here for a Word version of the story and photographs

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