At Thanksgiving, the genocide continues
As Thanksgiving approaches, there are signs that the genocide of Native American peoples, begun over five centuries ago, continues today. One sign of that ongoing genocide is the newly accelerated move to transfer ownership of the sacred lands of Oak Flat to Resolution Copper and its parent companies, Rio Tinto and BHP.
According to a November 24, 2020 news report from The Guardian:
"Last month tribes discovered that the date for the completion of a crucial environmental review process has suddenly been moved forward by a full year, to December 2020, even as the tribes are struggling with a Covid outbreak that has stifled their ability to respond. If the environmental review is completed before Trump leaves office, the tribes may be unable to stop the mine.
"In a meeting with environmental groups, local officials said that the push was occurring because “we are getting pressure from the highest level at the Department of Agriculture,” according to notes from the meeting seen by the Guardian. The department oversees the US Forest Service, which is in charge of Oak Flat."
Oak Flat is listed on the National Register of HIstoric Places, and contains a significant number of archaeological sites dating back 1,500 years. But the area's importance goes far beyond the burial grounds, petroglyphs, sacred sites, and medicinal plant harvesting areas that will be destroyed by the planned mine that will encompass 11 square-miles, creating a crater approximately two miles across and 1,000 feet deep.
"The San Carlos Apache Tribe, the Tonto Apache Tribe, the White Mountain Apache Tribe, the Yavapai-Apache Nation, the Yavapai-Prescott Indian Tribe, the Gila River Indian Community, the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, the Hopi Tribe, and the Pueblo of Zuni have visited its Emory oak groves to conduct ceremonies and gather traditional medicines for millennia," noted U.S. Representative Raúl M. Grijalva in a guest editorial column for the Tucson Sentinel on November 18. The Oak Flat area is spiritually and culturally significant for the San Carlos Apache and around a dozen other tribes.
This land transfer, begun under the Obama administration, requires the U.S. Forest Service to assess the impacts of the planned mine by preparing an environmental impact Statement (EIS) under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), but no matter how damaging the findings of the EIS may be, the land is to be transferred to the mining company.
As Grijalva notes, "The draft EIS that the U.S. Department of Agriculture published notes that the Chí’chil Biłdagoteel Historic District will be irreparably damaged by Rio Tinto’s destructive panel-caving techniques, which will produce a crater roughly 1.8 miles wide." Yet this has no bearing on whether the mining can go forward.
The San Carlos Apache have been battling Rio Tinto's plans to mine Oak Flat, an area rich in copper, for more than a decade. The founder of Apache Stronghold, Wendsler Nosie, Sr., testified before the House Committee on Natural Resources' Subcommittee for Indigenous Peoples of the United States earlier this year and noted, according to Grijalva, "“the destruction to our lands and our sacred sites has occurred consistently over the past century in direct violation of treaty promises and the trust obligation owed to Indian tribes...
The U.S. government has consistently failed to uphold these promises or too often fails to act to protect our rights associated with such places like Chi'Chil Bildagoteel."
Grijalva notes, as Naelyn Pike, youth organizer for Apache Stronghold, testified before the Natural Resources Committee in March, “Our [Apache] people lived, prayed, and died in the Oak Flat and Tonto National Forest area for centuries. Apache Leap was given its name after Apache warriors leaped to their death rather than be killed by the United States Cavalry. These areas make us who we are today.”
Grijalva had introduced H.R. 665, the "Save Oak Flat Act," which has 39 cosponsors, but hasn't made any progress through Congress since February of 2019, but he continues to call for its passage. Meanwhile, hope grows dim for the San Carlos Apache and other tribes, that this important area can be saved.