The tradition, called a sunrise ceremony, is a rite of passage for a teenage girl in which she goes through a series of rituals to recognize her transition to womanhood. The girl had collected plants from Oak Flat that have the “spirit of Chi’chil Bildagoteel,” the name of the sacred spot in the Apache language. Plants from anywhere else cannot be used — they don’t have the spirit that resonates from Oak Flat. And the girl spoke to “the spirit of Oak Flat,” giving thanks for providing acorns, yucca, cedar and saguaro cactus that the tribe uses.
Even in the 21st century, Nosie and his tribe still take part in the traditional, four-day ceremony and other cultural events at Oak Flat, a roughly 4,300-acre spot they consider sacred to Native Americans.
“This is where we came from,” said Nosie. “It’s the beginning of our being, our identity. Oak Flat is where the Creator made us and gave us this land. This is the centerpiece that makes up everything that we are.”
But Oak Flat is at risk of being damaged or destroyed to make way for a mining operation. Dozens of other sites that are considered sacred to American Indians have tribes and environmental groups fighting to keep out gas and oil operations, communications towers or highways.
Last week Deb Haaland, the nation’s first Native American interior secretary, spent three days at Bears Ears National Monument in Utah, another sacred site under siege. She is expected to urge President Biden to restore Bears Ears to at least 1.35 million acres — its size before the Trump administration slashed its protected area by 85 percent.
On Tuesday, a House Natural Resources subcommittee will hold a hearing on saving Oak Flat. Like so many sacred Native American sites, Oak Flat is caught in a web of deep history, politics and legal wrangling.
A mining company wants the land because it holds one of the largest untapped copper deposits in North America. That doesn’t sit well with the Apache and other tribes, including the Zuni, Yavapai, O’odham and Hopi, all of whom consider the site sacred.
“Native Americans have heard a lot of thoughts and prayers that get broken,” said Luke W. Goodrich, a lawyer for the Apache Stronghold, a nonprofit organization run by Nosie that sued to try to stop mining at Oak Flat. “Congress and the federal government have repeatedly failed Native Americans. Courts are often the only option.”
The Apache say their ancestors have “lived, worshiped on, and cared for Oak Flat” and its surrounding lands “since time immemorial,” according to one of several lawsuits. They believe that Usen, their Creator, made Oak Flat as a blessed place where Ga’an, who are considered the messengers or guardians, live. The Ga’an protect the Apache and are the “buffer between heaven and Earth.”
Terry Rambler, chairman of the San Carlos Apache Tribe, testified to federal officials that parts of Oak Flat have rock paintings and petroglyphs that are said to be the “footprints and the very spirit of our ancestors.” He compared the significance of Oak Flat for Native Americans to the importance of St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City, or Angkor Wat in Cambodia, or the Western Wall in Jerusalem.
“I call Oak Flat,” Rambler said, “the Sistine Chapel of Apache religion.”
It is also a place of tradition and ceremony.
The spring waters at Oak Flat are believed to have “healing powers not present elsewhere,” according to a lawsuit. Medicinal plants grow naturally there and are harvested. Bear root is boiled, and Native Americans drink it to treat a sore throat; greasewood is used to help those with diabetes, the Apache said. And a “Holy Grounds” ceremony is conducted at Oak Flat for those who are “sick, have ailments or seek guidance.”
For boys and girls, Oak Flat is a spot for their coming-of-age ceremonies. It’s crucial, Apaches said, for a boy to “have the opportunity to sweat at Oak Flat for the first time, when he becomes a young man,” a lawsuit stated.
For girls, the sunrise ceremony is planned for months and holds special meaning. At one point in the ceremony, tribal members surround the girl, while singing, dancing and praying. At night, the Ga’an “come from the mountains” around Oak Flat and “enter into Apache men,” called crown dancers, tribal members said. The Ga’an bless the girl, who joins the dancing.
On the last day of the girl’s ceremony, one of the Ga’an dancers takes white clay from the ground at Oak Flat and paints the girl’s face as a way to show that she is being “molded” into the woman she is going to become. She then washes it off in a spring at Oak Flat, Apaches said, where part of the copper mine would be built.
Debbie Ho, a D.C. representative for the San Carlos Apache Tribe, said she once tried to explain the significance of the old and tall Emory oak trees and their acorns to a lawmaker who suggested that the trees could simply be moved.
“You can’t just pick up these sacred trees and move them,” Ho said. “These are areas that are filled with unique significance to Native American tribes. It’s not transferrable. It’s not fungible. You can’t go build another place like Oak Flat.”
“It has power,” Ho said. “Their deities, their culture live there.”
Centuries ago, bands of Apaches are said to have hidden from invaders in Oak Flat’s rough terrain. One spot at Oak Flat is called “Apache Leap,” where Apache warriors fought the U.S. cavalry, but when they were pushed to the edge of the cliff, they chose to leap to their deaths rather than surrender.
Eventually, Apaches were forced off their land when Chief Mangas Coloradas signed the Treaty of Santa Fe in 1852 with the U.S. government. As part of the deal, the government promised to “designate, settle, and adjust their territorial boundaries” and “pass and execute” laws “conducive to the prosperity and happiness of said Indians,” according to the Apache Stronghold’s lawsuit in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit.
But the treaty wasn’t honored, and the boundaries for Apache lands were never set. In a lawsuit, John Welch, an expert in Apache anthropology, said there is no evidence that the United States “compensated the Apache treaty rights holders” for Oak Flat, even though a map from the 1800s shows it as land that belonged to the Apaches. Welch said, “Oak Flat is Apache land, as it has been for centuries.”
In the 1870s, when gold and silver were found in the Oak Flat area, more settlers came, and federal legislation allowed mining. That led to more conflict. In a 15-year period, Apaches were attacked at least 35 times, according to a lawsuit. At one point, Army Gen. James Carleton ordered that Apache men be “killed wherever found.”
Gradually, the federal government used its Indian removal policies to force thousands of Native Americans from their ancestral homelands. By 1874, the U.S. government had forced approximately 4,000 Apaches onto the San Carlos Reservation. Native Americans dubbed it “Hell’s 40 Acres” because it was a “barren wasteland,” according to the Apache Stronghold’s lawsuit. As miners destroyed Oak Flat, the U.S. government forcibly removed children to Indian boarding schools and tried to convert Native Americans to Christianity, according to experts and tribal members.
In 1886, a band of Apaches led by the famous Geronimo surrendered. They were promised that they would get their land back if they agreed to two years of detention, according to a lawsuit and Native American historians. But that promise was broken, and they were imprisoned — some for as long as two decades — and once released they were sent to the San Carlos Reservation.
One federal analysis in the Apache Stronghold’s lawsuit said Native American “communities lost large portions of their homelands, including Oak Flat, and today live on lands that do not encompass places sacred to their cultures.”
Nosie said many people wrongly think that Oak Flat has always belonged to the federal government. The U.S. Forest Service is in charge of managing Oak Flat.
“We were exiled out of these areas, forced off our lands and placed in reservations that were concentration camps,” said Nosie, who lives in a teepee on Oak Flat. “There’s an assumption that we come from these reservations. We don’t. We were exiled out of our Indigenous lands.
“All we’re trying to do is go to our home. Where we are from. Where we originated, and Oak Flats is that place.”
There have been some previous attempts to protect Oak Flat.
In the 1950s, President Dwight D. Eisenhower reserved some of the land at Oak Flat, which is part of the Tonto National Forest, for “public purpose,” according to a lawsuit. And it was later placed on the National Register of Historic Places. In an eight-year span, at least a dozen congressional bills sought to give Oak Flat to mining companies, but they all failed.
That changed in 2014 when Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) attached a rider to the National Defense Authorization Act that authorized the federal government to transfer approximately 2,400 acres at Oak Flat to Resolution Copper in exchange for about 5,300 acres scattered in other parts of the state.
“They didn’t respect Oak Flat,” Nosie said. “They gave it away.”
In January, Nosie’s Apache Stronghold group filed a lawsuit to try to stop the deal with Resolution Copper. The suit alleged that Resolution Copper’s potential mining operation at Oak Flat would “destroy the site forever — swallowing it in a nearly two-mile wide, 1,100-foot deep crater.”
Apache Stronghold has also argued in its lawsuit that transferring Oak Flat violated several federal laws, including the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and failed to honor the 1852 Treaty of Santa Fe.
Resolution Copper has said it will create much-needed jobs for the region and said it will work to “understand the concerns” of the community and “Native Americans who have historical ties to the land.” Recently, federal officials ordered a more thorough review of the cultural and environmental impacts of mining at Oak Flat.
Kevin Allis, former chief executive of the National Congress of American Indians, the largest lobbying group for tribes in the country, said lawmakers, federal agency officials and private businesses often overlook that tribes are land-based people and that where they’re from has a “spiritual significance” that is “not transferrable.”
“Our ancestral traditions and customs are tied to special places that are unique to that community,” said Allis, who is also a tribal member of the Forest County Potawatomi Community in Wisconsin and now runs Thunderbird Strategic, a consulting firm for tribes. “You can’t move that somewhere else. You can’t say move Oak Flat to Utah, Chicago or Kansas and it have the same significance.”
“When you want to mine for copper or uranium or poke holes for gas, you’re going to destroy that community,” Allis said. “Any alteration is a permanent scar on that spot that is so sensitive and sacred to that tribal community.
“You destroy it, and it’s forever gone.”
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