Oak Flat worship site vandalized amid copper mine fight
Vandals struck a historic altar at Oak Flat, a site used for centuries by the Apache people for prayer and ceremonies and now at the center of a battle over a copper mine project.
It was the second time in three years that the altar had been damaged and the leader of the base group that led the fight against the mine said he was more fearful of such attacks on cultural sites and people.
In a moving appeal to The Arizona Republic on Thursday night, Wendsler Nosie, the leader of Apache Stronghold, compared the destruction and desecration to similar attacks on places of worship, including the bombing of a church of Birmingham in 1963 who killed four school-aged girls.
âWe are at war with what is wrong in the world,â said Nosie, the former president of the Apache tribe of San Carlos, in a tearful voice. “It’s like where in the South they burned down churches.” He added that religious people across the United States should be alarmed by this and other such attacks on places of worship.
A company owned by British and Australian interests wants to build a massive copper mine at the 2,200-acre site southeast of Phoenix. A federal judge heard arguments on Oct. 22 over the site’s religious significance, and the two Arizona senators are under pressure to stop the project.
Nosie said he was in Phoenix on Thursday to see an optometrist when he got a call he said he didn’t want to hear anymore: three of the four crosses that straddled the altar were thrown to the ground and one was broken in two. Other objects of worship, including abalone shells, were strewn around the site, and nearby personnel used in ceremonies were also thrown to the ground.
In March 2018, two of the four crosses that mark the border of the altar were taken, two more damaged and eagle feathers thrown to the ground.
The desecration of the Oak Flat altar is part of an increasing trend in incidents targeting places of worship. The FBI reported that these incidents increased by 27% from 2014 to 2020. The online news site Axios reported that crimes against churches, synagogues, mosques, Buddhist temples and other places of worship were on track to exceed 2020 numbers.
On Friday morning, Nosie, surrounded by his family and other members of the Apache fortress, had dried his tears but was still devastated by the damage to the sacred site.
A helicopter flew over at low altitude and another media team flew a drone around the area near the Resolution mine head, which overlooks Oak Flat.
While a journalist and a photographer from the Republic were at the scene, a law enforcement officer from the Forest Service went to the scene. Nosie spoke to the Incidents Officer, whom he characterized as hate crimes. The officer said a special agent would be called in to investigate. Soon another officer arrived. Apache Stronghold said an investigation began after the reporting team left.
September and October have been stressful for Nosie, 62, who has resided in Oak Flat since November 2019 to pray for her salvation from erasure.
He said he had been shot several times, most recently as he was preparing for a sunrise dance, the traditional coming-of-age ceremony for Apache girls, in late September. In this incident, Nosie said he had to bring a friend to safety as bullets flew over his head. The teepee he was staying in was stolen and he had to remove a trailer from the campground after it was repeatedly vandalized. He said he had reported the incidents.
The campground, located about 60 miles east of Phoenix on the lands of the Tonto National Forest, has been at the heart of a more than 17-year struggle waged by Apache and other indigenous peoples of the south -west to prevent the site from being sold to a foreign mining company. for a new copper mine.
The mine would be built and operated by Resolution Copper, which is owned by Anglo-Australian mining companies Rio Tinto and BHP. The company offered in return other ecologically sensitive lands. Resolution said the project would bring about 3,700 jobs and $ 1 billion a year to Arizona’s economy. After Nosie and other activists blocked the legislation for 10 years, the land swap was finally authorized by Congress in December 2014.
To obtain the copper ore, Resolution would use a method known as bulk mining, in which the ground beneath the orebody is excavated. The tunnels are then collapsed and the ore is transported through another tunnel to a crushing plant. The method is said to be cheaper than traditional shaft mining, which has been practiced in the area on and off for over 100 years. Eventually, the ground beneath Oak Flat will sag and create a crater about 1,000 feet deep and nearly 2 miles in diameter.
The US Forest Service released the final environmental impact statement and draft decision for the copper mine and land swap on January 15, five days before the end of the Trump administration. This decision set off a 60-day clock in which the land swap could be finalized.
On March 1, the Forest Service withdrew the statement and said it would resume consultations with the tribes.
The attack on the altar came as the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals weighed Apache Stronghold’s lawsuit against the US government to quash the land deal. The group said its First Amendment religious rights would be significantly hampered by the destruction of Oak Flat. The court heard arguments on October 22 after a two-week “spiritual convoy” by Nosie and other members of Apache Stronghold from Oak Flat in San Francisco, where the court held the hearing.
The week after the hearing, Apache Stronghold purchased billboards along the highways in Phoenix in an attempt to raise awareness of the issue and put pressure on the Senses. Arizona Kyrsten Sinema and Mark Kelly, both Democrats, to rally support for a bill introduced by Arizona Democratic Rep. Raul Grijalva and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, an Independent, to repeal the land swap.
That same week, Resolution bought online ads touting copper as essential to the nation’s energy future.
Nosie said on Friday that the bill had been taken out of consideration for inclusion in infrastructure and budget reconciliation bills in Congress. Calls to Grijalva and representative Tom O’Halleran, in whose district the campsite is located, to confirm that the bill was dead were not returned.
John Scaggs, spokesperson for Tonto National Forest, emailed a statement about the vandalism. He verified that a Forest Service law enforcement officer had been dispatched to Oak Flat on Friday morning to examine the vandalism and verify that private property had been damaged.
“The Forest Service is disappointed to hear of vandalism on lands of the national forest system and particularly saddened that it has occurred on traditional cultural property,” he wrote. “Tonto law enforcement continues to investigate the incident.”
Holding back tears, Nosie said Apache Stronghold would hold a four-day vigil for the crosses, which he said were “lying on the ground like humans who were murdered.” A ceremony would be organized to replace the crosses.
Nosie is also concerned about the Oak Flat petroglyphs and other artifacts that were discovered during the Telegraph fire. And, he said, he feared such incidents would escalate after the US attorney’s statements at the hearing that government-owned Oak Flat could do whatever he wanted with the site. , regardless of the religious impact.
Arizona: Indigenous peoples face legal obstacles to protect sacred spaces
Nosie said the incidents should be seen as a wake-up call to the tribes that their cultural sites on federal lands are in danger. He also said there was a larger problem of the fight for clean water and air. âWe cannot eat what Resolution is mine,â he said.
“Without water and air, we will not survive.”
Debra Krol reports on Indigenous communities at the confluence of climate, culture and commerce in Arizona and the Intermountain West. Contact Krol at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter at @debkrol.
Coverage of indigenous issues at the intersection of climate, culture and commerce is supported by the Catena Foundation.
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