Stealing Indian Land for a Copper Mine


The desert riparian environment of Oak Flat. Photo by Anna Jeffrey

By Sheryl Estrada

“All of the federally recognized tribes now know the world has changed,” Wendsler Nosie, a member of the San Carlos Apache Tribe, said.

A resident of the San Carlos Apache Reservation, in southeast Arizona, the change Nosie is referring to is set to occur near the town of Superior.

The Southeast Arizona Land Exchange and Conservation Act is included in the $585 billion National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) of 2015, which passed by the House and Senate in December. One of the few pieces of legislation that has always been renewed on time, the NDAA has been passed by Congress for 52 consecutive years.

The land exchange act was added into the NDAA through the efforts of Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.), who, along with Arizona Republican Senator Jeff Flake, believes the project will boost the economy and create 3,700 jobs over several decades, according to The Huffington Post. The act was not discussed publicly, but was added during secret negotiations between the House and Senate Armed Services Committee. Moreover, it wasn’t disclosed until work began on passing the complete defense bill.

The act took almost a decade to pass in Congress, prior to being placed in the NDAA.

What is the purpose of the land exchange To operate an underground copper mine in Superior, which has one of the largest untapped copper deposits in the world. The act essentially steals 2,422 acres of Tonto National Forest—sacred Apache land, where the copper rests—in exchange for 5,344 acres of private land owned by Resolution Copper, a joint venture between Rio Tinto, a British-Australian multinational metals and mining corporation, and BHP Billiton, a mining, metals and petroleum company with headquarters in Melbourne, Australia.

“It’s like they’re saying, ‘We’re going to take away your child and give you this kid instead,'” Anna S. Jeffrey said.

Jeffrey, 55, is a native of Superior who has been involved in a lengthy grassroots fight to stop the land exchange. She says the 2,422 acres of Tonto National Forest is desert riparian, which is lush and green and surrounded by dry desert vegetation. She believes its beauty is incomparable—”Sedona’s got nothing on us”—and the 5,344 acres to be given is not equal in aesthetic or emotional value. The emotional and spiritual value is particularly important to the Apache tribe, specifically the Oat Flat area, she said.

Wendsler Noise, far left, at an Apache Sunrise Ceremony. Photo by Anna Jeffrey

The federally owned land in the exchange includes the 760-acre Oak Flat Withdrawal area, a few miles east of Superior.

On the website of Representative Paul A. Gosar, (R-Ariz.) regarding the Resolution Copper bill, it states: “U.S. Forest Service does not register the Oak Flat campground as a ‘sacred site.’ The majestic Apache Leap Cliffs—which are celebrated by Native American lore—are not included in the mine project.”

Members of Apache tribe would beg to differ about the sacredness of the site. According to the Apache Messenger, Oak Flat has been a sacred site for many generations, and is being revisited by youth for ceremonies practiced by their ancestors.

But the beginning of the conversion from natural beauty to active mine is beginning to show:

Walking around Oak flat, food is abundant, water sources are everywhere. The rock ledges provide shelter. There are many sites where there is evidence that many people lived here. Everyone who came for the Dance, loved the area and enjoyed the scenery and the cool evenings. The only negative to the area were all the mining claims which are spotted almost at every turn, the drill rigs, the trapping of water and the piping of water along the roadways to pump the available water to help the mining efforts which already are destroying this sacred place.

“Oak Flat sits on a holy place, where God came and spoke to us,” Nosie, 55, said.

As the land will become privately owned, the constant accessibility the tribe has may be compromised. This is why Nosie said he’s made several trips to Washington, D.C., over the course of nine-and-a-half years to ask for the help of Congress to stop the act. There is a definite grass-roots movement by many members of the San Carlos Apache Tribe and supporters in the town of Superior and beyond.

“The Apache and other tribes are bringing protests to Senator McCain and other leaders,” he said.

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