What comes to mind when you think of “sacred land?”
Mount Sinai, Mount Olympus, Jerusalem or perhaps the Black Hills of South Dakota or Stonehenge.
About an hour east of Phoenix, in an area of high desert and prime rock-climbing and bouldering country, the Oak Flat campground is in the heart of ground sacred to the Apache Tribe where they practiced coming-of-age ceremonies, especially for girls.
It’s nestled in the Mendocino National Forest and has had special protection since President Dwight D. Eisenhower closed it to mining because of its cultural and natural value, a ban renewed in 1971 under President Richard Nixon.
According to an op-ed in the NY Times, “Despite these protections, in December 2014, Congress promised to hand the title for Oak Flat over to a private, Australian-British mining concern. A fine-print rider trading away the Indian holy land was added at the last minute to the must-pass military spending bill, the National Defense Authorization Act. By doing this, Congress has handed over a sacred Native American site to a foreign-owned company for what may be the first time in our nation’s history.”
Resolution Copper Mining will hollow out the ground underneath Oak Flat to extract ore, and when finished and the ground caves in, according to its mining plan, what will be left is a 1.8 mile wide, 950-foot-deep pit.
Rio Tinto, Resolution’s parent company has been trying for more than 10 years to gain access to this parcel of land, offering 5,300 acres of private parcels it owns for 2,400 acres, which include Oak Flats.
Always before, the proposal lacked the necessary support in Congress to pass muster.
But this time, Arizona Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake slipped it into the defense bill at the last minute, bypassing any public input or debate. To make matters worse, the bill stipulates that after the federal environmental impact statement is complete, the land goes to Resolution. It doesn’t say that the impact statement has any bearing on the transfer, just that it has to be done, and then Resolution owns the land.
As the opinion piece said, it’s a new low for democratic governance.
The whole idea that senators can affix some totally unrelated pork to any random appropriations bill, especially at the last minute, is an affront to what is supposed to be an open, transparent use of our money.
"We'll get a crater and a pile of tailings," said Curt Shannon, Arizona policy analyst for the Access Fund, a national organization formed to protect rock-climbing resources. "That doesn't sound like a very good deal for us."
Nor is it a good deal for local Native American culture, and a group of San Carlos Apaches set up a camp they call Apache Stronghold at Oak Flat to protest the exchange.
Not that any of this is new. Native Americans have been swindled out of land and sacred places since the first settlers arrived on the North American continent. The Black Hills of South Dakota, sacred to the Lakota Sioux, were promised in an 1868 that land would remain theirs.
Then gold was discovered in them thar' hills and they were “opened to white settlement.”
Which led to the battle of the Little Bighorn.
Ironically enough, since the tribal lands more recently have been opened up for gambling (mostly for descendents of those who took the land in the first place), Native Americans for the first time have something they haven’t had; money. And they have been active in court with that money, trying to get some of their land back.
And for those who think it’s all about greed, in 1980 the Lakota won a $106 million settlement for the Black Hills, but they refused it. That land is sacred ground to them, and they want the land back.
Which is why the Apache in Arizona don’t want another parcel of their cultural heritage sold away to a foreign mining company.
Consider for a moment if it had been a Christian sacred site, or Jewish…neither McCain nor Flake would have survived the heat generated by their 11th hour sleight of hand.