Protecting Chich’il Bildagoteel (Oak Flat)
For Indigenous Peoples this is a story that is all too familiar. It’s another story of broken promises and environmental racism. At the same time, it’s a story of how resistance and courage have stood the test of time and of colonization. It’s a story about the youth rising to protect and fight for what their ancestors fought for. This is a story of the movement to protect Oak Flat, also known to the San Carlos and Chiricahua Apache as Chich’il Bildagoteel.
Over the course of hundreds of years, this sacred land has become a relative to the Apache. This land is a teacher, and a spiritual guide. Chich’il Bildagoteel (Oak Flat) plays a critical role in Apache culture and in ceremonies, including coming-of-age ceremonies, which provide young Apache people with identity and spiritual grounding as they enter adulthood.
Just like Bears Ears in Utah, Lake Oahe in Standing Rock, the Greater Chaco Landscape in New Mexico, the Arctic Tundra in Alaska, and all places that are being defended by Indigenous Peoples from extraction, Oak Flat is alive and continues to play a role in thousands of peoples’ lives. This place is not inanimate. Rather, it is the exact opposite. It is breathing, changing, it holds knowledge that is relevant and needed now, and just like us humans, this place has a right to exist.
But this understanding, this belief in rights of nature, is something that Arizona politicians have yet to grasp and therefore, Oak Flat is primed to be mined for copper by Rio Tinto Mining Group, which will be sold to foreign markets, primarily in Australia, providing no return for the Apache People. Not only that, but because of the technique that will be used to mine, thousands of acres of land will be contaminated with toxic mine waste and the extraction technique will leave behind a crater up to two miles wide and 1,000 feet deep. This means that the area surrounding Oak Flat will not only be destroyed and forever changed but it’ll also be too dangerous to visit again.
This was not the fate of Oak Flat. In fact, sixty years ago President Eisenhower removed this area from mining by executive order. However in 2014, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) led a back door land swap with Rio Tinto and opened Oak Flat for mining. It’s worth noting that McCain receives the largest amount of campaign funding from Rio Tinto in all of Congress.
Since this unethical and greedy decision was made in 2014, the Apache Stronghold, led by community leaders such as Wendsler Nosie Sr., Naelyn Pike, Carrie Sage Curley, and so many more, have been defending this land and continue to occupy the area to demonstrate their commitment and resistance.
As these land defenders see the desecration of this sacred place via the exploratory drilling and preparation for mining, they are also victims of hate crimes due to racism within the community. This past March, community members found a sacred site intentionally destroyed. Crosses that set a boundary around the site were removed or axed down, eagle feathers and sacred objects were moved or stolen, and tire tracks where found across the site. For Carrie Sage Curley, a community organizer with the Stronghold, this was a direct attack on her people, “the Stronghold is a spiritual movement so this attack has really shaken up our community. The elders are upset, the youth are upset. Those crosses and eagle feathers are healing for us, we pray to them, so for someone to disrespect those beings, is very serious for us.”
This site is particularly significant for coming-of-age ceremonies. Nizhoni Pike, 17 years old, recently made her ceremony at this site and the attack has left her feeling concerned for her Apache culture , “seeing the destruction of Holy Ground at Oak Flat makes me sad. I’m sad that someone could come and destroy it knowing that it is important to my culture, my traditions, and my religion. It makes me wonder, what is really important to these people? If copper or gold or oil are more important than culture and spirituality, than no culture is safe”.
Despite this blatant and horrific attack, members of the Stronghold continue to stand humble and grounded in spirituality. Carrie Sage Curley, who has every right to be mad and every right to feel resentment, instead wishes healing for whomever destroyed the Holy Ground, “whoever did this is sick and after destroying this holy place they will only become more sick, I pray for their healing and their protection”.
As mentioned the mining project is still just a proposal and mining has yet to begin, right now the company is evaluating the land and dewatering or moving water to make way for drilling and mining.
This means that there is still opportunity to fight this project. For those living in Arizona and in the U.S., contacting and urging members of Congress to protect Oak Flat is an action we can all take. In 2015, Arizona Rep. Raul Grijalva introduced the Save Oak Flat Act, which we can continue to urge our Representatives to support.
Carrie Sage Curley also asks that the global community pray for rain. “Right now the mining company is dewatering the area, so with every rainfall, that slows down their process. The rain is actually resistance to this mining project. We need prayers for rain.”
In addition, as a global community we must continue to speak, write, and learn about the United Nations Declaration of Indigenous Rights (UNDRIP), as well as Rights of Nature. These are tools in which we can use to protect our human rights and our rights as Indigenous Peoples.
While this is a familiar story, with familiar themes and struggle, the outcome does not need to be one we’ve seen before, where capitalism and colonization gets what it wants. The outcome of this story can be of triumph, of paradigm shift, and restoring balance to this world. But it’s up to us to make that vision a reality; by showing up for our communities, by taking the time from our lives to make a stand, and by simply learning. Once we know the truth of a situation, it’s hard to forget it or to un-know it. Expose yourself to what is happening to our people, that these “familiar” stories are just history repeating itself and now thanks to Standing Rock, and technology, and media based organizing, like this digital zine (Indigenous Goddess Gang), we have the power change the story. These experiences that have been familiar to us can truly become stories of the past. Our future does not need to include these types of stories, these struggles. So with that, I encourage you to envision yourself, your community, Indigenous Peoples in the future. What does our future look like, what does it feel like? Now, act from that vision.