Wendsler Nosie Sr. is a true Apache warrior and Native American activist who wields the powerful weapons of words, culture and spirituality to fight for his people’s rights.
“I remember clearly in junior high traveling with our basketball team to other towns that surround the reservation and how I became confused,” Nosie said. “My question was, ‘why were things so different for non-Indians compared to us Apaches?’” Coming from the San Carlos Apache Tribe’s reservation in eastern Arizona, Nosie’s question particularly resonated. More than half the population is unemployed, with the many social ills such grinding poverty engenders.
However, Nosie’s Apache religion and culture provided a foundation for his life. “I was raised with our Apache religion and having parents and grandparents who spoke of how it was before we were prisoners of war,” Nosie said. He’s referring to when Apache people were rounded up and confined to a concentration camp at San Carlos, 100 miles due east of modern-day Phoenix. That prisoner-of-war camp is now the reservation. “All they ever knew and understood was they defended what was rightfully theirs.”
Nosie says that his work sprang from that philosophy: “The land was sacred, it is our mother blessed with all the Creator’s creations. It was our home, our way of life and we were blessed by the Creator with the knowledge to live by.”
However, in order to continue that way of life, Apaches often engage in cultural renewal on their most sacred spaces—and many of those sites are not on Apache reservation land. Some of these places include Dzil Nchaa Si An, or Mount Graham, where Nosie and his wife, Theresa, have advocated for access by his people and against development; the San Francisco Peaks, which are held sacred by 13 Southwestern tribes; and most recently, for Oak Flat and Apache Leap.
In fact, Nosie’s organization, Apache Stronghold, is working with Rep. Raul Grivalja, D-Arizona, on a new bill in Congress to repeal the authorization for Resolution Copper to create a huge mine in the area. “For the Stronghold, we have a new bill in Congress and we need every organization, Native tribes and Americans to join forces on educating our congressional leaders to support the repeal bill,” Nosie said. He also avers that the issue of Resolution Copper’s proposed mine is “no longer a Native American issue, but an American issue,” due to the possible impact on water and air in the nearby Phoenix metro area.
Nosie also took his message of cultural renewal, respect for Native rights and the environment on the road. In 2015, Apache Stronghold traveled across the nation, beginning at Mount Graham and ending with a final stop in New York’s Times Square to bring attention to the infamous land swap that enabled the multinational firms Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton to acquire the lands including Oak Flat and Apache Leap for their mine.
The Native American activist also used his term as San Carlos Apache chairman to advocate for Native rights, including Oak Flat. He’s not afraid to speak his mind to anybody, including senators, congressmen or anybody else.
He educates other Natives about why it’s important to understand their indigenous rights. “It comes down to either educating them or just being who you are and not fearing what the United States has placed as barriers,” Nosie said. “We must remember people of all color have a conscience and have a religion, we must explore these avenues and the only way is that we do it spiritually.”
And he’s opened the doors to collaboration with others. “We are indigenous to all the land in this country called America,” Nosie said. “Whether you’re Native or non-Native, but educated in the field of preserving land, water and sacred places, we must now come together and work on laws … that are obsolete.” Nosie challenges all to take an active role in “changing federal policies that will protect our identity or culture, our religious and holy places” and to evaluate laws that have harmed Native people and affected future generations.
As a Native American activist, his aim is to “continue to educate true history, the importance of mother Earth and our religious practice, and also to be a strong advocate to remind all those who call themselves Americans that we also have a rightful place.” He added that everybody must work together to preserve what is left of the Earth.
“I've been on this journey all my life,” Nosie said. “Many before me have passed on, I've been a witness to them as well as them to me. I also pray for those on this same journey who are out there. I have taken on the responsibility to educate and motivate all people to understand God's greatest gift and not for us to destroy it. You see it in every birth from everything that comes into the world they have a right to live.
“It’s definitely been a journey with all the pros and cons,” Nosie said, “but at the end of the day I just feel for the children and those yet to be born. I strongly believe it's been a personal journey to a sacred unity with the hopes that people will be awakened.”