In this exclusive interview with ICTMN, San Carlos Apache Tribe Chairman Terry Rambler talks about the tribe’s epic battle to save Oak Flat, its most revered sacred site; he responds to comments made by an executive of Resolution Copper, the company with a controversial copper mining plan that would destroy Oak Flat and contaminate the aquifers that supply the area with water; he discusses the case of a San Carlos Apache member who works for Resolution and was recently interviewed on NPR; and he reveals some shocking information about Rio Tinto’s activities on the tribe’s reservation years ago.
Arizona politicians led by Sen. John McCain tried for years to pass a bill transferring Oak Flat to Resolution Copper to mine what is considered to be the largest copper deposit in the country. But there was never enough support to do it through “regular order’ –those rules, precedents and customs of Congress that constitute an orderly and deliberative policymaking process, including votes.
Oak Flat in southeast Arizona is part of the San Carlos Apache territory that was taken by the federal government when the tribe was removed in the 1880s to its reservation about 15 miles away. Oak Flat became part of the Tonto National Forest in 1905, but it continues to be the tribal members’ spiritual home, sustaining them with acorns, their main staple, healing them with native species of medicinal plants, and transforming them in traditional ceremonies that connect them through the land to the ancestors and the seven generations to come.
During budget season at the end of last year, McCain and Sen. Jeff Flake slipped a last minute rider into the National Defense Authorization Act of 2015 (NDAA) that transferred around 2,400 acres of the Tonto National Forest including Oak Flat, to Resolution Copper, a subsidiary of the giant international Rio Tinto mining corporation. Resolution plans a massive $64 billion copper mining operation that would take place over 60 years and ultimately transform the sacred site’s beautiful landscape into a two-mile wide hole in the ground and a huge dump site of toxic tailings.
Rambler, council member and former Chairman Wendsler Nosie Sr. and tribal members went into high gear, launching a publicity blitz and a grassroots movement to stop the mine and save the sacred site. “It may seem impossible [to stop the mine] but our elders have taught us not to lose faith in the power of prayer and of course prayer will be there to help guide us through,” Rambler told ICTMN last December.
The story of the Apaches’ sacred site and the international mining company that looks to profit has resonated with a lot of different people and the movement to save Oak Flat has grown rapidly. Dozens of tribes and tribal organizations, including the National Congress of American Indians and United South and Eastern Tribes, environmental groups, and non-Native people everywhere have voiced their opposition to the copper mine.
A White House petition to “Stop Apache Land Grab” collected more than 104,000 signatures last December. A new petition addressed to members of Congress and Interior Department Secretary Sally Jewell already has more than 78,000 signatures.
The Oak Flat drama has also grabbed the attention of Big Media, including the New York Times and National Public Radio. And on July 17, Nosie Sr., who is leading an Apache Stronghold caravan from Arizona to Washington, D.C., for a two-day rally at the Capitol July 21-22, appeared with his granddaughter Naelyn Pike on Democracy Now.
Asked by Amy Goodman what interests Arizona senators McCain and Flake have in Oak Flat, Nosie Sr. said, “I know that with Senator McCain, he is politically funded by them, you know—from Resolution Copper … And Mr. Flake, Senator Flake He was a lobbyist for Resolution Copper, Rio Tinto.”
Another Arizona lawmaker, however, was inspired by the San Carlos Apaches’ campaign to protect their sacred site. In June, Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ) introduced the bi-partisan Save Oak Flat Act – H.R. 2811 – which would repeal the McCain-Flake rider and restore Oak Flat to its previous public status. Grijalva’s bill has 17 co-sponsors and was referred to the House Subcommittee on Indian, Insular and Alaska Native Affairs on July 1.
Rambler: “It’s going to take them 10-15 years to get to that point, so there’s a window of opportunity – I like our chances.”
What was your response to the news that Rep. Grijalva had introduced the Save Oak Flat bill?
It’s something that not only San Carlos but other tribes wanted to see happen and I think it’s about time. This issue is really gaining traction not only with Indians but also non-Indians because they just don’t like the way Congress did this. After 10 years of having an open process where people could deliberate this issue and not being able to pass a bill [giving Oak Flat to a copper mining company] all of a sudden it just disappeared into the midnight hours and passed and that left a bad taste in everybody’s mouth. There was just no respect for the Apaches and other tribes, the protection of a sacred site or even our religion. So we’re all excited. We want to repeal this bill no matter how long it takes us.
What’s been happening at Oak Flat?
Tribal members formed another non-profit organization called Apache Stronghold and so they’ve taken the lead on the education and awareness and they’re occupying Oak Flat right now. And they’re going to stay there and continue to educate and raise awareness and they continue to hold events there so it’s bringing more and more people to the place itself. And now Apache Stronghold is on a caravan march to D.C. They started on July 6 to arrive around July 21. When they get there the intent is to hold a demonstration on the Capitol grounds about Oak Flat. They have a map of their route so more and more people will be joining them along the way. I’ll be there in D.C. for the National Indian Gaming Association’s (NIGA) Summer Legislative Summit … We’re going all over the country talking to different (tribal) organizations and they’re all gung-ho. They want us to succeed because they know our success is their success.
ICTMN published a recent article that included an exclusive interview with Resolution Copper Project Director Andrew Taplin in which he said that Resolution has made many attempts to talk to you, including before the Southeast Land Exchange Act was passed. Can you please talk about those statements?
They asked to meet with us but as a council we decided that our relationship and our trust responsibility lies with the federal government. And this is public land with the U.S. Department of Agriculture – it’s Tonto National Forest. So we have been talking in that channel but we believe that we don’t need to talk to Resolution Copper because they’re the ones that are pushing this [land transfer] bill, they’re the ones trying to go around this National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process to get this land which is so important to us in a way that there’s really no opportunity of influencing the outcome [because the land exchange act mandates the land transfer regardless of the NEPA outcome]. The only way we can change the outcome is to do what we’re doing, which is to repeal the giveaway act. When you’re given an ultimatum and there’s no opportunity for us to change the outcome, then it’s a done deal… With us being a tribe the federal government has to act on our behalf. The current law requires the Secretary [of the Agriculture Department] to consult with us and with Resolution Copper to try to mitigate our concerns but even with that, the ball is in their court. The way the law’s been written if we don’t like something, they just say, ‘Oh, that’s San Carlos’ concern but that’s going to hurt our business so we’re not going to do it.’
It seems like an all or nothing deal. Resolution Copper says they’re putting aside 800 acres to protect Apache Leap but those acres can’t be mined anyway so it’s like making a virtue of necessity. It seems like you need the whole thing.
Yes, the whole thing. They’re trying to appease us again. They’re saying ‘We’re going to put this 800 acres aside for you.’ What they don’t say is they already have tunnels, they’re already working underground... I re-read that article to refresh my memory and what he [Resolution Copper Project Director Andrew Taplin] says is San Carlos Apache will have access as long as it’s safe. But once they start building roads and moving around heavy equipment they’ll say, ‘Hey, it’s not safe, get out of here!’ That’s what that means.
But you can’t give up.
Oh, we’re not. It took them 10 years to pass this and if it takes 10 years to repeal it we’ll do it. I keep telling everybody this is not a done deal. Congress approved it, but the approval is contingent on the publication of an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), which in our opinion is going to take anywhere from five-to-10 years and even if they’re successful and start going into construction and start processing all this mineral, it’s going to take them 10-15 years to get to that point, so there’s a window of opportunity – I like our chances.
Won’t an environmental study show that the copper mine will destroy the land and create a one-to-two mile crater? The company itself has already said that.
I think therein lies the opportunity and this is what we’ve told the USDA: ‘This is your trust responsibility and throughout this whole process you’ve got to keep us engaged.’ And we’re going to make this whole process transparent. We’re going to reveal everything, not only for our people but also for our local neighbors who just don’t understand this, though their grandparents have gone through mining and the mess it left behind and our neighbors are living in it right now. They keep being deceived by these job numbers but even if they don’t appreciate it we’re still going to fight for them because they might not see it but their children and grandchildren will look back in time and say, ‘How come they didn’t stop this?’ Hopefully, they’ll appreciate it even if the current population doesn’t.
Tara Kitcheyan, a San Carlos member who works for Resolution Copper, was recently interviewed on an NPR story about Oak Flat. She said Oak Flat is not a sacred site because it doesn’t have a song, a name and a prayer associated with it. How does that play out with members who oppose the copper mine because of the sacredness of the site?
Oak Flat is a sacred site according to the people who know it best: the descendants of those families who lived and visited Oak Flat before the Reservation existed. Those descendants have been visiting Oak Flat, gathering traditional foods and medicines, and conducting ceremonies there for the past 150 years, and continue to this day. The Oak Flat area contains holy sites of the highest and most powerful spiritual and ceremonial order. Much of this information has been documented by tribal staff, Tonto National Forest Service staff, and professional anthropologists working for the National Forest, and is being compiled at this very moment as part of our efforts to nominate Oak Flat to the National Register of Historic Places, and to conduct the Ethnographic and Ethno-historic Survey.
What do you think will ultimately happen?
This is what I see; this is what I’m really afraid of: Back in 2000, a long time ago, Chairwoman Kathy Kitcheyan – our first chairwoman – and the council met with Rio Tinto, Resolution Copper’s parent company, and somehow they got convinced that it was okay for Rio Tinto to come onto our [reservation] land and start drilling for mineral sites. And the people got wind of it. I became a council member in 2004 and by early 2005 we put a stop to it. But they had around two or three years to do mineral exploration so they know what’s under our land, they know it’s the mother lode that’s why they haven’t given up on Oak Flat, that’s why they’ve spent over a billion dollars keeping this thing moving. And what we fear, what our elders always tell us is our lands have been reduced six times. We used to be the prime agriculture producer over here and they cut off that part of our land so that the white people could learn to be farmers. They took our water as well and now they put mines all around us. They gave our land to private companies and so we lost economic activities and the water too, so they isolated us here. But in their rush to put us on the barren land they put us on the mother lode and now they’re after that, And what we all fear is that if they’re successful at Oak Flat – they predict it’s going to be 50 years when that mine is going to run out, and what’s going to happen in 50 years is they know that [the Oak Flat copper] leads under our reservation. And at that time our current leadership will be gone and the leaders will be only our children and our children’s’ children and they are going to be faced with this Rio Tinto – mining will never satisfy its appetite. Are they going to go to Congress like they did with Oak Flat and say, ‘Give us that land – we need it for our national defense?’ As leaders we see that today and we don’t want to put our kids in that situation. That’s why we’re fighting like heck because we know what’s down the road. And now Tara Kitcheyan, Kathy Kitcheyan’s daughter works for Resolution and her mother is a consultant for Resolution and they go around telling our people, ‘Oak Flat is not sacred and we need the jobs.’
I always tell my people – especially the young folks because Tara is young and she tries to reach out to them – when Tara comes to you she gets paid every two weeks by Resolution Copper but when I come to you I come because you elected me as your leader. Nobody paid you to vote for me, I say. And as your leader I’m telling you this from my heart, from the best information I know of, this is what’s going to happen, this is why we have to keep fighting to save Oak Flat. The education we’ve been doing is good, it’s really beginning to take hold.