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Yavapai-Apache Chairman: ‘Oak Flat Holy Sites are Central to Apache Spiritual Beliefs’

The Yavapai Apache Nation opposes the Senate’s giveaway of a parcel of public land in southeastern Arizona that includes Oak Flat.

The Yavapai Apache Nation opposes the Senate’s giveaway of a parcel of public land in southeastern Arizona that includes Oak Flat, an Apache sacred site.

The sacred site is part of a 2,400-acre landscape of forests, streams, desert, grasslands, craggy mountains, and huge rock formations with ancient petroglyphs that has nourished the Indigenous people of the area both spiritually and materially since time immemorial. The Senate voted to transfer the land to Resolution Copper, which plans to excavate a massive underground copper mine beneath the sacred site. Resolution is owned by Rio Tinto, an international mining giant that has been accused for years of human rights violations and environmental abuse. Last year, protesters and unions from around the world heavily criticized Rio Tinto over alleged lapses in safety leading to the deaths of 41 people and a string of claimed environmental abuses, The Guardian reported.

The land is part of San Carlos Apache Tribe’s aboriginal territory. The Yavapai-Apache Nation stands with San Carlos in its efforts to protect Oak Flat, because the site is also sacred to the Yavapai-Apache Nation, Chairman Thomas Beauty told ICTMN.

“These places, like Oak Flat, are important to us religiously and their preservation and protection is critical for the survival of our culture, our people and our way of life,” Beauty said. “The holy sites at Oak Flats are central to our Apache spiritual beliefs.”

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After years of trying to pass a bill to transfer the land through regular order – the process of debating, amending and voting on the bill in the Senate -- Senator John McCain (R-AZ) slipped the Southeast Arizona Land Exchange and Conservation Act of 2013 into the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), the must-pass military spending bill. The Senate passed the NDAA on December 11 and President Obama signed off on it December 19. McCain’s fellow Arizona legislator, Senator Jeff Flake (R-AZ), applauded its passage and assured the Indigenous people of the area they would still have access to the place their ancestors considered sacred for thousands – at least, for a while longer. “While a number of Arizona tribal governments raised concerns about the closure of a Forest Service campground called ‘Oak Flat,’ the bill guarantees that Native Americans can continue to access the campground for many years until the mining company needs to mine underneath it,” Flake said.

In exchange for the 2,400 acres Resolution Copper will give the federal government 5,000 acres of overgrazed grassland, burned out forests and dry riverbeds in various parcels of land scattered around the state. One parcel of 3,000 acres are in a flood plain and can’t be mined, developed or inhabited. Photos can be seen here.

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The 2,400 acres are in the Tonto National Forest and were thought to be protected as public land, but the land will be transferred unless the opposition can pressure lawmakers to change the law. San Carlos Apache leaders have called for a "Gathering of All Nations" protest at Oak Flat Campground on February 7, following a two-day march. More information is available at Save Oak Flat.

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RELATED: All Nations Gathering

In an email exchange with ICTMN, Chairman Beauty talked about the Yavapai Nation’s relationship with the sacred Oak Flat and the Nation’s solidarity with the San Carlos Apache Tribe in protecting it:

What are your thoughts on the Senate land-swap, giving away 2400 acres of public land, including the sacred Oak Flats?

As a sovereign tribe, I share the same thoughts my late-grandpa and former Chairman Theodore Smith Sr. and our former Chairman and Apache Culture Director Vincent Randall: You can’t drink money, money won’t save you when all resources are gone and depleted.

The Nation disagrees with the land-swap of 2,400 acres of public land that includes Apache sacred sites. In the United States, our constitution grants each and every one of us the freedom of religion. We speak about this freedom, yet the first people of the United States, the Native American population, are continuously denied the freedom of religion and the preservation of religious sites, such as Oak Flats. As Indian people, we hold many places as sacred and holy, and we are the stewards of the Earth, taking care of the environment just as the Creator gifted it to us, so we don’t build churches and temples. However, these places, like Oak Flats, are important to us religiously and their preservation and protection is critical for the survival of our culture, our people and our way of life. The holy sites at Oak Flats are central to our Apache spiritual beliefs.

Is that land also sacred to the Yavapai-Apache? If so, what are the tribe’s traditional connections and uses of the land?

Oak Flat is considered a holy place for the Yavapai-Apache people. It is home to the spring, and we recognize that water is life, it is the home to Apache medicine and it is where we consider the Gaan (Mountain Spirits) to emerge from. Additionally, the region is directly connected to the Yavapai-Apache Nation, as four (4) of our clans in our culture originate from Oak Flats.

San Carlos Apache Chairman Terry Rambler says he will continue to fight against the giveaway of the sacred land. Will you support his effort and if so, how will you do that?

Chairman Rambler has reached out to Yavapai-Apache Nation and the Executive Office with an invitation to meet and discuss the next steps.

The Yavapai-Apache Nation will support Chairman Rambler and the San Carlos Apache Tribe in their efforts to protect Oak Flats.

As the Chairman of the Yavapai-Apache Nation, I feel it is my responsibility to my people, my elders and our future generations to always fight for the things that have been important to our people since time immemorial and to continue to fight for my people’s future and the continued existence of our culture.

We know that as Indian people, fighting these battles is challenging. It is my initial thought, that in this fight, we must focus on solutions that will protect Oak Flats, and we must demonstrate our willingness to come to the table with Rio Tinto and the Arizona congressional delegation for discussion on how all parties can put forth effort collaboratively to not only protect Oak Flats, but to also create jobs and enterprise in a more responsible way that leaves minimal impacts to the environment and region.