a panoramic photo of oak flat
Climate Action, News + Advocacy

Sacred Land: Saving Oak Flat

The Chí’chil Biłdagoteel Historic District, also known as Oak Flat in Arizona, USA remains a sacred site of immense cultural importance to numerous Native Nations; who have used the area for their traditional ceremonies and medicine gathering for millennia. Despite this overwhelming significance to them, it’s under threat from being completely destroyed by mining giant, Rio Tinto.

Even though this sacred site was protected from mining by President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s executive order in 1955, the deep, rich copper deposits; that partially lie underneath Chí’chil Biłdagoteel became open to mining after legislation to allow its privatization was attached to an unrelated, must-pass 2014 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA); that funds the U.S. armed forces. For over a decade, Congress had voted down pro-mining members from introducing the Oak Flat Land Exchange Bill that would open up the area for extraction. By embedding it in the NDAA, any challenges against it could be subverted.


Chí’chil Biłdagoteel is sacred to the San Carlos Apache; Tonto Apache Tribe; the White Mountain Apache Tribe; the Yavapai-Apache Nation; the Yavapai-Prescott Indian Tribe; the Gila River Indian Community; the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community; the Hopi Tribe and the Pueblo of Zuni. They all oppose Rio Tinto (a company with a history of decimating sacred sites) from being present on their ancestral lands. Government-backed, unfettered disregard for Indigenous voices and the forced destructive removal of access to culturally significant lifeways is rather on-brand for the United States; so the Indigenous fight continues.

I am here today to advocate for my land, my religion, and my home on behalf of the next generation and the generations yet to come. […] Today, young people are standing up to protect our religion and way of life that has been under attack for far too long. Through massacre, forced removal from the land, and mandatory boarding schools, the United States has tried to silence Native voices and suppress our culture. I am here today to say that the next generation will not be silenced. I will no longer be silenced. | Naelyn Pike, Youth Organizer, Apache Stronghold, San Carlos, Arizona at the Oversight Hearing, March 12th 2020

As you’d expect from the legislators who deliberately hid Oak Flat’s land exchange within the NDAA (McCain, Flake, Kilpatrick and Gosar); the language included favoured the mining company by disrupting the due process that establishes if signing the land over to Resolution Copper (and its subsidiary, Rio Tinto) can actually go ahead. While the NDAA does stipulate that an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) has to be carried out to determine if the ecological burden is too great a risk to take; the NDAA required Chí’chil Biłdagoteel to be handed over no matter what — even if the project is declared environmentally destructive. 

As an exceptional area of documented Apache archaeology; mining Oak Flat will cause immeasurable trauma and pain to Indigenous People who are connected to it through their spiritual, religious and cultural practices. There’s no compensation, excuse or justification for wiping out the ancient Emery Oak Groves where acorns are harvested in the Fall and used as a traditional tribal staple. No reasoning will make the desecration of ancestral burial grounds, spiritual sites and sacred artefacts make sense. Protection of religious rights doesn’t begin and end with colonial-Christian theologies even though this is the lens through which America’s religious “freedoms” are most often viewed.

a photo of rock formations and desert flowers and bushes in oak flat
Tonto National Forest via Canva

Those in the United States; who support Chí’chil Biłdagoteel being handed over to Resolution Copper/Rio Tinto likely wouldn’t stand for a Christian sacred site being lost to a copper mine. There would be animated outrage followed by swift, decisive action to stop any part of it going ahead.

The outgoing Trump Administration has spent years trying to fast-track this mining project; to defend it from future government interference, the fight to preserve this area of culturally significant natural beauty continues. If you want to support the Apache Nations and stop Oak Flat from being destroyed; resources have been included at the end of this article.

There is no time to wait. Indigenous voices are mobilizing to protect what is sacred to them, let’s support this vital work.

Are you learning about this for the first time? What steps are you going to take to show your support?

Further Info:

Pronunciation: Chí’chil Biłdagoteel [Chi-chill-bil-dah-go-tell]

Read up about and follow the progress of the Save Oak Flat Acts (S. 173 and H. R. 665) then contact your representatives to ask them to co-sponsor both bills — you can find your representatives here

Sign and share this petition created by Wendsler Nosie Sr. (former chairman of the San Carlos Apache Tribe and a member of Apache-Stronghold)

A Sacred Place And A Sacred Quest To Save It — HuffPost

11 thoughts on “Sacred Land: Saving Oak Flat”

  1. This is so informative! I’m Lumbee and while I’m not as involved in the tribe as I should be, I have a really strong connection to that heritage. It’s heartbreaking to see other native peoples face such destruction and loss of their land, history, and overall being. It’s a shame that native people groups are still suffering at the cost of this nation and I’m hopeful that more voices like Naelyn’s gets heard


    1. The way this was done (which is no surprise) is another sad example of how this country continues to treat its Indigenous Peoples. I really hope that the work being done by Naelyn and all the other Apache Nations is supported as fully as possible and this destruction can be stopped. Thank you so much for reading!


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