a panoramic photo of oak flat
Advocacy & News, Awareness & Unlearning, Climate Action

Sacred Land: Saving Oak Flat

The Chí’chil Biłdagoteel Historic District, also known as Oak Flat, in Arizona, USA is a sacred site of immense cultural importance to numerous Native Nations who — over millennia — have used the area for their traditional ceremonies and medicine gathering. 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 the unrelated, must-pass 2014 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) which 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 burying it in the NDAA, any challenges against it could be subverted.

photo by john mark jennings of a tall cactus in tonto national forest, arizona, usa
Oak Flat is located in Tonto National Forest (pictured) — via John Mark Jennings

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, and they are right to oppose Rio Tinto — a company with a history of decimating sacred sites — from being a presence 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, but so is the continued Indigenous fight to protect them.

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 in it favours the mining company by disrupting the due process set up to establish 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 by the Forest Service before control is given to Resolution Copper — these statements are supposed to look at the environmental burden and ramifications of a proposed project to determine whether or not anything can proceed — it also set forth a requirement that Oak Flat be handed over no matter what the EIS found. The NDAA basically helped remove all the barriers and consequences of accessing Chí’chil Biłdagoteel.

As an exceptional area of documented Apache archaeology, mining Oak Flat will cause immeasurable trauma and pain to the Indigenous People who are connected to it through their spiritual, religious and cultural practices — that helps pass on their lifeways through generations. There is no compensation, excuse or justification for wiping out the ancient Emery Oak Groves whose acorns are harvested in the Fall and used as a traditional tribal staple. There is no reasoning that 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 seen.

photo of tonto national forest
Tonto National Forest via Canva

Those in the United States legislative branch (and the general populace) who support Chí’chil Biłdagoteel being handed over to Resolution Copper/Rio Tinto would likely not 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. But as the fight continues to save this area of natural beauty and cultural importance (for a few years now the outgoing Trump administration has shown a keen interest in fast-tracking this mining project) there are a number of things included at the end of this article that you can do to support the Apache Nations and stop Oak Flat from being destroyed.

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

Further Info/Support:

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

Follow Save Oak Flat and check out all their information, social media links and other ways you can help support their work (including email and letter templates)

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

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10 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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