Vandals have struck a historic altar in Oak Flat, a site used for centuries by Apache peoples for prayer and ceremonies and now at the center of a battle over a proposed copper mine.
It was the second time in three years that the altar had been damaged and the leader of the grassroots group that led the fight against the mine said he was more fearful of such attacks on cultural sites and people.
In an emotional call to The Arizona Republic Thursday night, Apache Stronghold leader Wendsler Nosie compared the destruction and desecration to similar attacks on houses of worship, including the bombing of a Birmingham church in 1963 which killed four school-aged girls.
“We are at war with what is evil in the world,” said Nosie, the former president of the San Carlos Apache Tribe, in a tearful voice. “It’s like where in the South they burned down churches.” He added that religious people across the United States should be alarmed by this attack and other similar attacks on places of worship.
A company owned by British and Australian interests wants to build a massive copper mine on the 2,200-acre site southeast of Phoenix. A federal judge heard arguments Oct. 22 over the religious significance of the site and the two Arizona senators are facing pressure to stop the project.
Nosie said he was in Phoenix on Thursday to see an optometrist when he got a call he said he didn’t want to hear anymore: three of the four crosses spanning the altar were thrown to the ground and one was broken in two. Other cult objects, including abalone shells, were strewn around the site, and a nearby staff used in ceremonies had also been thrown to the ground.
In March 2018, two of the four crosses that mark the border of the altar were removed, two others damaged and eagle feathers thrown to the ground.
The desecration of the Oak Flat altar is part of a rising trend in incidents targeting places of worship. The FBI reported that such incidents increased by 27% between 2014 and 2020. The online news site Axios reported that crimes against churches, synagogues, mosques, Buddhist temples and other places of worship were on track to surpass 2020 numbers.
By Friday morning, Nosie, surrounded by his family and other Apache Stronghold members, had dried his tears but was still distraught over the damage to the sacred site.
A helicopter hovered low over the area and another media team flew a drone over the area near the Resolution mine head, which overlooks Oak Flat.
While a Republic reporter and photographer were at the scene, a Forest Service law enforcement officer attended the scene. Nosie told the officer about the incidents, which he characterized as hate crimes. The officer said a special agent would be called to investigate. Soon another officer arrived. Apache Stronghold said an investigation was launched after the reporting team left.
September and October have been stressful for Nosie, 62, who has resided in Oak Flat since November 2019 praying for her salvation from obliteration.
He said he was shot several times, most recently while preparing for a Sunrise Dance, the traditional coming-of-age ceremony for Apache girls, in late September. During that incident, Nosie said he had to pull a friend to safety as bullets whizzed past his head. The teepee he was staying in was stolen and he had to remove a trailer from the campground after it was repeatedly vandalized. He said he reported the incidents.
The campground, located about 60 miles east of Phoenix on land in the Tonto National Forest, has been the center of a more than 17-year struggle by Apache and other southern indigenous peoples. -west to prevent the site from being handed over to a foreign mining company. for a new copper mine.
The mine would be built and operated by Resolution Copper, which is owned by British-Australian mining companies Rio Tinto and BHP. The company offered other environmentally sensitive land in exchange. Resolution said the project would bring about 3,700 jobs and $1 billion a year to Arizona’s economy. After Nosie and other activists blocked the legislation for 10 years, the land swap was finally authorized by Congress in December 2014.
To obtain the copper ore, Resolution would use a method known as block mining, in which the ground beneath the ore body is excavated. The tunnels are then collapsed and the ore is transported through another tunnel to a crushing plant. The method is said to be cheaper than traditional mining, which has been happening in the area occasionally for over 100 years. Eventually, the ground beneath Oak Flat will subside and create a crater approximately 1,000 feet deep and nearly 2 miles in diameter.
The US Forest Service issued the final environmental impact statement and draft decision for the copper mine and land swap on January 15, five days before the end of the Trump administration. The move triggered a 60-day clock in which the land swap could be finalized.
On March 1, the Forest Service withdrew the statement and said it would resume consultations with the tribes.
The attack on the altar came as the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals assesses Apache Stronghold’s lawsuit against the US government to overturn the land deal. The group said its First Amendment religious rights would be significantly impaired by the destruction of Oak Flat. The court heard arguments Oct. 22 after a two-week “spiritual convoy” by Nosie and other Apache Stronghold members from Oak Flat in San Francisco, where the court held the hearing.
The week after the hearing, Apache Stronghold bought billboards along Phoenix freeways in an effort to raise awareness of the issue and put pressure on Arizona Sens. Kyrsten Sinema and Mark Kelly, both Democrats, to rally support for a bill introduced by the Democratic Representative from Arizona. Raul Grijalva and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, an independent, to repeal the land swap.
That same week, Resolution bought online ads touting copper as essential to the country’s energy future.
Nosie said on Friday that the bill was withdrawn from consideration to be incorporated into the infrastructure and fiscal reconciliation bills in Congress. Calls to Grijalva and Rep. Tom O’Halleran, in whose district the campground is located, to confirm the bill was dead went unreturned.
John Scaggs, a spokesman for the Tonto National Forest, emailed a statement about the vandalism. He verified that a Forest Service law enforcement officer had been dispatched to Oak Flat Friday morning to examine the vandalism and verify that private property had been damaged.
“The Forest Service is disappointed to learn that vandalism is occurring on National Forest System lands and especially saddened that it has occurred on traditional cultural property,” he wrote. “Tonto law enforcement continues to investigate the incident.”
Fighting back tears, Nosie said Apache Stronghold would hold a four-day vigil for the crosses, which he said “lay on the ground like humans who have been murdered.” A ceremony would take place to replace the crosses.
Nosie is also concerned about petroglyphs and other Oak Flat artifacts that were discovered during the Telegraph Fire. And, he said, he feared such incidents would increase after the US attorney’s statements in the hearing that the government-owned Oak Flat could do what he wanted with the site, whatever the religious impact.
Arizona: Indigenous peoples face legal barriers to protecting sacred spaces
Nosie said the incidents should be seen as a wake-up call to tribes that their cultural sites on federal lands are in danger. He also said there was a broader issue of fighting for clean water and air. “We can’t eat what Resolution mine,” he said.
“Without water and air, we will not survive.”
Debra Krol reports on indigenous communities at the confluence of climate, culture, and commerce in Arizona and the Intermountain West. Contact Krol at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter at @debkrol.
Coverage of Indigenous issues at the intersection of climate, culture and trade is supported by the Catena Foundation.
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