'Spiritual Convoy' Heads To California Hearing On Apache Sacred Site At Oak Flat

Waya Brown, who is Apache and Pomo, dances in a circle at Oak Flat campground on Saturday, Feb. 27, 2021, near Superior, Arizona. RNS photo by Alejandra Molina

(RNS) — Members of Apache Stronghold, a nonprofit working to protect the Apache sacred site in Arizona known as Oak Flat, will embark on a spiritual convoy to San Francisco, where a court will hear an appeal the group has filed to keep the land from being transferred to Resolution Copper, a company owned by the British-Australian mining giant Rio Tinto.

Apache Stronghold will take part in a day of prayer Saturday (Oct. 9) at Oak Flat before meeting with leaders of the Tohono O’odham Nation, who will offer a blessing and prayer for their travels.

The trek itself will begin Oct. 13 and will include several driving stops to meet with Native American communities and faith leaders before the Oct. 22 hearing. 

"This court hearing is important not only for Oak Flat, but for all Indigenous people and (not just) our Indigenous religions, but we feel that if they can put our religion on trial, no one else's religion is safe,” said Vanessa Nosie, a member of Apache Stronghold. Nosie's father, Wendsler Nosie Sr., founded the group.

The group is a coalition of Apaches, other Native peoples and non-Native supporters seeking to preserve Oak Flat.

They will stop at Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson, Arizona, where the Rev. Alison Harrington has advocated for Oak Flat, saying that "what is at stake at Oak Flat is everything.”

In Phoenix, the group will meet with members of the Native American club at Brophy College Preparatory, a Jesuit high school in Phoenix that participated in a protest run earlier this year in support of Oak Flat.

On their way west, the group will pray and gather with the Salt River Pima–Maricopa Indian Community near Phoenix, the Wishotoyo Chumash in the Los Angeles region and the Elem Indian Colony of Pomo Indians in Northern California. Apache Stronghold will also rally in support for the Poor People's Campaign in the Bay Area.

In addition, Apache Stronghold has gotten support for its opposition to the land transfer from the Piipaash people of Arizona, Navajo and Akimel O’odham, as well as other Native American tribes.

Oak Flat, known in Apache as Chi’chil Biłdagoteel, is a 6.7-square-mile stretch of land east of Phoenix that falls within Tonto National Forest.

The Apache people hold a number of important ceremonies at Oak Flat that, according to their court filings, can take place only on the site, which would be destroyed by mining. The Apache believe Oak Flat is a “blessed place” where Ga’an — guardians or messengers between the people and Usen, the creator — dwell.

Congress approved the transfer of the land to Resolution Copper in 2014 as part of the National Defense Authorization Act in exchange for 6,000 acres elsewhere. On its website, Resolution Copper says it is “committed to preserving Native American cultural heritage while developing partnerships and bringing lasting benefits to the entire region."

Apache Stronghold, which is receiving legal help from the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, filed a federal lawsuit to stop the land swap, arguing that destruction of Oak Flat would violate the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. 

The senior Nosie, former chairman of the San Carlos Apache Tribe, has said that the fight to protect Oak Flat isn’t just an economic or political or legal battle, but rather a “war on our religion." Some Christian leaders have spoken out in support of Nosie’s efforts, including the Rev. William Barber II of the Poor People’s Campaign.

Vanessa Nosie said it's crucial for Native American groups to work in unison to combat evil, which she identified in this case as the capitalism embodied by the Resolution Copper project.

“Indigenous people are the forefront protecting Mother Earth and (by) protecting our religion, we’re protecting them, too,” she said. “This journey is about unifying everyone because it’s going to take all of us to defeat this evil. ... (It's) as it was in the beginning of our people: one drum, one prayer and one circle."

National Reporter Emily McFarlan Miller contributed to this story.

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