Apache leaders: Spirits, acorns make land proposed for copper mine sacred
SUPERIOR – Dorothy Ross often journeys to this wooded area in the Tonto National Forest to pray, harvest acorns and pick medicinal plants. She's made the trip since she was a child.
Assembled at a campsite east of Superior, Ross and other elders of the San Carlos Apache Tribe say this area of the Pinal Mountains is sacred. God created their people at this site and gave them the land, they say.
Speaking collectively in their native language through an interpreter, Ross, Delores Jordan, Gertrude Waterman and Audrey Johnson say spirits living in the crevices and canyons provide blessings to the Apache.
Tribal leaders traditionally have preferred to have healing ceremonies and purification rituals here.
Acorns that provide powder used in many Apache dishes and ceremonies have more significance when harvested in this area. Women elders bring girls here to teach them how to gather acorns with prayer and reverence for nature.
"God created this area for us," the interpreter says, distilling the thoughts of the four women. "Since the beginning of time, this area was never restricted to us."
But the area also holds what's been called the largest untapped reserve of copper in the U.S. and possibly in the world. Not far from Oak Flat Campground, Resolution Copper Co., a joint venture of Anglo-Australian mining giants Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton, wants to mine a deposit that's more than a mile below the surface.
With legislation pending in Congress to swap 2,400 acres of public land in the Tonto National Forest, including Oak Flat Campground, for land elsewhere in the state, one tension pits leaders of the San Carlos Apache Tribe against supporters who say the mine would create sorely needed jobs and boost the state's economy.
The tribe's concerns extend beyond the campground to Apache Leap, a ridge looming over Superior. Indian skepticism about Western motives is captured by the legend of the cliff, where Apache warriors are said to have leaped to their deaths rather than surrender to the U.S. troops.
Although the area where the mine is planned doesn't include Apache Leap, tribal leaders worry that the operation would undermine the area and damage the cliff.
More than just Apache Leap, the elders said, the tribe's concerns extend to the welfare of a general area that members consider theirs in spirit, if not on paper.
"This was the home of the Apache people," said Wendsler Nosie Sr., chairman of the San Carlos Apache Tribe. "God blessed this site of the world and told us of the importance of returning back to this place where the acorn gives us the acorn powder which feeds and nourishes us."
The Apache hold ceremonial dances at Oak Flat Campground to ask the spirits for blessings to ward off evil. The dancers, usually male, are often called crown dancers because they wear ornate headdresses.
"This is where, for us, the world was touched," Nosie said. "It's a religious place and a sacred site."
Native Americans often view the entire area surrounding a sacred site as holy, said James Riding In, an associate professor of American Indian studies at Arizona State University. As a result, economic interests such as mining operations, ranching, ski resorts and tourism are often at odds with native beliefs.
"Non-Indians often don't understand Indian perspectives about sacredness of the land," he said. "Small Indian nations are often pitted against a government that protects economic interests, usually at the expense of Indian spirituality."
Lomayumtewa C. Ishii, chair of applied indigenous studies at Northern Arizona University, said Native Americans often face cultural and linguistic barriers when they try to convey the religious nature of sites to non-native people.
"You have indigenous people trying to articulate in a language Western people understand why many of these sites are sacred," Ishii said. "In Western society, law is the final arbiter of all of this, and they have to be able to prove why the site is sacred."
In April, the San Carlos Apache Tribe sent a letter asking the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues to support its efforts to protect Oak Flat Campground and Apache Leap.
"We've been kicked every which way, and this is why we are filing human rights violations," Nosie said. "These important things that make a people are being undermined."
A spokesman said Resolution Copper has tried to incorporate tribal concerns into its plan. He produced letters showing efforts to contact the San Carlos Apache leadership and other tribes in the region.
In a phone interview, Mary Lee Johns, senior adviser on tribal government for Rio Tinto, one of the companies with an ownership stake in Resolution Copper, noted that company officials have made tribal concerns paramount even though by law the federal government is responsible for consulting with tribes.
"We have tremendous respect for sacred areas, demonstrated by the work we have done in other countries," she said. "We'd like to sit down with all the Arizona tribes to develop an agreement."
At Oak Flat Campground, Ross and the other elders said they worry that they will no longer be able to come here if the mine opens.
"This land was given to us by the Creator," the interpreter said. "The day they build the mine is the day we stop praying here."