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In Arizona, a struggle over a sacred site of the Apache tribe

In southern Arizona, the proposed site of a new mine is pitting the mining company, Resolution Cooper, against the San Carlos Apache people. The site sits above one of the largest untapped copper reserves in North America and is worth billions of dollars, but is also a sacred site for the San Carlos Apache Tribe. Special Correspondent Benedict Moran reports from Oak Flat, Arizona.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Last week, the Biden administration paused a land transfer in Arizona, that could have led to a massive copper mine.

    Oak Flat, Arizona, about an hour east of Phoenix, sits above one of the largest untapped copper reserves in North America, likely worth billions of dollars. But the land is also a sacred site for the San Carlos Apache and many other Native American tribes. The transfer, if approved, would allow a private international company to use a controversial technique that even it admits would destroy the area.

    Now, as Special Correspondent Benedict Moran reports, a group of Apaches is hoping that the delay will help their lawsuit against the government to go forward in an effort to stop the mine altogether.

  • Benedict Moran:

    For more than a year, Wendsler Nosie, a former chairman of the San Carlos Apache Indian tribe, has camped out on this site in central Arizona.

    In Apache, it's called Chich'il biłdagoteel. Or in English, Oak Flat. Currently part of the Tonto National Forest, Oak Flat may soon be turned into a mine. That's what Nosie is here to stop.

  • Wendsler Nosie:

    This is a holy and sacred site where our deities reside.

  • Benedict Moran:

    To Nosie, this land is sacred. Not only to the Apache, but to many Native American tribes.

    As sacred, he says, as Mecca or Mount Sinai.

  • Wendsler Nosie:

    From time immemorial, when we go back to the very beginning, when we talk about our religion, when we talk about our ancient songs and our ancient ways, it all came from these places.

  • Benedict Moran:

    Oak Flat is a popular destination, for both campers and rock climbers. In 1955, it was protected from mining by President Eisenhower. For decades, mining companies tried, and failed, to pass legislation authorizing Oak Flat to be privatized.

    Then in 2014, then-Senator John McCain, just hours before the vote, added a land exchange deal to the national defense spending bill. It passed, and it gave the land to Resolution Copper, a subsidiary of mining giants Rio Tinto and BHP copper. Now, with the land set to be privatized

    Nosie and other groups have recently sued the U.S. government to stop the mine from going forward.

    The opposition to this project focuses on how the mining itself would take place. Even the mining company agrees, were the project to proceed, Oak Flat, and many of the areas around it, would be completely destroyed.

    Resolution Copper is planning on using a controversial technique called block cave mining. It will create a crater two miles wide, and 1000 feet deep. That's large enough to fit the Eiffel Tower.

  • Wendsler Nosie:

    So all of this that you're looking [at] here is all in line to collapse, subside, fall, into the earth.

  • Promo Video:

    For decades, the project will meet more than a quarter of the nation's current copper demand…

  • Benedict Moran:

    Resolution Copper did not agree to an interview. But in a statement and in promotional videos like this one, representatives from parent company Rio Tinto said the mine could provide up to one-quarter of the United States' copper demand, pump billions into the economy, and create thousands of jobs. Especially in the nearby town of Superior.

    Mining is in Superior's DNA. Even the street names are inspired by it. A generation ago, mining provided the backbone of the town's economy. But when the old copper mine shut down in 1996, many residents left, forced to seek employment elsewhere.

    The population of Superior is half of what it was at its peak. Many stores here on Main Street have been boarded up for more than a decade. So, supporters of the mine stress that any investment is welcome.

    Resolution Copper is a big donor in Superior. They funded after-school education programs at the local high school, public art projects, and even the construction of a new playground.

    Mayor Mila Besich comes from a long line of miners.

  • Mila Besich:

    My family's been here for five generations, and obviously my great grandfathers immigrated here because of mining.

  • Benedict Moran:

    Besich says even with an emerging alternative economy, Superior needs the mine to survive.

  • Mila Besich:

    We're diversifying our economy. We have new restaurants, new activities coming into play. We have some other interest in our industrial park and hotels coming into the community. But mining is still going to be that base employer for our region.

  • Benedict Moran:

    But the Oak Flat land swap has divided residents.

  • Paul Medlock:

    I'll miss Oak Flats, I have a lot of fond memories at Oak Flats, but I think the economy and the jobs that this will provide outweighs the property's prior use.

  • Benedict Moran:

    Others are against it, worried about the environmental impacts, and fearing the economic benefits won't pan out.

  • Tom Macias:

    A lot of people who were supportive of the mine, were kind of like thinking, oh my gosh, it's going to go back to the way it used to be. But those days are gone, those days are gone. We're going to have a machine do what a man used to do or a machine doing that would do 20 times as one man.

  • Benedict Moran:

    And there is the issue of mining of sacred land. Mining giant Rio Tinto recently faced intense backlash for their treatment of sacred sites elsewhere.

    Last year while seeking to access high-grade iron ore in Australia, the company blew up a cave that was sacred for aboriginal people.

  • Protestors:

    Always was, always will be Aboriginal land!

  • Benedict Moran:

    It led to a global outcry. And in September, forced out the company's chief executive. Archeologists say they hope to prevent the same destruction at Oak Flat, which is home to vast troves of remains, including pottery, and these ancient petroglyphs. But for the mine's opponents, it's not only about preserving the past. They say it's also about stopping historic injustice.

    Apache ancestral lands once stretched from Oklahoma to Arizona, and down into Mexico. When Europeans colonized this area, they…

  • John R. Welch:

    …were quite convinced by the 1850s that there were large deposits of extraordinarily valuable minerals to be had, and that only the Apaches stood in the way.

  • Benedict Moran:

    By the end of the 19th century, Apaches were killed, sent to prisoner-of-war camps, or forced onto reservations. One of the lawsuits seeking to reverse the land deal alleges the U.S. government promised to protect Oak Flat in perpetuity, on the basis of an 1852 treaty.

    James Anaya is the former U.N. special rapporteur on the rights of Indigenous peoples, and Dean of the University of Colorado-Boulder Law School.

  • James Anaya:

    By and large U.S. law has sided with the conquest of native peoples and the taking of their rights and lands without fairness and genuine consent.

  • Benedict Moran:

    He says the 1852 treaty, and other agreements guaranteeing the rights of native religion, should be respected.

  • James Anaya:

    If we are going to apply the kind of thinking that I would think we need to apply today on, that is, looking to restore the dignity of Native people, people of color more generally, that is geared towards rooting out the legacies of racism in the past, a much more generous reading of those treaties is required.

  • Benedict Moran:

    Resolution Copper has said they will work with the Apache, and other Native American communities, to find an alternative site for religious practices. But to Wendsler Nosie, there is no alternative to Oak Flat.

    He says he's not leaving, and is hoping for a good outcome in the courts.

  • Wendsler Nosie:

    The United States must stop this project. And so I have to put my hope and faith there. Because for me, personally, it's going to really show me where the United States, having a second look, really stands on the issue of Native people, the first people of this country. Now that we sit here with these lawsuits in front of us, we're finally knocking on the door, but will that door open?

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