Apache Leap is one potential sacred site being threatened by a provision added to the National Defense Authorization Act reauthorization that would allow a large copper mine project.

San Carlos Apache Leader Seeks Senate Defeat of Copper Mine on Sacred Land

Gale Courey Toensing

The leader of the San Carlos Apache Tribe is asking the Senate not to vote on the annual National Defense Authorization Act until a provision that would allow a massive copper mining project on sacred land is removed.

The House approved a bill on December 4 that gives 2,400 acres of sacred Apache land to a giant international mining corporation, then sent it to the Senate for a fast vote in a process that won’t allow amendments to be made. The Senate is expected to act on it this week.

The land swap bill, called the Southeast Arizona Land Exchange and Conservation Act of 2013 (H.R. 687), was attached as a rider to the annual must-pass National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) along with several other land-related bills.

If approved by the Senate and signed by President Obama, the land swap legislation will allow Resolution Copper Co., a subsidiary of the controversial international mining conglomerate Rio Tinto, to acquire 2,400 acres of the federally protected public land in the Tonto National Forest in southeast Arizona in exchange for 5,000 acres in parcels scattered around the state. Resolution Copper plans a massive deep underground copper mine using a technique called block caving in which a shaft is drilled more than a mile deep into the earth and the material is excavated without any reinforcement of the extraction area. Block caving leaves the land above vulnerable to collapse.

San Carlos Apache Chairman Terry Rambler is hoping – and praying – that won’t happen. He’s also organizing a publicity blitz and grassroots movement to stop the transfer of the land.

Is it possible?

“It may seem impossible but our elders have taught us not to lose faith in the power of prayer and of course prayer will be there to help guide us through, but as far as a strategy, we know it’s going to take a grassroots effort and a lot of awareness in the public eye to see our side of the story and that’s what we need to get out there,” Rambler told ICTMN.

As part of the effort, Rambler urges people to sign onto a White House petition, Stop the Apache Land Grab, and spread the word. In addition, Rambler asks readers to call or email your senators and tell them to refuse to vote – or vote no – on the NDAA until the bill to destroy the Apache sacred site is removed. Contact information for senators is here.

The 2,400-acre land – part of San Carlos Apache’s aboriginal territory – is beautiful as well as sacred. It is a varied landscape of forests, streams, desert, grasslands, craggy mountains, and huge rock formations with ancient petroglyphs. It includes Oak Flats and nearby Apache Leap – a cliff from which Apaches jumped to their death to avoid being killed by settlers in the late 19th century – and Devil’s Canyon. The San Carlos Apaches and other Native people conduct ceremonies, gather acorns – their main food staple – and medicinal plants there. The now public land is held in trust by the federal government and is also used by non-Native nature lovers for hiking, camping, bird watching and rock climbing, and is used for field trips by Boy Scout groups.

The copper mine project is widely opposed. A broad coalition of southwestern tribal nations and Indian country in general, the Sierra Club and other environmental groups, who say the mine will devastate the water that feeds the area’s aquifers, have thwarted Rio Tinto’s efforts to acquire the land over the past decade. Both the National Congress of American Indians and the United South and Eastern Tribes have passed resolutions opposing the land swap and mining proposal.

In May 2006, the San Carlos Apache council passed a resolution opposing the land swap on intertwined religious and environmental grounds, citing tribal, state and federal laws, including the National Historic Preservation Act, the Archaeological Resources Protection Act, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, and Executive Order 13007—Protection of Indian Sacred Sites. But once the land is transferred into private hands these protective laws no longer apply.

The land swap proponents say the bill was amended to address these tribal concerns about sacred areas and the environment, but that’s not the case, Rambler said.

“Despite changes to require consultation with affected tribes and National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) compliance, the provision still mandates the transfer of tribal sacred areas into the private ownership of Resolution Copper regardless of the results of the consultation or information and recommendations resulting from the NEPA process,” Rambler said. “A mandatory conveyance defeats the purpose of tribal consultations and the NEPA process that are designed to help provide information before decisions are made. In [the land swap bill] the outcome is pre-determined, rendering tribal views and public comments meaningless. Further, [it] would not require Resolution Copper to mitigate impacts on tribal sacred areas after conveyance and contains no repercussions/penalties on Resolution Copper for harm/destruction to tribal sacred areas.”

The Southeast Arizona Land Exchange and Conservation Act is “business-as-usual,” ICTMN columnist Steve Newcomb commented. “This legislation, with its Orwellian title, demonstrates perfectly the United States' lack of sincerity when it comes to 'implementing' the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and when it comes to protecting the sacred and culturally sensitive places of our original nations,” Newcomb said. “It's business-as-usual for the United States when it comes to corporatizing such sensitive areas on behalf of foreign corporations such as Rio Tinto. Clearly, this is but one more example of the impact of the doctrine of Christian discovery and domination.”

The Obama administration, however, does not support the land swap or copper mine. On Saturday (December 6) Interior Department Secretary Sally Jewell criticized the last minute addition of the land swap bill and other legislation that would create six new national parks and 14 National Heritage Areas to the NDAA, the Washington Post reported.

Of the Tonto National Forest land swap, Jewell said, “I think that is profoundly disappointing.” She said she was happy to see the other land bills make progress, but “The preference on public lands bills is that they go through a typical process of public lands bills and they get debate and discussion.”

Rambler said the land swap bill was added to the must pass NDAA because it would never pass otherwise. “Because of all the years of education we’ve been doing we gained a lot of support and convinced enough Republicans that this is a bad deal for Apaches, Arizona and America. The bill wouldn’t pass if it were to go through the regular process of discussion and debate.”

Sen. Jon McCain (R-AZ) has been the lead supporter over the years of Rio Tinto’s efforts to acquire the land. McCain was instrumental in attaching the land swap bill into the NDAA at the last minute, according to the Huffington Post.

The giant mining company and its subsidiary have spent millions of dollars lobbying Congress and making donations to legislators including McCain, according to the Federal Elections Commission, and Open Secrets.

The fact that Rio Tinto is followed by a trail of controversy apparently does not concern the copper mine’s supporters. Earlier this year, protesters and unions from around the world heavily criticized the mining behemoth over alleged lapses in safety leading to the deaths of 41 people and a string of claimed environmental abuses, the Guardian reported. Native Papuan people and others protesting against the deaths of 33 people who perished when a tunnel collapsed in a gold mine in Indonesia complained of Rio Tinto’s alleged human rights and environmental abuses in Madagascar, Australia, Namibia and the U.S.

Rambler said he hopes the Senate will have “the sense” to reject the NDAA until the land swap bill is removed. “This land is where we go to pray, it’s where we have our sunrise ceremony, our coming of age ceremony. It’s where we get our food and where the Creator God put our water resources and there’s going to be a hole there over an area of two miles in circumference,” Rambler said. “And that’s what we’ll leave our children – not just Apache children but all the children of the white people, the Mexicans, the African Americans who live there. That’s what we’ll leave all our children.”

If the Senate passes the bill, Rambler said he hopes Obama will have “the courage” to veto it. “I would like him to have the confidence to know that if he does veto it that it won’t be overridden.” It would take 67 votes in the Senate and a two-thirds majority of the House to veto-proof the bill.

But the San Carlos Apaches’ struggle won’t end until the sacred land is protected, Rambler said. “Even if this passes we’re still going to fight it any way that we can,” he said.

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Flower's picture
Submitted by Flower on
President Obama says 'Not Under My Watch'. I truly believe he will veto the bill if it does pass the Senate regardless if it is attached to the NDAA. President Obama will not let harm come to our sacred lands or people, especially to our next generations. He is trying to help eliminate our hardships. I am very thankful he has heard our pleas and I have full faith and believe in him. He won't let Indian Country down.

nicolenesberg's picture
Submitted by nicolenesberg on
Hi Gail, I actually started this petition. Not to detract from Terry Rambler, but for clarification. If this can happen to Apache it can happen to any tribe. Best, Prof. Nicole Nesberg, Ojibwe

100IndigenousAmerican's picture
Submitted by 100IndigenousAm... on
Maximize returns on investment is greed; today is the perfect time to hammer the professing Christians people as to what Jesus would say, and what actions he would take. Where are all the Natives in "the valley of the sun" that we supported relentlessly in the seventies when Indian gaming was being fought by nearly everyone? Perhaps too busy counting frog skins and they have become nearsighted. Remember the Inter Tribal Council of Arizona conversations about potential scholarships for all Native young people wanting a career, and what happen with all the talk about protecting Indian rights using gaming money? Now the fight is with other Tribes over gaming turf, which is what happens when the non-Indian controls your destiny. The fight and awareness for the plight Apache Nation is the right thing, ICT is much better at sharing and provoking self-consciences than most Indian journalistic endeavors across the Southwestern United States.

Grayhorse's picture
Submitted by Grayhorse on
I hope Obama is true to his word and veto the bill. I always thought that if you owned the land it was yours and what was underneath was also yours, I guess I was wrong. This is your your land and if you don't want to swap you shouldn't have to. This is wrong. I hope you win.

100IndigenousAmerican's picture
Submitted by 100IndigenousAm... on
By 12.11.2014 Thursday evening, several national news organizations were reporting Obama supports the NDAA as written. Fortunately, Elisabeth Warren stalled the bull and shed light on the craziness of hidden agendas throughout the bill; she deserves complete unquestionable Native American, blue-collar and white-collar support.

AnonyMouse's picture
Submitted by AnonyMouse on
We are with you.