BY DREW RAU | April 14, 2021
My legs ached with every hit on the asphalt. My lungs gasped for air as I made my way up the final corridor to the high desert mesa of Oak Flat, a site sacred to the San Carlos Apache and other tribes. Able-bodied but out of shape and feeling like death, I could commiserate with the land toward which our small team of runners from Brophy College Preparatory had been heading for the past three days, a cloud of doom hanging over its stunningly verdant desert beauty.
Known as Chíchʼil Biłdagoteel to the Apache, Oak Flat is believed to be the place where the Creator touched the world and brought all life forth, and the site of many ongoing sacred ceremonies, the most important of which is the coming-of-age ceremony for young Apache women. But hidden over a mile below ground lies the world’s largest copper deposit, the 1995 discovery of which set the religious rights of the Apache on a collision course with human avarice, this time in the form of Australia-based multinational mining corporation Rio Tinto (which has a history of destroying indigenous sacred sites) and its local subsidiary, Resolution Copper. Unable to gain enough support for a standalone bill authorizing drilling rights, a sly midnight rider on the must-pass 2015 National Defense funding bill got the land transfer rolling for Resolution Copper. And because the ore deposit is so deep, the extraction process would lead all of Oak Flat to cave in, obliterating this sacred spot from the face of the earth. And just to make the injustice as clear-cut as possible, all of this has been taking place in violation of an 1852 treaty that the U.S. government signed with the Western Apaches, in which the government vowed to protect Oak Flat and other sacred sites in perpetuity. You read that right: We’re still breaking treaties with Native tribes.
When Apache Stronghold—the organization that has long been occupying Oak Flat in its defense—put out a call for prayer and solidarity, myself and Cooper Davis, a fine arts teacher at Brophy College Preparatory and Loyola Academy in Phoenix and the moderator of the Brophy Native American Club (BNAC), traveled to the site to show support. Cooper learned from the head of the Stronghold, Wendsler Nosie, Sr., that the annual Run to Protect Oak Flat would be happening in a few weeks, and that the team that had planned to run from the North could no longer participate; without flinching, he volunteered Brophy, and our BNAC, to take up the task. Our school had never done anything like this run, and the students in the club (save one) were not track and field athletes. But called by our Ignatian faith that does justice, we rallied behind Cooper’s fast-track planning and started preparing for a 188-mile journey from the Navajo sacred lands of the San Francisco peaks in Flagstaff down to the Apache ceremonial site of Oak Flat.
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The 188 miles we had to relay in three days, with six students, looked daunting. But like Jesus’ feeding of the 4,000 in Matthew 15, what little we had with us to offer proved more than enough, and as we began sacrificing our effort and bodies—shin splints set in the first mile for one runner!—more people joined us: the Nosie family joined for part of a day to cover some of the miles, then a few more students came, then the sister of the Brophy alum who had first founded the BNAC along with her boyfriend, then some of the runners’ families on our final day. By the time we reached Oak Flat, we were the bountiful leftovers of a community sacrifice, filling the campsite with tired legs but energy to spare and fire in our souls. The students who ran as part of this mini-miracle of the BNAC are: Jacob Begay, Caleb Callan, Cole Logg, Logan Logg, Emily Manuelito, Aidan Parr, Andrew Reed, Berdina Riggs, Jaymz Wallen, and Holden Wilson. Please thank God for their willingness to take this on, and for the transformations they experienced in the process.
Ever since the Resolution Copper land transfer was authorized in 2014, the trajectory of the struggle for Oak Flat had been completely one-sided. At the time of our team’s northerly arrival at Oak Flat along with the teams from the other cardinal directions, Resolution Copper had satisfied all procedural requirements, and Apache Stronghold had exhausted its legal challenges. Clearing the site for drilling was potentially poised to begin as soon as the Apache Stronghold protesters could be removed from the land…
But the day after we returned to Phoenix from Oak Flat, the middle of our school day was interrupted with the unexpected (and arguably miraculous) news that the U.S. Forest Service had withdrawn its recent green light for Resolution Copper’s mining to gather further public input. For the first time since the struggle had begun, the winds have shifted in the direction of justice for the people who are crying out to God, to Creator, for their rights, for their land, for their people. In a life full of spiritual moments, never before had the power of prayer felt so undeniable.
But the fight is not over. The world’s largest copper deposit is still down there. And one of the world’s most rapacious mining companies still has its machinery, and its lobbyists, in place. You can even see a Resolution Copper mining rig for a smaller, shallower deposit on a hill overlooking Oak Flat. That metal rig is the cross on which Christ is being crucified in this place.
In this Easter season, we invite you to join us in bringing Jesus down from that cross and facilitating a resurrection moment for Oak Flat and the longsuffering San Carlos Apache people. When the Forest Service withdrew its go-ahead to Resolution Copper to gather further public input, the Department of Agriculture noted that only an act of Congress could permanently protect this sacred site. We ask all women and men of good will to support the Save Oak Flat Act, which has been introduced in the House by Rep. Raúl Grijalva, and is expected to be introduced in the Senate by Sen. Bernie Sanders. The BNAC has already met twice with Sen. Kirsten Sinema’s office as well as with Rep. Greg Stanton. You can easily get in touch with your own representatives to voice your support. With your partnership, we can allow the living waters of Oak Flat to continue to flow and give physical and spiritual nourishment to the Apache, whose dedication to their land-rooted faith should be an inspiration to us all.
Drew Rau is a teacher in the religious studies department at Brophy College Preparatory in Phoenix, Arizona.