By Chairman Terry Rambler of the San Carlos Apache Tribe

Despite sustained efforts by the U.S. government to criminalize Native American religions beginning in 1883 and continuing until passage of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act in 1978, Western Apaches, like many Native American tribes, steadfastly maintained traditional religious beliefs and ceremonies rooted in sacred places.

Among our most sacred places is Chí’chil Biłdagoteel, also known as Oak Flat. Chí’chil Biłdagoteel holds the foundation of our religious beliefs, no different than St. Peter’s Basilica, the Mount of Olives or the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

The federal government is now poised to destroy Chí’chil Biłdagoteel. We cannot allow that to happen. Protecting Chí’chil Biłdagoteel is vital to ensuring religious freedom for all Americans.

The government intends to trade Chí’chil Biłdagoteel, located on the Tonto National Forest 15 miles from our reservation boundary, to foreign-based, multinational mining companies seeking to construct the proposed Resolution Copper Mine. The underground mine would cause the land above to collapse into a 1,000-foot-deep crater nearly two miles across. As a result, Chí’chil Biłdagoteel would vanish into the abyss.

Oak Flat, Arizona, and a grove of Emory oak trees in Tonto National Forest.
Photo by Elias Butler.

We have sustained our traditional religious practices despite U.S. government-sanctioned genocide against our people in the 19th century followed by a concerted effort to destroy our culture in the 20th century. After years of bloody conflict, the U.S. government established the San Carlos Apache Reservation in 1872 in the desert and mountains east of Phoenix. My ancestors were rounded up at gunpoint, confined to the Reservation and held as prisoners of war. Armed federal troops occupied our Reservation for nearly 30 years.

The federal government then diminished the size of our Reservation several times to enrich others due to the discovery of minerals and natural resources. Our burial sites, living areas and farmlands were flooded to create Roosevelt Lake, which provided water essential to Arizona’s subsequent economic development. Our children were stolen from our homes and sent to boarding schools designed to destroy our language, culture and religion. Many never returned home.

Throughout this extended period of traumatic cultural upheaval, Chí’chil Biłdagoteel has remained our spiritual bedrock, connecting our past to the present and giving us hope for the future.

Chí’chil Biłdagoteel is an Apache holy and sacred site graced with Emory oak trees and seeps and springs emerging from the high desert ground surrounded by spiraling rock formations. Chí’chil Biłdagoteel has played an essential role in Apache religion, tradition and culture for centuries. In 2016, it was listed on the federal National Register of Historic Places as a Traditional Cultural Property.

Apaches gather here for prayer, to conduct ceremonial dances such as the Sunrise Dance celebrating a young woman’s coming of age, gather medicines and ceremonial items, and seek peace and personal cleansing. Chí’chil Biłdagoteel belongs to the powerful Diyin or Medicine Men. It is the home of a particular kind of Ga’an, which are mighty Mountain Spirits and Holy Beings, on whom we Apaches depend on for our well-being.

Resolution Copper plans to destroy Chí’chil Biłdagoteel to develop a massive mine. The sprawling operation will plunder the groundwater, create a massive toxic waste dump and industrialize a vast portion of the Tonto National Forest. In addition to Chí’chil Biłdagoteel, hundreds of our cultural resources will be destroyed. The mine will enrich shareholders of two of the world’s largest mining companies, BHP and Rio Tinto. The raw copper will almost certainly be exported overseas, most likely to China. BHP and Rio Tinto each have a notorious history of destroying sacred aboriginal sites.

Would Resolution’s supporters callously dismiss religious beliefs if an ore body were located beneath their church, cathedral, the Vatican, Arlington National Cemetery or Mt. Sinai? The answer is a resounding no.

To prevent the certain destruction of Chí’chil Biłdagoteel, our church, our religion and our way of life, we respectfully request that you urge your members of Congress to support the Save Oak Flat Act.

The only way to stop the pending land exchange is to repeal a 2014 law that requires the government to trade Chí’chil Biłdagoteel to Resolution Copper. The House Natural Resources Committee approved the Save Oak Flat Act in April, which would repeal the land trade. Many tribes and national tribal organizations have joined us in supporting the Save Oak Flat Act.

This article first appeared in the Summer 2021 edition of Report from the Capital, BJC’s quarterly magazine.

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