In Tonto National Forest, in the rolling hills near Devil’s Canyon east of Phoenix, Arizona, the sacred Native American grounds of Oak Flat have been embroiled in legal battles to prevent the destruction of their sacred lands since 2014 when the federal government gave the land away to a mining company.
Called “Chi’Chil’Ba’Goteel” in Apache, for hundreds of years the O’odham, Hopi, Zuni, Yavapai, and Apache Nations have used Oak Flat for rituals and worship. President Eisenhower granted the area special protection in 1955 and until 2014, Congress upheld this, refusing to open the area to mining. But when the National Defense Authorization Act was on its way to approval, U.S. Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake, with the support of U.S. Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, added a last-minute revision to the act which transferred Oak Flat and other public lands to the Anglo-Australian mining company RioTinto.
In early 2021, the nonprofit Apache Stronghold filed a suit against the government in a federal court stating the destruction of Oak Flat would violate the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the government’s transfer of Oak Flat to the mining company, stating plaintiffs failed to show a substantial burden of religious exercise. In November 2022, the court of appeals announced it would rehear the case with an 11-judge court—the original panel was three judges.
Oak Flat’s natural beauty—the rolling hills, foliage and rock outcrops—will be destroyed, replaced by a 1,000-foot deep, two-mile-wide crater if the court upholds the company’s rights to mine the land, removing the religious connection to the land forever.
In an article published on Religion News Service last month, Wendsler Nosie Sr., former chairman of the San Carlos Apache Tribe and leader of Apache Stronghold, compared Oak Flat to Mount Sinai in the Jewish faith, calling it “our most sacred site, where we connect with our Creator, our faith, our families and our land.” An attack on the Indigenous religion, the oldest religion in the Americas, he maintains, is a threat to all religions.