Story at a glance

  • With President-elect Joe Biden poised to take office in January, the Trump administration’s window on executive action is closing.
  • The administration is trying to transfer ownership of a sacred Native American site to a mining company.
  • San Carlos Apaches have sought to protect the land above an untapped vein of copper for more than a decade.

After more than a decade, Indigenous American activists are prepared to take their last stand after The Guardian reported the Trump administration had pushed up the timeline to transfer a sacred Native American site to a mining company. 

“We were in the fourth quarter with two minutes left in the game. And then Trump cheated so now we only have one minute left,” San Carlos Apache tribal member Wendsler Nosie Sr, who has been camping out on Arizona's Oak Flat since January, told The Guardian. “Everybody has to mobilize now to fight this.”  

The tribes have been fighting the effort since 2005 when a subsidiary formed by two foreign conglomerates began lobbying to mine the land. In 2011, a then-Republican majority in the House pushed aside fears that the plan would not create jobs, (parent company Rio Tinto is known to use robotic miners) or resources domestically and approved the legislation. The final legislation, which was not taken up by the Senate, did not include proposed language from New Mexico Rep. Ben Lujan, which would have excluded all Native American sacred and cultural sites from land conveyance.


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Then in 2014, President Obama swapped 2,422 acres of National Forest, including the Oak Flat Campground land to Resolution Copper Mine, in return for 5,344 acres of private land as part of the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act. But the Forest Service is in the process of carrying out an environmental review of the proposed mine and the land that would have lasted another year.

In a meeting with environmental groups, The Guardian reported that local officials said, “we are getting pressure from the highest level at the Department of Agriculture.” 

“The Trump administration is cutting corners and doing a rushed job just to take care of Rio Tinto,” Democratic Arizona representative Raúl Grijalva told the Guardian. “And the fact they are doing it during Covid makes it even more disgusting. Trump and Rio Tinto know the tribes’ reaction would be very strong and public under normal circumstances but the tribes are trying to save their people right now.”  

Grijalva has been a vocal critic of Rio Tinto, whose CEO and two other top executives stepped down in September after the company destroyed a 46,000-year-old sacred Indigenous site in Australia in the process of expanding an iron ore mine.  


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“What happened at Juukan was wrong and we are determined to ensure that the destruction of a heritage site of such exceptional archaeological and cultural significance never occurs again at a Rio Tinto operation,” Rio Tinto’s chairman, Simon Thompson, said in a statement at the time. 

The Trump administration has not publicly commented about the matter, although The Guardian reported that Grijalva "asked the Forest Service to explain the reason for the accelerated timeline but as of late last week his staff had not received any clarification."

“There have been hundreds of consultations on the Resolution Copper project with Native American tribes,” wrote project director Andrew Lye in an email. “As with all tribes, Resolution Copper would welcome the opportunity for more collaborative dialogue with the San Carlos Apache tribe to build a relationship and ultimately look for ways to partner for mutual benefit.”

In "Oak Flat: A Fight for Sacred Land in the American West," a book published last week, artist and author Lauren Redniss follows Naelyn Pike, an Apache teenager who testified before Congress in 2013. 

"Through massacre, forced removal from the land, and sending children to far-off boarding schools, the United States has tried to stifle Native voices and suppress our culture. I am here today to say that the next generation will not be silenced. Native youth understand that it is now our responsibility to stand together proudly and ensure our culture is protected for our children and our children's children," Pike said


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Published on Nov 24, 2020