Values in Conflict: Oak Flat

When the value systems of Western and Indigenous cultures come into conflict, the power is on the side of Western culture. Ceremony is not understood by Western culture, so is not valued. Until this is rectified through changes in the legal system (Belasco and Adams 2021), lands that are particularly powerful in ceremony and therefore essential for maintaining the larger health of land, people, and societies have no protection from extractive industries.

Resolution Copper, owned by an Australian company, wants to mine copper on Oak Flat, land once occupied by the Apache Nation of what is now the state of Arizona. Oak Flat is located in the Tonto National Forest and managed by the US Forest Service. To the Apache who have inhabited the area for generations, Oak Flat is known as Chi’chil Bildagoteel. It is a highly sacred place for ceremony and ritual, which is another way to say that Oak Flat, Chi’Chil’Ba’Goteel, is essential to the health and well-being of a much larger region all around it (at the very least). It is also part of the ancestral homelands of the Apache, Yavapai, Hopi, Zuni and other tribes in the Southwest, and it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Oddly, these cultural and historical attributes of Oak Flat have more standing in American courts than does the land’s role in protecting and maintaining the health of everything in a part of Arizona that’s only 60 miles from the greater Phoenix metropolitan area and it’s 1.6 million residents. It is interesting to point out that the place so horrifically mined in Australia (Adams, Barlo, and Belasco 2021) was also a sacred place of ritual and ceremony. A number of Native people have pointed out the correlation between escalation of human physical and social ills worldwide with the destruction of sacred mountains and other places by extractive industries that literally blast them to bits and haul away the pieces. It’s one reason the Shoshone are so concerned about proposed lithium mining at Thacker Pass. But it’s hard for them — or any Indigenous person — to explain the magnitude of their concerns about destroying sacred places in terms the American public and its court system can understand and value.

In that regard, the history of how Oak Flat wound up being threatened by destruction is illustrative. Because the land is owned by the US Government, Resolution Copper had to get Congressional approval to own it. The company was unsuccessful in acquiring the land on five separate occasions as a stand-alone bill in Congress. In 2014, Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake (R-AZ) attached a rider to the National Defense Authorization Act that allowed the transfer of 2400 acres at Oak Flat to Resolution Copper in exchange for about 5300 acres in other parts of Arizona. That defense bill had to be passed, and there was no separate vote on the land transfer. While there are lawsuits currently pending to block the transfer, the Justice Department, after pausing the fast-track approval of the transfer by the previous administration, has filed legal briefs opposing the views of environmental and Indigenous groups that the transfer violates treaties and religious freedom laws. House Nature Resources Committee Chairman Raul Grijalva (D-AZ) has been a major supporter of legislation that would reverse the land exchange. Meanwhile, the San Carlos Apache tribe, a group called Apache Stronghold, and a coalition of tribes, environmentalists, and a mining reform coalition have filed lawsuits to block the transfer of the property to Resolution Copper. The point is that the system of law and policy based on Western culture’s values does not mesh with natural values — which is why standard governmental and business practices systematically undermine the health and well-being of ecosystems, people, and entire societies.

This page was prepared by Jo Belasco, Esq. Resources used to tell the story of Oak Flat: Hedgpeth 2021 and Walker 2021.

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