Why the fight for sacred Native American land is a fight for religious freedom



Washington
CNN
 — 

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A federal appeals court recently made a seismic announcement: It agreed in November to revisit arguments to protect Oak Flat, sacred Native American land in Arizona that the San Carlos Apache Tribe says would be destroyed by construction of the Resolution Copper Mine.

In June, a three-judge panel with the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals made a decision to allow the federal government to proceed with its plans to hand over Oak Flat to a mining company. But a full panel of 9th Circuit judges will now hear the case at a yet-to-be-scheduled date.

Many Apaches view the court’s announcement as a much-needed triumph in their yearslong battle to protect their land from copper companies.

“We’re destroying the Earth, but it seems like nobody’s paying attention,” Wendsler Nosie Sr., an Apache activist and the leader of Apache Stronghold, a Native American coalition, told CNN. “If we keep going down this road, there’s no return. That’s why this case is critical, because that’s what it represents. When we talk about why the 9th Circuit called the case back, it’s because we’re arguing that our religion is just as important as other religions.”

Opponents of destroying Oak Flat hinge their argument on 1993’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which says that the “government shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion.”

Luke Goodrich, Apache Stronghold’s lead lawyer, expressed similar sentiments earlier this month.

“Oak Flat is a key part of Western Apache religious practices. They’ve been worshiping there since before European contact. Since time immemorial,” he told Sierra magazine.

Last month, during the biennial Facing Race national conference, Nosie spoke with the Rev. John Mendez, a longtime friend and fellow activist, about Oak Flat.

In a sobering moment, Nosie shared the news of the 9th Circuit’s latest move, which he described as a win, given the brief turn the case took in June.

Both men reflected on how their friendship has evolved over the years and on how, for Apaches, the fight for their land and the fight for the environment go hand in hand and nourish a multiracial, cross-denominational movement.

To further explore the Oak Flat struggle, I spoke with Nosie. The following conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

The movement to protect Oak Flat is framed around religious freedom. I imagine that, for some, this might be a new way of looking at sacred land. Could you tell me a bit more about why the fight for sacred land is also a fight for religious freedom?

I’ll give you the example I give Christians. When we talk about this holy land, we have to remember that this is the home of the deities. In our religion, the deities are a buffer between Heaven and Earth. If you view them in terms of the Bible, they’re angels. The Creator touched the world where these deities reside.

I tell people this because I think that it helps to create understanding when they think about our deities in a way that reflects their religion. Apaches talk about our holy land the same way others talk about Mount Sinai. And what’s at risk of being destroyed is a holy place that’s the home of the deities.

Has framing the issue in this manner helped the movement?

Well, I think that this is one big reason we have lots of other religious denominations joining us in the fight, because they’re beginning to understand our struggle.

Of course, this is also about climate change. We’re destroying the Earth, but it seems like nobody’s paying attention. I tell people that if we keep going down this road, there’s no return. We’re already getting to that point of no return. That’s why this case is critical, because that’s what it represents.

When we talk about why the 9th Circuit called the case back, it’s because we’re arguing that our religion is just as important as other religions. Yet people are willing to destroy the home of the angels – the home of the deities.

But what’s good is that, across the country, many religious groups are joining the fight. (The Revs. John Mendez and William Barber II, who’s the co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, have been vocal about the importance of protecting Oak Flat). So, if we do end up going to the US Supreme Court, lots of amicus briefs will be a part of our case.

What are your concerns as the Oak Flat battle continues?

I worry that companies are going to take whatever they want and then they’re going to be gone. And we’re going to be left with this devastating dilemma.

That’s what worries me because for us, this is our home. This is where God put us. What’s going to happen to us? I’m sure that everybody else is going to leave. But what’s going to happen to us? That’s a really frightening thought I have. And I worry about our children. How are they going to suffer?

But that’s why I’m glad that you called. For so many years, this issue has been suppressed and ignored. It’s something I want more people to know about.



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