In a November 2020 article from the Guardian Annette McGivney reported how, in its final days, the Trump administration was actively trying to destroy native holy lands. As the Trump administration approached its last days, it sought to transfer government-protected lands to a big mining corporation. In Arizona at Oak Flat, local tribes are trying to push for environmental review before the end of 2020 to stop the Trump administration in its tracks. The contested land rests on what is estimated to be one of the largest deposits of copper in the world, making it valuable to corporate interests.
The land that the company Resolution Copper is trying to obtain through the Trump administration lies on 11 square miles of Apache burial grounds, sacred sites, petroglyphs and medicinal plants. Resolution Copper plans to extract more than 1.4 million tons of copper by excavating a 1,000-foot-deep, 2-mile-wide crater in the middle of native protected lands. The proposed mining operation is near enough to another important indigenous landmark, the Apache Leap, that mining operations could catastrophically destabilize the 400-foot high cliff. While the corporation has made attempts to “build a relationship” with neighboring tribes, its plan to destroy the land persists. Arizona officials say current preservation laws are not strong enough to prevent Resolution Copper’s claims, making it extremely difficult to enforce existing protections of the land.
“We were in the fourth quarter with two minutes left in the game, then Trump cheated so now we only have one minute left,” says San Carlos Apache tribal member Wendsler Nosie, Sr., who has been sleeping in a teepee at an Oak Flats campground since January 2020 to protest in defense of “holy ground” that has been home to Apache prayer and ceremonies for centuries. More than a dozen different Native American tribes of southwestern descent have connections to Oak Flat, making its survival of major cultural importance. The beneficiaries in Oak Flat will include Resolution Copper, as well as its parent companies out of Australia, two large conglomerates known as BHP and Rio Tinto. Democratic Arizona representative Raul Grijalva says that “the Trump administration is cutting corners and doing a rushed job just to take care of Rio Tinto,” also mentioning that normally the reaction from tribes would be very strong, so doing it during the pandemic makes it even more problematic.
There are no federal laws giving Native Americans control of ancestral lands outside of reservation boundaries. Resolution Copper has since promised not to operate too close to the sacred cliff, to host community support programs, and to monitor culturally significant artifacts recovered from the area. But the record of its parent company, Rio Tinto, gives major cause for concern. In May 2019, Rio Tinto “blasted a 46,000 year old Aboriginal site” in western Australia into the sky. That September, after widespread outcry, Rio Tinto’s CEO and two other high-ranking executives resigned. When the final environmental review for Oak Flat is released, the administration has sixty days to transfer the land, which could well happen before Joe Biden’s January inauguration.
Media coverage of this event has not been prevalent, especially in the US. Besides local news outlets in Arizona, such as AZCentral and Phoenix New Times, corporate media have remained silent on the issue. One of the few outlets that put out a story, the Washington Post, brings up the past of Rio Tinto and how they can begin to make amends with indigenous communities by not pushing forward in exploiting the indigenous peoples of southwest Arizona. Further media coverage of Rio Tinto is found in Australian news outlets, due to the 2019 Aboriginal incident.
[Editor’s Update: In March 2021, the Guardian, the White Mountain Independent and other independent news sources reported that the Biden Administration had revoked final approval of the environmental study of the Resolution Copper Mine, a requirement for the land transfer. However, as the White Mountain Independent noted, “The move likely represents a delay in the land transfer rather than a cancellation,” and the fate of the sacred Apache lands will likely rest in the hands of Congress.]
Source: Annette McGivney, “Revealed: Trump Officials Rush to Mine Desert Haven Native Tribes Consider Holy.,” The Guardian, November 24, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/nov/24/trump-mining-arizona-holy-land-oak-flat-tribes.
Student Researcher: Anna Castleberry (Diablo Valley College)
Faculty Evaluator: Mickey Huff (Diablo Valley College)