A federal judge will hear arguments today from a group of Apaches that has been fighting a proposed copper mine in eastern Arizona. Apache Stronghold recently sued the US Forest Service to try to stop the agency from turning over a parcel of land to Resolution Copper, a joint venture of global mining companies Rio Tinto and BHP.
The group is seeking an injunction until a judge ultimately can determine who has rights to that land and whether mining would infringe on Apaches’ religious practices. The Forest Service says it’s doing what Congress mandated.
Felicia Fonseca reports for the Associated Press that Apache Stronghold contends the land belongs to Western Apaches under an 1852 treaty with the United States. John Welch, a professor and anthropologist who has worked extensively with Apache tribes, says he hasn’t found any evidence that would suggest otherwise.
The so-called Treaty of Santa Fe was one of a handful of treaties negotiated with a broad group of Apaches, and the only one ratified by the US Senate, said Karl Jacoby, a Columbia University history professor who has written about the treaty and isn’t connected to the lawsuit.
The treaty was meant as a peace accord at a time the US was acquiring territory from Mexico. It suggests that Apaches have a right to their territory but it doesn’t spell out that territory, Jacoby said.
“What’s been happening recently is Native people have been dusting off these treaties, and saying, ‘Look, you made this treaty, you can’t just walk away from it. You have to honor it, it’s in your constitution,’ which is the supreme law of the land,” he said.
Attorneys for the Forest Service said Apache Stronghold can’t assert ownership rights because it’s not a federally recognized tribe. Even then, the land isn’t held in trust for any Apache tribe.
In court documents, the agency said it doesn’t question the sincerity of the religious and historical connection that Apaches have to the land known as Oak Flat. “Congress has decided this land exchange should go forward, and any construction, mining or ground disturbance at the site is not imminent,” attorneys for the agency wrote.
Apaches call the mountainous area Chi’chil Bildagoteel. It has ancient oak groves, traditional plants and living beings that tribal members say are essential to their religion and culture. Those things exist in other places, but Apache Stronghold says they have unique power within Oak Flat.
The site is also popular for camping, hiking and rock climbing. Resolution Copper says it will keep the campground open to the public as long as it’s safe but eventually the area would be swallowed by the mine.
Apaches have camped out there in protest. Former San Carlos Apache Chairman Wendsler Nosie Sr., who leads Apache Stronghold and who has previously protested in Washington DC over the issue, has also moved to the site.
The Society for American Archaeology has said the area is of great significance archaeologically within the US Southwest.