Oak Flat Arizona Elias Butler

Oak Flat: Only the United Working Class Can Guarantee Indigenous Rights

For the past two decades, the San Carlos Apache and other Indigenous peoples of the American Southwest have been fighting against Resolution Copper, a British-Australian firm jointly owned by mining giants Rio Tinto and BHP. Indigenous activists aim to protect the sacred site of Chi’chil Biłdagoteel, or Oak Flat, in southeastern Arizona. The destruction of Oak Flat, which is a prerequisite for Resolution Copper to build its expansive mining operation, poses a threat to not only the San Carlos Apache’s spiritual life, but to the environmental well-being of all Arizonans. Meanwhile, both Democrats and Republicans have colluded with the mining conglomeration to rake in eye-watering profits from the US’s Copper State.

Apache Stronghold, a non-profit organization that has been leading the fight to “Save Oak Flat” from mining companies, suffered another blow in this fight on May 29, when the District Court of Arizona permitted Resolution Copper to join the US Government as a defendant in Apache Stronghold’s lawsuit against the state. According to Luke Goodrich, the lead attorney for Apache Stronghold, bringing the company into the lawsuit transforms a “David versus Goliath” scenario into a battle of “David against two Goliaths.”

Apache Stronghold Wendsler Nosie, Sr.
Apache Stronghold, a non-profit organization, has been leading the fight to “Save Oak Flat” from mining companies. / Image: public domain

What is Oak Flat?

Located in the heart of Arizona’s Tonto National Forest, Oak Flat lies nestled amidst the natural beauty of the Southwestern landscape. But Oak Flat is much more than its picturesque surroundings. It’s a place of profound cultural and spiritual significance for numerous Indigenous peoples. Chi’chil Biłdagoteel is a center of culture, identity, and a place of worship for the Apache and many Southwestern tribes. For the Apache, it is where the Ga’an, “messengers,” reside and connect them with their Creator, who gave them the land. In their cosmology, Oak Flat is the only site where their prayers can reach the Creator directly, and is the sole source for numerous sacred plants, minerals, and wildlife necessary for various ceremonies. “Because of this sacred connection,” writes Zinaida Carroll of the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center (NIWRC), “Chi’chil Biłdagoteel is the place where many ceremonies must take place.”

Take, for instance, the Sunrise Ceremony—a rite of passage marking the transition of Apache girls into womanhood. During this ceremony, the girl traditionally assumes the role of the White Painted Woman, “the first woman on Earth and the mother of all Apache women.” It is a significant event in her life and among Apaches generally, requiring the young woman to gather acorns and other plants from the sacred land to prepare a meal for her godparents, dance with her relatives, and awaken and dance with the Ga’an from the mountains. On the fourth and final day of the ceremony, she becomes the White Painted Woman using special clay from the land, molding the prayers of the Sunrise Ceremony into her, representing her entrance into womanhood. This ceremony connects Apache women with the land and strengthens their Apache cultural identity. Yet, despite Oak Flat’s profound cultural and spiritual significance, the land is coveted for another, entirely different kind of value.

Resolution Copper’s interests in Oak Flat

Beneath Oak Flat’s soil lies the world’s third-largest copper deposit, currently valued at more than $160 billion. Since 2004, Resolution Copper has salivated over this prospect. The company has been eager to sink its insatiable teeth into Oak Flat, lobbying Congress to authorize a land exchange of 2,422 acres of the land—over half of Oak Flat—for 5,300 acres that the company owns elsewhere in Arizona. This is all to facilitate the construction of a massive underground mining operation, which the company claims will create 3,700 jobs and generate $61 billion for Arizona’s economy, along with nearly $20 billion in tax revenues for federal, state, and local governments over the mine’s 66-year lifespan.

Resolution Copper Project at Apache Leap Superior, Arizona
Beneath Oak Flat’s soil lies the world’s third-largest copper deposit, currently valued at more than $160 billion. / Image: Marine 69-71, Wikimedia Commons

However, many tribes, including the San Carlos Apache, fear that the mine will threaten the region’s water supply, disturb the area’s wildlife, and, most notably, turn Oak Flat into an enormous two-mile-wide, 1,000-foot-deep crater by using a technique known as block cave mining. As geoengineers explain, block cave mining is a more cost-effective, underground version of open pit mining. The potential devastation would be, as Carrol puts it, the final act in a “centuries-long genocide of the Apache people by utterly destroying their ancestral lands beyond repair.”

The federal government’s interest in Oak Flat must be understood against the backdrop of recent global economic shifts that goes beyond the jaw-dropping tax potential. The 2008 crisis of capitalism effectively put the brakes on the further expansion of free trade, exacerbating tensions between Chinese and American imperialism. In an effort to secure the nation’s copper supply and stimulate economic growth, Congress approved the land exchange in late 2014.

Seizing on this politically charged climate, the late Senator John McCain, along with former Senator Jeff Flake, played a pivotal role in the mine’s authorization. McCain deftly inserted the Southeast Arizona Land Exchange and Conservation Act at the eleventh hour into the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act—a maneuver known as a “midnight rider,” where legislators add non-related amendments to significant legislation, often at the last minute. The Senate passed the bill with a resounding vote of 89 to 11, securing Obama’s signature soon after. While Arizona US Representatives Paul Gosar (R) and Ann Kirkpatrick (D) urged the president to expedite the bill’s signing, it was McCain who took full credit for incorporating the land exchange into the defense bill. He boldly stated that once the mine was fully operational, “it will provide for 25% of the nation’s copper supply,” and was therefore a matter of national security.

Jeff Flake John McCain
The late Senator John McCain, along with former Senator Jeff Flake, played a pivotal role in the mine’s authorization. / Image: Gage Skidmore, Wikimedia Commons

San Carlos Apache Chairman Terry Rambler revealed that while this was unfolding, tribal representatives flew to Washington to lobby against the bill. However, the rapid progression and clandestine nature of the bill’s passage, effectively barred them from the process. As it happened, Congress’s eleventh and final attempt to approve the land exchange with its own standalone bill was postponed in 2013 when the vote for the bill coincided with the Obama Administration’s Tribal Nations Conference, a gathering of tribal leaders, including Chairman Rambler, convened to foster “tribal self-determination and self-governance.” Lobbying pressure from tribal leaders might have compelled the House to delay the vote in 2013, but the multinational mining conglomerates eventually got what they wanted.

Rio Tinto & BHP

Of course, backroom deals and clandestine negotiations are the stock-and-trade of all serious capitalists. And Rio Tinto and BHP, the two largest mining-extraction companies in the world, certainly rank among the most serious. Both firms were founded in the late-19th century by British capitalists, and over the last 150 years they’ve made spectacular profits. BHP, for instance, now stands as the 90th largest, publicly traded company on the planet, according to the Forbes Global 2000 listings for 2023. For its part, Rio Tinto is rated the 100th largest, and is second only to BHP in extraction operations. Together, their estimated market value is over $252 billion, and their 2022 profits were $19.5 and $21.1 billion, respectively.

Minera Escondida
BHP is already in possession of the world’s largest copper mine through its Chilean subsidiary, Minera Escondida, where it uses subcontracted miners to undercut the union there. / Image: Bachelot Pierre J-P, Wikimedia Commons

BHP is already in possession of the world’s largest copper mine through its Chilean subsidiary, Minera Escondida, where it uses subcontracted miners to undercut the union there. However, Chilean miners won a partial victory in 2017 after a 43-day strike against BHP, which led to record losses for the company amounting to more than a billion dollars. At the same mine, Chile’s environmental watchdog found in 2020 that for over 15 years, BHP was drawing more water than its environmental permit allowed. This has led to a decrease in the water table by more than 25cm in the Atacama Desert, the driest desert in the world. Subsequently, in 2022, the Chilean government opened a lawsuit against BHP and other mining companies for deterioration of the aquifer, the local ecosystem, and the Indigenous Peine people’s way of life.

Recent readers of Socialist Revolution are already familiar with Resolution Copper’s other parent company, Rio Tinto, which in 2020 destroyed a nearly 46,000-year-old sacred, Indigenous site in the Juukan Gorge of western Australia. That same year, the Human Rights Law Centre in Australia filed a complaint alleging that the company gravely impacted the 156 Indigenous residents of the Papua New Guinea town of Bougainville, where Rio Tinto failed to clean up over a billion tons of pollution left behind after concluding mine operations there. Under fire, then-CEO Jean-Sébastien Jacques and two others were forced to resign as a result of the Juukan Gorge incident. Of course, Jacques is still expected to net $60 million from performance shares he received while CEO.

The new chief of Rio Tinto, Jakob Stausholm, pledged to “restore trust” with Indigenous groups, but these issues are endemic in the mineral extraction industry. Countless examples of environmental degradation, destruction of Indigenous lands, and shameless exploitation of workers could be reproduced ad nauseam. The Rio Tintos and BHPs of the world aren’t destructive because a particular CEO or board of directors is in charge, but because they are driven by the profit motive. Needless to say, these companies are the enemies of workers, Indigenous peoples, and the environment.

Because of its reprehensible behavior, Rio Tinto’s reputation now precedes itself wherever this parasite tries to open new operations. In 2021, the Serbian masses took to the streets when their government undemocratically attempted to invite this major polluter to open a lithium extraction operation. In the end, Serbia’s president Aleksandar Vučić—the strongman of Belgrade and lapdog of US and European imperialism—had to recognize the legitimacy of the protests. In mid-2022, Rio Tinto ostensibly canceled their plans for the “Jadar” mine in the area of Loznica, Serbia, in the face of public outrage, but they are still buying property in the area worth millions of euros in hopes of winning a referendum in the future. The lesson here is that even if mass protests force the big multinationals to retreat, they will lick their wounds and try different angles until they get what they want. That is, until the working class takes ownership of the land, natural resources, and means of production and establishes a rational and democratic plan of production.

Serbia protests Jadar mine
In 2021, the Serbian masses took to the streets when their government undemocratically attempted to invite Rio Tinto to open a lithium extraction operation. / Image: Marko Risović, Instagram

It is worth noting that both McCain and Flake received substantial campaign contributions from Rio Tinto, and Flake was formerly a lobbyist on behalf of the company before he became senator. In fact, Rio Tinto’s campaign contributions to McCain nearly doubled in 2014, the year the midnight rider was passed. Flake’s contributions were boosted from a paltry $2,500 in 2010 to $183,000 in 2014. It’s safe to say that many other Arizona politicians receive lobbying donations from mining giants, including Democrat Ann Kirkpatrick, who received funding from Rio Tinto when she challenged McCain’s seat in 2016.

How has the movement fought back?

While Republicans and Democrats immediately celebrated the land exchange in 2014, with Gosar gleefully exclaiming that Arizona could “celebrate the holiday season with a copper Christmas,” the San Carlos Apache tribe was not as jubilant. “They tried to rush it through so we couldn’t gather up all the opposition around the country,” said Chairman Rambler in an interview, vowing: “We’re still going to fight it.”

In July 2015, Apache Stronghold, led by the San Carlos Apache tribe, embarked on an epic march from Sacred Mt. Graham, Arizona, to Washington, DC. Their aim was to raise awareness about the clandestine land grab and to gather signatures for their petition, which urged members of Congress to halt the mining project and support House Democrat Raul Grijalva’s 2015 Save Oak Flat Act, which would repeal the Southeast Arizona Land Exchange and Conservation Act. However, Apache Stronghold’s march didn’t produce a broader solidarity movement, and Congress was naturally unmoved. The Save Oak Flat Act has since existed in a state of limbo, dying in committee every year, only to be resurrected by Grijalva and Senator Bernie Sanders the following congressional session.

In early January 2021, Trump moved swiftly to expedite several mining projects by loosening regulations, aiming to leverage any potential profits for political gain ahead of the 2024 election. For Resolution Copper, this meant fast-tracking the publication of the US Forest Service’s Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS), from April 2021 to January 15, 2021, in order to trigger a 60-day deadline to complete the land transfer. Within days of the statement’s publication, Apache Stronghold sued the federal government to put an end to the deal and filed for an emergency injunction to halt the Forest Service from publishing the FEIS while the judiciary reviewed the case.

In the lawsuit, activists argued that the land exchange violated both the First Amendment rights of Native Americans and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), as well as the government’s trust and fiduciary duties to the Apache tribes and members. These obligations, defined by the 1852 Treaty of Santa Fe, included a promise to the Apache people that the federal government would, at its earliest convenience, “designate, settle, and adjust their territorial boundaries” and “pass and execute in their territory such laws as may be conducive to the prosperity and happiness of said Indians.” Put simply, Oak Flat is Apache land and not the federal government’s to give away.

On January 14, 2021, US District Court Judge Steven Logan denied the emergency injunction. He justified his decision on the grounds that Apache Stronghold could not demonstrate “immediate and irreparable injury” if the FEIS were published the following day. As a result, the FEIS was indeed published, kickstarting the 60-day countdown. The statement confirmed the worst fears of the tribes; the damage to Oak Flat caused by the mine would be “immediate, permanent, and irreversible.” Not long after, the court denied the lawsuit. According to the Obama-appointed judge, only the Apache Nation had any right to sue, not the direct descendants of the treaty signatories. “The Treaty consistently refers to the Apaches as a ‘nation or tribe,’” the court documents explain, “…in the preamble, the Treaty provides that the individual Apache signatories were ‘acting on the part of the Apache Nation of Indians.’”

The crux? No such “nation” has ever existed. The Apache people are, in fact, several culturally distinct Apache Nations. Even if Apache Stronghold, or any Western Apache tribe, had standing, the 1852 treaty does not contain any “specific trust language” about Oak Flat. The time to draw territorial boundaries simply never came.

Nonetheless, the Apache people remain and continue to fight for what they were promised. Wendsler Nosie, the leader of Apache Stronghold and former chairman of the San Carlos Apache Tribe, sums up their resilience as follows: “What was once gunpowder and disease is now replaced with bureaucratic negligence and a mythologized past that treats us as Native people, as something invisible or gone. We are not.” Just over two weeks later, the Biden Administration ordered the Forest Service to rescind the FEIS, stopping the clock on the land exchange.

It would also take several months for the Forest Service to complete Biden’s “encouraged” tribal consultations to “strengthen” nation-to-nation relationships. Nonetheless, after repeated defeats in the legislature and now a court dismissal, Apache Stronghold and its members understood nothing had fundamentally changed. Oak Flat remained earmarked for execution. Unwavering in their determination to protect their ancestral lands, Apache Stronghold appealed the US District Court’s decision to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. This time, a three-judge panel ruled against them, before agreeing to rehear the case before a full panel.

The ongoing legal struggle reached a new level of intensity in October 2021. Amidst the court battles, the value of copper surged to an all-time high value of nearly $11,300 per ton. This economic incentive hung heavy when on March 21, 2023, the Biden administration stepped into the courtroom to defend Resolution Copper’s mining project, where it announced it was working on publishing a new FEIS to resume the land exchange.

According to Apache Stronghold’s lead attorney: “The government didn’t hold back today. The government thinks it has blanket authority to do whatever it wants with the land it’s taken from Indigenous peoples, even destroying sacred sites and ending religious exercises forever.”

But the motive for the government’s defense of the land transfer is clear. With the federal authority holding approximately 56-million acres of Indigenous land in trust, a win for Apache Stronghold and the Apache people would mean “profound damage” to private enterprise, if privatized government land could not be exploited. David Debold, an attorney representing extractive industry associations, explained this in court, “although not in so many words.” Although Resolution Copper has been allowed to proceed with operations while the lawsuit is pending, the full-judge panel has yet to make a ruling, as of this writing.

How would socialists fight back?

The Democrats are not our allies in the fight for Indigenous and environmental rights. Even if the Biden administration has temporized on the land exchange multiple times, it has no intentions of protecting Oak Flat or repealing the Southeast Arizona Land Exchange and Conservation Act. “Consultation,” which we referred to earlier, is the new cornerstone of the liberal bourgeoisie’s strategy for managing “Native affairs.” If tribal leaders can have a seat at the table, then surely, they can be won over to the interests of the capitalist state. This logic, which stresses the importance of strengthening “the nation-to-nation relationship between the United States and Tribal Nations” has guided both the Biden and Obama administrations. In his 2009 Presidential Memorandum on Tribal Consultation, the former president wrote: “consultation is a critical ingredient of a sound and productive Federal-tribal relationship.”

During the 2016 Standing Rock Protests, however, which opposed the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline through Lake Oahe, the Obama administration utterly failed to “consult” with the Dakota and Lakota Nations. It was ultimately because of pressure from below, after hundreds of Indigenous and non-Indigenous protesters fought against militarized police, that the Obama administration halted construction, so the US Army Corps of Engineers could explore alternative routes for the pipeline that would not pass under Lake Oahe. In addition, the Corps of Engineers intended to publish a new environmental impact statement. Soon after, however, because the project was not scrapped altogether, the newly inaugurated Trump presidency expedited and authorized the pipeline’s continuation under Lake Oahe. By 2017, oil was flowing under Standing Rock’s most vital water source.

Protest against Dakota Access and Keystone XL Pipelines 2017
It was only because of pressure from below that Obama temporarily halted construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline through Lake Oahe. / Image: Pax Ahimsa Gethen, Wikimedia Commons

If that playbook seems familiar, it’s because it is. As we have seen, Biden has called for “consultation” on Oak Flat. It is unclear when the Forest Service will issue its updated statement, but it will come sooner or later, and then the wheels will be in motion. Either Biden will see to the sacred site’s destruction directly or he’ll kick the can for a Republican president to take the flack.

“Consultation” and “building nation-to-nation relationships” is ultimately a tool to divide Indigenous groups along class lines, with a handful of “tribal leaders” receiving a few scraps in exchange for signing off in the name of the nation as a whole. Indigenous tokenism cannot advance the struggle for tribal sovereignty and self-determination either. Capitalism will only elevate select individuals to help enforce the extraction of valuable resources and ensure the freedom of the capitalists to pollute our world, like Resolution Copper does through its Native Affairs team.

According to the 2021 American Community Survey by the US Census Bureau, some 8.75 million Americans consider themselves American Indians or Alaska Natives, accounting for 2.6% of the total population. These numbers are by no means insignificant, but they are still a small percentage of the whole. To successfully oppose these multinational Goliaths, the Davids need to rally the strength of the majority of the working class, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous. So far, the fight to protect Oak Flat hasn’t gained broader support from the working class throughout Arizona and the United States, and there is no political party truly able to speak for all workers.

The capitalist state has proven through multiple administrations that it has no intention of protecting Oak Flat. Only a workers’ government can protect it and other Indigenous lands in the federal government’s “care.” On the basis of a rational plan of production, economic development and a high quality of life for all could be achieved without the destruction of sacred sites like Chi’chil Biłdagoteel.

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