Apache leader enlists aid of local activists

by Keith Barber

Wendsler Nosie stood before a group of approximately 25 activists and concerned citizens gathered at Emmanuel Baptist Church in Winston-Salem on May 2, and spoke in a voice filled with sincerity and solemnity. Nosie, chairman of the San Carlos Apache Tribe in Arizona, said there is an issue that’s going on thousands of miles west of North Carolina that affects all US citizens.

“In Indian country, there’s a terrible thing happening and it’s affecting our religion,” he said. “It’s an alarm going off that people here in North Carolina need to be aware of. It involves all the Indian nations in this country and it involves all the people here today.” Nosie was referring to the Apache tribe’s opposition to US Senate Resolution 409, otherwise known as the Southeast Arizona Land Exchange and Conservation Act of 2009. The bill would allow Resolution Copper, a British/Australian mining conglomerate, to bypass federal laws governing mining operations and build its operation on lands with significant cultural and religious value to the Apache people. Nosie’s remarks came during a forum for the preservation of Native American sacred sites and rights sponsored by Emmanuel Baptist Church, Wake Forest University’s Religion Department and the Ministers’ Conference of Winston-Salem. Steve Boyd, a Wake Forest religion professor and one of the event’s organizers, said the community support for the Apache tribe’s fight against the mining company has far exceeded his expectations. “This constitutes cultural genocide,” Boyd said. “Everybody I’ve talked to has been shocked that the company is foreign. They’re shocked that it’s trying to go through a legislative process rather than an administrative process that requires impact statements.” Boyd first met Nosie seven years ago when he agreed to speak to one of Boyd’s classes at Wake Forest University. When Boyd learned of the struggle of the Apaches, he asked what he and the school’s religion department could do to help. Nosie then enlisted Boyd and his religion students in the fight to protect sacred sites of the Apache people. Vernelda Grant, archeologist for the San Carlos Apache Tribe, made a presentation that outlined the protected Native American religious sites of greatest concern — Apache Leap and Oak Flat. Grant said her Apache ancestors fought miners for centuries and died trying to protect “Mother Earth.” Of great concern are the peaks of Apache Leap, and how the proposed mine at Chich’il Bidagoteel could lead to the collapse of the majestic rock formations. Grant said the towering rock formations represent life, death, the spirit of Apache ancestors and all the Apache deities. “Just imagine if the ground subsided around those rock formations,” said Roy Chavez of Concerned Citizens of Superior in Arizona. For its part, Resolution Copper says it is committed to “preserving the cultural, historical and educational significance as well as the natural beauty of the area known as Apache Leap. “Therefore, the company has included in the land exchange agreement an 822-acre protected easement, according to the company’s website. Resolution Copper says the easement also incorporates about 110 acres of land to the south of the religious site, which is privately owned by the company. There is a deeply personal, spiritual and visceralrelationship between s and the land, Grant said, and the copper mineproposed at Chich’il Bidagoteel threatens the very existence of theApache tribe. “Mining is achieving the destruction that 150years of oppression could not,” Grant said. Nosie followed on Grant’spoint, saying that to understand the issue, one must look at thehistory of the treatment of all Indian nations by the US government. “Thisis an attack on the oldest religion on this continent,” he said. UlrikeWiethaus, a Wake Forest University professor of religious studies,underscored Nosie’s point. “If this is being taken away fromthe Apache, you’re not a people anymore,” she said. Henry Munoz ofConcerned Citizens of Superior said local officials in southeasternArizona have put up little resistance to Resolution Copper’s proposedoperation due to the perceived economic benefit to the community. Nosiehas spoken on behalf of his tribe before congressional committees onthe subject and has written letters to federal and elected officials. “What’simportant on this bill is they’re bypassing the major part of theenvironmental impact of what’s going to happen in this region,” Nosiesaid. “We have asked them to follow their own law which isadministrative review. If they were to do that and follow, then theywould find all the information that’s missing. It’s important for ourleaders in Washington to be knowledgeable of these issues.” Ina recent letter sent to a US Forestry Service official, Nosie wrotethat mining is inconsistent with conservative, traditional Apachevalues. “We have been taught to respect the naturalworld, and to keep it clean and natural. Our traditional relationshipwith the land is deep and personal. We depend on the natural world forour survival, and our survival depends on maintaining our personalrelationships with all living things,” Nosie wrote.

Theidea that the ancient wisdom of the Apache people regarding man’sconnection to the environment could serve all of mankind at a time whenclimate change and ecosystem destruction are clear for all to see wasone of several recurring themes during the forum. By damaging thenatural environment of the Apache people, you are essentiallydestroying their religion, Nosie said. “I come here to ask for allies,”Nosie said. “There’s a connection from the west to the east. Yourfight, your struggle is ours. There is no discrimination when it comesto protecting the planet.” Boyd said the relationship that hasdeveloped between Wake Forest University’s religion department and theSan Carlos Apache Tribe over the past seven years has benefited bothgroups tremendously. Nosie said the benefits of the continuedrelationship were evident from the moment his plane touched down inCharlotte on May 1. Nosie received a phone call from a reporter at amajor Arizona newspaper to discuss the land transfer bill. Nosie saidthe lack of press coverage in Arizona represents one of the Apachetribe’s greatest challenges and the phone call came as a direct resultof his trip to North Carolina. Former Republican presidentialnominee John McCain and Republican Whip Jon Kyl, both of Arizona,introduced Senate Bill 409 on Feb. 11. McCain serves on the SenateCommittee on Energy and Natural Resources along with Sen. Richard Burrof North Carolina. Nosie said he believes that if other members of thecommittee begin hearing constituent concerns about the land transferbill, it could prevent the bill from becoming law. Under the bill’sprovisions, Resolution Copper Mining would donate 5,566 acres to the USForest Service and the Bureau of Land Management in exchange for 2,406federally protected acres between Apache Leap and Oak Flat, an arearich in copper ore. The core Apache belief that “Mother Earth” is aliving being and that any harm done to one area of our naturalenvironment affects all other areas has been proven by science, Nosiesaid. Nosie argued that the citizens of North Carolina have a vestedinterest in blocking Senate Bill 409 and preserving an importantreligious site of the Apache people, Nosie said, and a return to theconcept of “Mother Earth” for all Western peoples is ultimately the keyto saving the planet. “We have to start deciding when enoughis enough. I know Native people have a lot to offer if we are listenedto. We know how to save this planet,” he said.