“I was brought up in this area of Arizona where all things Apache were created. Looking out at the landscape I know where I was created, what family was created there, what type of Apache was created over there, what spiritual being was created there, who is from the earth, the canes, the river, the lake, under the lake, on top of that mountain over there.”
Protecting Our Nature and Our Sacred Land
Oak Flat Campground is located outside of Superior, Arizona, in the Tonto National Forest, and is considered sacred to the San Carlos Apache. This area of land has been protected since 1955 by Dwight D. Eisenhower, and contains more than 2,400 acres of land, wildlife, petroglyphs, sacred spaces, and water resources. Beneath the surface lies a copper deposit thought to be the largest in the Northern hemisphere. A controversial land-swap presented in an unrelated 2015 National Defense Bill by John McCain allows Resolution Copper (a joint venture by Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton) to develop a block-cave mine which is projected to create a 2-mile wide crater with “estimated surface disturbance of 6,951 acres (approximately 11 square miles)”. Currently, the development of this mine is locked in court as Resolution Copper struggles to find a location to deposit the mine tailings, the fine particulate aftermath of mining operations. These tailings are being refused by communities in the area as they become toxic once exposed to the surface. “The proposed tailings facility would encompass an area approximately 6,400 acres in size” and hundreds of feet in height.
The impulse to begin examining Oak Flat came from the overwhelming media coverage of the bombings by ISIS at Palmyra in April of 2015. What cultural heritage sites are at-risk in the United States? Why is there no mainstream media coverage on these sites? Deeper research reveals that overwhelmingly issues surrounding extraction methods and sacred Native American sites set the stage in North America.
In October 2016, through the opportunity presented by the Action Art Proposal and the Shelley and Donald Rubin Foundation, artist’s Floor Grootenhuis and Erin Turner of Social Practice Queens (SPQ), a partnership between Queens College CUNY and the Queens Museum, visited Oak Flat to begin to document the threatened landscape and the community perception of the proposed mine. We camped for one week on site and gathered ephemera, samples of the landscape, video, photographs, and audio recordings of vernacular sounds and interviews with the community to begin to tell the story of this controversial location. Oak Flat Campground is frequented by many different people in the area for recreational activities, as well as the San Carlos Apache. Nonetheless, the community is divided as they debate topics that range from job creation, contamination, public health and safety, religious freedom, sacred spaces, preservation, and public land use.
We intended to collect an open history of inclusion that responded to sites of loss including knowledge from science, arbitrary experience and mythology. The initial objective was to create a framework around perceptions of loss. In practice this morphed into an active and collaborative process of igniting conversations about the sacred site of Oak Flat; asking questions about the implications of losing this land, and steps needed to protect and preserve the site.
We immersed ourselves in the landscape, listened to people in the surrounding communities, and discovered discrepancies between the information provided to the community by Resolution Copper and other sources. Beginning to uncover the controversies between environmentalists, multi-generational mining families, Resolution Copper, and the San Carlos Apache, this project became more about communication, conservation and preservation and less about a site of loss. We wanted to generate direct action and create awareness. It is perhaps needless to say that the community near Oak Flat is viciously contemptuous, as racial tensions between the white and Native communities in the area do not see eye-to-eye. The intricacies of the situation are specific, and run deep inside the veins of the people; misinformation and mistrust further divide the region.
During our visit to Oak Flat, we met and partnered with the Apache Stronghold, the activist group fighting to save Oak Flat. Essential in this collaboration was to realize that any step forward called for communication and approval from elder and former San Carlos Apache Chairman, Wendsler Nosie Sr., the head of the Apache Stronghold movement. We wanted our engagement to be in support of their mission to protect the traditional Apache Way of Life through “creating environments that ensure the greatest opportunity to succeed, and to become self-sufficient for Indigenous and all communities.”
In January 2017, Social Practice Queens was invited to host a Peace Talk titled Protecting Our Nature and Our Sacred Land at Mierle Laderman Ukeles’ Peace Table, as a part of public participation of her retrospective exhibition at the Queens Museum. Mr. Wendsler Nosie Sr. shared his vision and story of sacred spaces, conservation, and Native American activism with the Queen's community. The same weekend Mr. Nosie also spoke at Quimby’s Bookstore in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, while Standing Fox, Apache Stronghold member and Bedonkohe Apache photographer and artist painted a mural that is permanently on view in the store. Two weeks later at the Community Partnership Gallery at the Queens Museum, an accompanying photography exhibition under the same title featured cultural portraits by Standing Fox. His photographic black and white portraits provide a close look at contemporary life on the San Carlos Reservation, coupled with traditional Apache ceremonial shots and cinematic portraits of the landscape. The exhibition included landscape imagery by Grootenhuis and Turner, maps, ephemera, and a short documentary. Postcards were made available to be signed by the public and addressed to NY Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and NY Senator Charles E. Schumer requesting the repeal of the Southeast Arizona Land Exchange Section 3003 of the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act that traded away this public land to the foreign mining company.
As a collective experience we believe that shared place, space, and history should be embraced as such. We experience a deep connection with the idea of the sacred as it relates to both the physical, cultural, and the emotional landscape. These different terrains have fueled our desire to share the story of Oak Flat and create a potential for action around the cause of sacred land and shared history. We hope to fortify memory, and act in resistance to loss. We aim to continue to share this in an online format as a collaborative living archival/social art work that will foster future iterations of intervention, performance, installation, and object-making processes that are connected to this cause.
Erin Turner and Floor Grootenhuis, Summer 2017