All works have been created to express solidarity with the Apache Stronghold who is fighting (among other groups) to protect Oak Flat, Arizona from a mining operation. Below, a letter presented with the Apache Stronghold and the San Carlos Apache Nation to the National Forest Service as a comment to the Environmental Impact Statement, September 2019:
To Those Reading the Resolution Environmental Impact Statement Comments for Chi’ chil Bildagoteel, Oak Flat,
It was over 5 years ago, in the height of a media storm about ISIL destroying important cultural heritage sites throughout Iraq, Syria, and Libya, and the discourse on how disgraceful these terrorist groups are for destroying such culturally significant sites, that I turned an eye towards the United States. Why were we as a nation not more concerned with cultural heritage sites on “our” land? What was happening here? A simple google search drew my interest and attention immediately to Oak Flat, a place I had never before visited and knew nothing about.
All information that I was gathering was from online articles, as nothing was coming through in main-stream media. (And I should know, I am a visual artist who uses newspaper as a medium for sculpture. I go through massive amounts of newspapers, constantly.) Why aren’t we talking about these potential losses as major human rights issues? Contamination, lack of clean water resources, disrespect of religion and indigenous peoples? These issues will be spoken about in our lifetime again and again, and we will have to start answering to young people who are denied a clean environment and clean resources. Basic human rights.
We all know, all of us who have been following this topic, this fight, that the land-swap bill was denied 11 times in a row, and not until it was placed in an unrelated “must-pass” defense bill did the land swap pass. This is very blatant corrupt behavior. Not to mention the horrific repercussions of other Rio Tinto mining operations on Native people and distinct environments around the world. (Is it appropriate to mention genocide yet? I am speaking specifically about the civil war case in Papua New Guinea.) Of course money has spoken again and again. But we are also speaking.
Not more than six months after learning about Oak Flat did I visit, and I have been continually going back, multiple times a year. I have done extensive research studies about this location in archives from Washington, DC to Papago Park, Arizona. I have read every single word of the Ethnographic and Ethnohistoric Study of the Superior Area, Arizona as well as the Environmental Impact Statement, both lengthy documents. I have sat and listened to many spiritual people from the Apache community and beyond speak about the importance of this land. I have hiked to the water sources in the middle of the high desert, the petroglyphs, the archaeological sites, and I have sat in ceremony on many occasions at Chi’ chil Bildagoteel (Oak Flat).
Oak Flat is about water in a region of intense drought, it’s about contamination of land and water, it’s about biodiversity in a desert where populations of plant and animal life will dwindle, it’s about corruption, it’s about blatant lies, it’s about political subversion and coercion, it’s about disrespect of Indigenous people, it’s about a language (words and songs) that comes directly from these hills and these canyons, it’s about cultures who have participated in a traditional life since time immemorial, it’s about spirituality, it’s about medicine, it’s about origin, it’s about community, it’s about reclamation, it’s about conservation, it’s about the ephemeral as a perspective, and it’s about life.
Chi’ chil Bildagoteel has been used by at least ten distinct tribes over the course of hundreds and hundreds of years. Elders who walked the land identified over 404 sacred sites throughout the landscape ranging from burial grounds to fresh water sources (although the counting process is an interesting paradigm). And I am quoting just the published surveys! (Please refer to the Ethographic and Ethnohistoric Study of the Superior Area). The Apaches are known to be one of the most low impact people on the land, period. Leave no trace was and is common practice. This perspective and philosophy of life does not correlate to the western motives behind land surveys and archaeological digs, where materiality proves importance, and where objects and architecture prove utilization. There is a conflict of world views, and yet still there is material proof found all over the desert floor.
Is Oak Flat sacred land? A much debated question.
Along highway 60 you will see a sign that denotes “Devil’s Canyon”. Christian terminology in Apacheria. And why on earth would the Christians think that the Devil lived in the canyons in Oak Flat?
Under the light of a waxing moon and to the blaze of a gigantic bonfire, the Ga’an dancers enter a circle of hundreds of people, all of whom are praying with their feet and their hearts to the steady beat of the drum and the Apache prayer songs. Each dancer’s skin is painted black, a paint that comes from slowly grinding down the coals from a sacred fire. Faces completely covered, atop their heads a crown made of yucca with painted symbols representing prayers. The bells and whirring of these mountain spirits, the clicks which resonate with the desert landscape where they were born. This landscape is the origin of these dances, the origin of this language, the origin of these materials and this way of life. This is power and this energy and this is sacred. In some of the most intense moments of my life, I have felt the presence of these collective prayers in this collective landscape, I have learned to pray with my feet, and I have received and projected many prayers. I don’t speak lightly. I speak literally. I speak pointedly. Chi’ chil Bildagoteel holds many blessings, it’s grandmother oak trees breath life into this land.
But these crowned dancers, dark as the night, dancing to a huge bonfire, under the light of the moon… is this not pagan ritual and devil worship to the Christian ideologue? The English language Devil’s Canyon is actually Ga’an Canyon, or Gáán Bik’oh in Athapascan, the native tongue of these lands. How is this not proof enough that the Apache have sat in ceremony out here for generations, that this place is not holy ground? Since before the white man and the Christian church came to rename a landscape that was already ripe with names and songs and spiritual beings, this landscape has held religious significance.
Interestingly enough, the Indian removal policies on to reservation land corresponds to the first utilization of field photography dating back to the mid to late 1800’s, a time when all the natives in the region were being removed and placed onto reservation territories. These people were forced off their traditional territories, placed into concentration camps, given rations of beef, sugar, flour, and coffee, and denied the right to their traditional practices of religion, spirituality, food collection. Denied the right to their traditional homelands and regions. Denied their way of life. The spiritual act of lighting a fire, inviting the ga’an to their ceremonies, and a number of other practices were denied for the next hundred years. All in the name of manifest destiny and Christianity, of nation building and statehood. Native Americans could not practice their own religions until the Native American Religious Freedom Act was passed in 1978. Reclamation of the traditions of this land has been a slow recovery process. A process that must be considered in relationship to the violent history of the region. The question of spiritual significance of this place should be coupled with a conversation on reparation instead of continued desecration.
I have traveled with the Apache Stronghold across the nation to many places of spiritual significance, receiving blessings, prayers, concerns, heartache, and hope from many sacred places and spiritual people across this nation. This spirituality does not exist confined to brick and mortar, it is embedded in the stone, the grass, the water, and the clouds. It is contingent on the health and well-being of all people, from this moment forward. For over 500 years we have taken their places, their language, their culture, and their voice. These people, the Apache people and their Native brothers and sisters, have protected this land and held this land in their prayers since time immemorial. I have felt the power that sits on this land, and I will forever stand next to my Native brothers and sisters to fight to protect this land for future generations and for past generations alike. It is due time to confront the deception of the birth of America. Only by acknowledging fully the atrocities of the past (and present) can we stand together and fight for our collective future.
I do not support this land swap and this mining operation for a multitude of reasons. But let’s get to the basics. Mining uses obscene amounts of water, not to mention the poisoning effect that the mining process will have on this important and SACRED resource. Arizona has been experiencing a long-term drought over the last twenty-one years. And in the basic understanding of climate change, more desertification brings salinization, overexploitation, and loss of biodiversity. Should we actually be dewatering the desert? The only logic that follows this is a capitalistic model where the corporation at hand has no interest in this area outside of its financial significance, and has no interest in effects that this mine will have on the region. This international company is exempt from federal law. WHAT and WHY? Should we not be more interested in a long-term approach to land and resource management policies in an age where climate change has already modified large social patterns and mass migrations? We all know that the water wars have begun. Why fuel the fire?
My concern lies on the destruction of the environment and the contamination of not only the groundwater and aquifers, but of the air, due to the tailings facility. It lies on the loss of biodiversity, culture, and the sacred, all of which are undeniably interconnected. It lies on providing a clean space and environment for people and distinct cultures to flourish for many more generations. We should look seven generations behind us, learn from the mistakes, and consider seven generations ahead of us, to protect the future of our relatives. This mine will be in operation for around forty years, and the future that it will leave will be marred forever.
Chi’ chil Bildagoteel is the foundation of my spiritual practice. This community of people fighting to protect the environment from invasive land management practices have become my friends, my family, my community. This place holds my heart and there are many reasons for fighting for its future. Fighting for the future of my relatives. It persists in my thoughts and prayers as a symbol for all public spaces that are still wild and still holding on to their cultures and traditions. This land is sacred, our land is sacred, and we should protect the sacred.