Imagine that a giant mining company announces plans to dig down deep beneath the Vatican to extract precious minerals, collapsing St. Peter’s Basilica into a cavernous pit. While this unlikely scenario would be met with near-universal outrage, it’s effectively what’s happening in Southeastern Arizona, to almost no national scrutiny.

Since at least 2014, the global mining corporation, Resolution Copper, has been trying to mine a stretch of sacred Apache land called Chi’chil Biłdagoteel, or Oak Flat. This sacred site has served the San Carlos Apache as a place to participate in ceremony and prayer, gather medicines and honor past Apache relatives buried within its boundaries for time immemorial. For the Apache, the issue at stake is nothing less than religious freedom.

As an Indigenous woman who grew up on the Santa Ana Pueblo reservation, in neighboring New Mexico, I can’t understate the threat of the mining proposal. Like many in my community, I was raised with both Catholic and Indigenous religious beliefs. If the Vatican were destroyed, my Catholic faith would suffer the grief of losing one of our most holy sanctuaries, along with its rich history, art and culture.

Few in this country understand how vital sacred sites like Oak Flat are to Native communities and their religious traditions, but the destruction of these sites would be just as devastating to us as the destruction of the Vatican. The thought of losing a place that provides such spiritual healing is almost unimaginable.

This is what will happen to the sacred Apache site if the mine opens at Oak Flat. The mine will create a crater that spreads nearly two miles wide and 1,000 feet deep, completely collapsing Oak Flat into itself. The entire site would be permanently destroyed.

In 2014, Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, attached a land-exchange rider to a must-pass National Defense Authorization Act. That little provision handed the Oak Flat area over to Resolution Copper, a foreign-owned mining company aiming to build the largest copper mine in North America there.

The land-exchange is a violation of the 1852 Treaty of Santa Fe, which promised that the United States would protect Apache land and “secure the permanent prosperity and happiness” of the Apaches.

The San Carlos Apache are arguing before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals that they deserve the same religious rights as all people in this country under the First Amendment and the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

In June 2022, the court denied their motion in a divided 2-1 ruling, saying that the land transfer to Resolution Copper “does not substantially burden” Apache religious practices. An 11-judge panel in the Ninth Circuit heard the Apache appeal in March 2023.

In response to the attack on the religious freedoms of the Apaches, Representative Raúl Grijalva, Democrat of Arizona, Senator Bernie Sanders, Independent of Vermont, and Senator Elizabeth Warren, Democrat of Massachusetts, introduced the Save Oak Flat Act to rescind the land exchange and protect the land. This act would not only be a step toward safeguarding the religious rights of the San Carlos Apache, but would help ensure the religious freedoms of all people from corporate encroachment.

The destruction of Oak Flat would wipe out generations of Apache religion, culture and wisdom. Supporting the San Carlos Apache in their fight to protect Chi’chil Biłdagoteel supports the religious freedoms of everyone in this country.

Taneya Garcia is a member of the Acoma and Santa Ana Pueblos in New Mexico and a New Mexico Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies.

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