Religious Freedom for All: Help Save Oak Flat, an Apache Sacred Site
Once again, the oldest story in our American history plays out in a predictable way: a land-swap bill that would desecrate sacred Apache land through copper mining has been passed because pro-mining senators, John McCain and Jeff Flake attached a rider to a very large must-pass defense bill at the eleventh hour and the rider was literally overlooked. It should be noted that Congress was not in favor of this bill and had voted it down repeatedly in past years. It is unfathomable that in 2015, Indian Country is still being torn from the hearts of our nation’s first people, pushing Native people off land that is holy to them. Land they call home. This old story needs a new ending.
Rules cannot apply indiscriminately. Freedom of religion means freedom and safety to practice religion in a mosque, in a church, in a synagogue, a temple, and on hallowed, sacred ground, which is what Oak Flat is. This land-swap aims to rip open the earth in the heart of ceremony and will erase a tribe’s traditional food supply, destroy access to medicinal plants, and literally blast out of the Earth a particular place that connects them to their source—all in the name of money and the shallow promise of jobs. There is no amount of money great enough to pay for the psychological damage already done to a people still reeling from the cultural genocide of their tribes committed by the government in our country. We have a chance to make reparations. This moment is an opportunity for healing.
On Wednesday, July 22, a group of San Carlos Apache, joined by members of other tribes and supporters from Congress, environmental groups and allied citizens, staged a peaceful protest on the west lawn of the U.S. Capitol. What was evident during the protest, which was ceremonial in nature, was the quiet and powerful way in which all speakers came forth with the truths of generations. They were willing to be vulnerable and bear their pain rather than lash out. Each speaker explained the issue, the history, and the effect of this bill, not only on their tribe, but on everyone. If this land-grab happens, one speaker said, it will set a precedent that says it is okay to destroy a religious building or site. No one will be safe from corporate greed.
This was a peaceful protest against a violent action. This was a prayerful ceremony for the Earth’s healing and for our own. This was a healing ceremony even for those who deem it acceptable to ravish another’s sacred site, for it was understood that they were clearly hurting from within, too. The speakers modeled how to take responsibility for ourselves and for the Earth. We must learn from those who are our leaders in this realm, and we are fortunate in this country to be in the presence of those who have this wisdom.
When a former student told me about Oak Flat, I had not heard of this particular struggle. I am guilty of being unaware of something I especially care about. I personally know how easy it is to forget, especially when issues seem far away, but I am reminded again of how necessary it is that we remember. This message is for all of us who forget our collective history and have to be reminded.In the words of San Carlos Apache Chairman, Terry Rambler, “We must stand together and fight those, like Resolution Copper, that seek to take our religious freedom, our most human right. If we do not, our beliefs, our spiritual lives, the very foundation of our language, our culture and our belief will no longer be in balance, and we will become undone.” (Gale Courey Toensing, Indian Country Media Network, Jan. 27, 2015)
The Native people at the Oak Flat protest came a long way at their own expense to tell the government their story and to remind us all that we are all stewards of this Earth. Every one of us. The only way to rectify this error is if members of Congress express support for H.R. 2811, the Save Oak Flat Act, introduced by Arizona representative Raul Grijalva, which would repeal the bill that puts Oak Flat in harm’s way. Please ask your representatives to co-sponsor H.R. 2811. We can begin to heal the wounds of the past together.