Members of the San Carlos Apache Tribe are fighting to preserve sacred sites in Arizona after lawmakers slipped a clause into the National Defense Authorization Act that would allow copper mining in the area. The land in question includes parts of Tonto National Forest, including Oak Flat and Devil’s Canyon, and could also impact nearby Apache Leap, an important historic site where a group of Apache who were being pursued by US cavalry plunged off a cliff to their deaths rather than be captured. Resolution Copper Mining, a subsidiary of British-Australian mining giant Rio Tinto, has long sought ownership of the land. But the battle is not over. Earlier this month, a group called the Apache Stronghold began a caravan from Tucson, Arizona, to Washington, DC, to call for this land to once again be protected. On their way, they stopped in New York today and joined us in our studio. We speak with Wendsler Nosie Sr., Peridot District Council member and former chairman of the San Carlos Apache Tribe. He’s the founder of the Apache Stronghold. His granddaughter, Naelyn Pike, also joins us.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.
Don’t miss a beat
Get the latest news and thought-provoking analysis from Truthout.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, members of the San Carlos Apache Tribe are fighting to preserve sacred sites in Arizona after lawmakers slipped a clause into the National Defense Authorization Act that would allow copper mining in the area. The land in question includes parts of Tonto National Forest, including Oak Flat, Devil’s Canyon, and could also impact nearby Apache Leap, an important historic site where a group of Apache who were being pursued by US cavalry plunged off a cliff to their deaths rather than be captured. Resolution Copper Mining, a subsidiary of British-Australian mining giant Rio Tinto, has long sought ownership of the land.
AMY GOODMAN: But the battle is not over. Earlier this month, a group called the Apache Stronghold began a caravan from Tucson, Arizona, to Washington, DC, to call for this land to once again be protected. They’re in New York today as they join us in our studio. Wendsler Nosie Sr. is Peridot district councilman and former chair of the San Carlos Apache Tribe. He is the founder of the Apache Stronghold. And his granddaughter is with us, Naelyn Pike.
We welcome you both to Democracy Now!
NAELYN PIKE: Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: So, we’re speaking to you right after you addressed thousands at a Neil Young concert. Talk about what your message is.
WENDSLER NOSIE SR.: Well, our message is, is that there is an American battle happening, because when this first issue began, it was an Apache issue between Resolution Copper. And if you look at the 13 times, the attempts that they make to get it on their own merit, they fail, until, as you said, the rider was done. And now you look at the different components. It affects every American, from the sacred sites of Apache people, Native people, with McCain doing what he did on this bill, now affects all Indian country. And then, on top of that, put it in a defense bill, which – you know, our veterans have defended this country for freedom of speech and the freedom of religion, and to stick it there and also to know that Native people were put on reservations and the social illness that we still have from that, and it’s a reminder of what America did to the Native American people.
And then, on top of that, Arizona itself, with the contamination that’s going to come from that, and the most important part is that there was no transparency. And no one knows in Arizona, as well as in America, the effects that are going to come from that. And being that mining is always short-term, rather than be 20 or 30 years, but what’s going to be left behind? So, and then, what America is learning is about the exemptions, that it’s not only happening in Indian country, but it’s happening in America. So here is an opportunity for American people to band together so that we can correct what Congress does in these late-night riders.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And you’re saying – you mentioned that it was Senator John McCain who was the one who slipped it into the authorization bill. Do you have any sense whether the other senators were even aware that it was there?
WENDSLER NOSIE SR.: Well, you know, it’s been an issue. And so, again, going back to Congress, you look at the 13 attempts that they made. So during that process, there was a lot of education to Congress across this country, because federal land, everyone has a say on federal land. And so, because there was no transparency, it didn’t pass. But now, when they slipped it in, you know, the way Congress operates, not allowing amendments, not allowing arguments, you know, so that’s how it got passed, and holding other congressional people on their bills not to be passed. So, Senator McCain played a very big impact on that.
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s step back for a moment. Explain exactly what and where the Apache Stronghold – well, your group operates, but also the land mass that we’re talking about.
WENDSLER NOSIE SR.: Well, the land mass is – I guess the example I give, it’s no different than Mount Sinai in what it meant to the Apache people. So when we were forced off and forced onto a reservation, it disconnected us. But if people can understand the way the federal government works and the laws that they had on Indian people, you know, we’re finally able to come back. And we’re the Apache Stronghold. Yes, we say “occupy,” but actually we’re coming home, because that is our indigenous home, where we had resided since the beginning of time, before we were forced off.
AMY GOODMAN: Where is Oak Flat?
WENDSLER NOSIE SR.: Oak Flat sits – well, it’s an original territory of the Apaches. The way a bird flies and the way the reservation ends, it’s about 11 miles.
AMY GOODMAN: Where, though?
WENDSLER NOSIE SR.: Southeastern Arizona.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Naelyn Pike, for a young person like yourself, what does this struggle and this issue mean?
NAELYN PIKE: You know, the struggle to my people, it’s something really sad to see, because this has been happening to us from when the colonizers have come. So if they’re still doing this today, what happens for my children? That’s what I see: the future of our people. If this continues, there will be – we will no longer be Apache, because the identity of who we are, to come back to these sacred places and to go and pray, it’s our identity, and it’s just going to be stripped away.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you tell us what you’re holding?
NAELYN PIKE: I’m holding this staff. We, as Apache Stronghold, we are a spiritual movement. So, with Apache Stronghold, we carry this staff with all the feathers from the nations that we see, so the tribal nations. This staff right here, the stick itself was hit by a lightning strike at Oak Flat. One of our Apache Stronghold members have gotten it. So, you know, we carry this staff with all the prayers and all the things that we have from Oak Flat to all the places that we have touched, and now it’s going to be at Washington, DC
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And could you talk to us about the impact of mining as you were growing up in San Carlos, the impact of these mining companies on the life, the day-to-day life of your people?
WENDSLER NOSIE SR.: Well, you know, it started with the first reservation that was established in Arizona, the size of it, and then, from there, by executive orders, you know, dwindling to what we have. And so, if you look at the mining coppers towns around us, you know, you see the abundance of contamination. You see how it affected the aquifers and the riverbeds, and then how groundwater has been affected. And then, on top of that, you know, you see how people have lived through mining because there’s a lot of ailments that come from that, that people are not aware of. And then, you could look at the cemeteries and look at all the massive graves that come from mining. And so, what really fears us is that it’s just an outline on a reservation with now Resolution Copper wanting to do this greater mine that would really destroy the reservation, because now it’s going to affect water flow. It’s going to affect what is airborne. And then, on top of that, like what Naelyn said about our sacred and holy site, that would be diminished and gone forever.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about what your senators, John McCain and Jeff Flake’s interests are here?
WENDSLER NOSIE SR.: Well, you know, I know that with Senator McCain, he is politically funded by them, you know.
AMY GOODMAN: By?
WENDSLER NOSIE SR.: Campaign – from Resolution Copper. And then, if you look at Jake [sic] Flake, he was a lobbyist prior.
AMY GOODMAN: Jeff Flake.
WENDSLER NOSIE SR.: Yeah, Mr. Flake, Senator Flake. He has been – I mean, that was his role prior to ever getting into Congress. So –
AMY GOODMAN: What was his role?
WENDSLER NOSIE SR.: He was a lobbyist for Resolution Copper, Rio Tinto. Yeah, so –
AMY GOODMAN: The company that is taking over.
WENDSLER NOSIE SR.: Yes, that is taking over. So, if people – if Americans can just backtrack, then you’ll see the ties that they have with these two individuals.
AMY GOODMAN: What kind of response have you gotten? I mean, to be there on stage at a Neil Young concert, thousands of people watch. What are you asking people to do?
WENDSLER NOSIE SR.: Well, what we’re asking people to do is that, again, coming back to federal land, is that every American, every congressperson, has a say on federal land. And when we first – when they first initiated this bill, what we found out was congresspeople were saying, “Well, it’s in Arizona. You know, we don’t have anything to do with it.” But then we reminded them that this was federal land and that the federal government has a responsibility to all Indian tribes. There’s a trust responsibility. And even when they were mentioning to us that we needed to talk to Resolution Copper, why are we going to talk to them when they’re a foreign company? The United States has a responsibility to the tribes of America and to us, and it’s called consultation. And none of that never took place between our senators of Arizona.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But how did they justify slipping this into a Defense Authorization Act? What’s the defense nature of this?
WENDSLER NOSIE SR.: Well, I think, you know, by putting it into the defense bill, like any other major bill that America is watching, you know, so by slipping it through, they have the advantage, because every congressional person is going to be caught by their state saying, “Why didn’t you pass this?” So, with them closing any types of arguments and not allowing any kind of amendments, you know, gave them the leverage. And the land was stolen. I mean, basically, if you look – if we call ourself Americans, it was stolen, that basically that’s what it comes down to, because all of us here sitting around the table, we have to apply to the NEPA laws. You know, any kind of land exchange, any kind of purchase of land, so forth, American people have to apply, too. But how can Congress give this totally away to a foreign country? And then, with 75 percent of everything leaving this country, it just doesn’t make sense. And that’s why the Neil Young concert and the people understanding this and checking out our website, you know, you see that major support coming and them realizing that it’s an American battle now.
AMY GOODMAN: So you have the senators who are against you, Senators Flake and McCain, but you started in Tucson, the area of [Representative] Grijalva, one of the leading Hispanic Caucus members and Progressive Caucus members. What has been his response, Naelyn?
NAELYN PIKE: When I’ve seen Grijalva in Tucson at one of our rallies, where we talked to the people of Tucson about Oak Flat, he was really helpful. He supported us. He came, and he gave a big old hug to me. And it was really nice to see him, to see someone that really cares. And he gave us a lot of hope, because he did introduce this into the House. And so, seeing that, for me, as a young girl, gave hope to my people.
AMY GOODMAN: How old are you?
NAELYN PIKE: Sixteen.
AMY GOODMAN: So how do you know so much about the struggle for Oak Flat?
NAELYN PIKE: Being at Oak Flat – I was raised there – learning the traditional ways as an Apache girl and hearing from my grandfather, and it being plastered all over about Resolution Copper wanting to take this sacred place away, wanting to take Oak Flat away. It really opened my eyes to the world to see how things are. And it just showed me how belittled our people are looked at.
AMY GOODMAN: You’re going to be in Washington, DC, in a few days. That’s the end of your caravan. What are each of you hoping to have accomplished by then?
NAELYN PIKE: For me, I hope to accomplish the awaken of the people, of the congresspeople, of everybody, just to see what’s really going on to this country, because our people, with all the issues and all the things that have happened to us, it’s just been dust underneath the carpet. We have been hidden underneath all these lies, underneath all these things. But it’s just a hope for a better future for my children, for the better future of my people, so that our country is just better.
AMY GOODMAN: I’m reading from a column of Lydia Millet, and she says, “If Oak Flat were a Christian holy site, or for that matter Jewish or Muslim, no senator who wished to remain in office would dare to sneak a backdoor deal for its destruction into a spending bill – no matter what mining-company profits or jobs might result. But this is Indian religion. Clearly the Arizona congressional delegation isn’t afraid of a couple of million conquered natives.
“The truth is that for Mr. McCain, Mr. Flake and others who would allow this precious public land to be destroyed, it’s not only the Indians who are invisible. The rest of us are also ghosts, remnants of a quaint idea of democracy.”
Lydia Millet is a New York Times contributing opinion writer. Your final comments, Wendsler Nosie?
WENDSLER NOSIE SR.: Well, you know, coming to Washington has been spiritual. You know, coming across the country and seeing everything that we’ve seen right now in Indian country is really heartfelt because of the conditions that we live in. And I just hope that the educational process of true history is now – hoping that it has become a process of the United States to the future, because we can’t forget the devastation that took place, because there are those of us that still live in that environment. And that’s one of the big things that we want to take into Washington, because the relationship has to change. You know, we are the rightful owners of this country, and we need to be treated with respect, because we can contribute to this country, you know, in tremendous areas of how to improve. And what I see that we are losing is family, family values. And the way God had given us our life is to have those values in place. And the last thing is it’s always been spiritual, you know, and that we hope that the spiritual movement that we’re bringing will bring that guiding spirit that needs to be placed on America, because you look at what our character is right now: It’s not doing good at all. And people need to realize, you know, someone like Senator McCain needs to adhere to these things that he’s done. We set the example by letting him go and letting him do what he’s doing, and he’s destroying the future of America and to our children. And that’s not right.
AMY GOODMAN: Wendsler Nosie Sr., I want to thank you for being with us, Peridot district councilman, former chair of the San Carlos Apache Tribe, founder of the Apache Stronghold, the grassroots movement traveling across the country to call for protection of sacred lands. And thanks also to his granddaughter, Naelyn Pike, an Apache Stronghold member, as they travel across this country. This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.