The Mennonite Church USA (MC USA) Executive Board and MC USA’s Pacific Southwest Mennonite Conference signed an amicus brief in support of Apache Stronghold and the protection of Oak Flat, a sacred site of Native American religious exercise in the Tonto National Forest in Arizona.
The amicus brief, known as a friend of the court brief, allows MC USA Executive Board and PSMC to advocate for Apache Stronghold in the upcoming Apache Stronghold v. United States court case, being heard in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, Pasadena, California, on March 21, 2023. Apache Stronghold, San Carlos, Arizona, is a nonprofit Apache-led organization that battles colonization and defends holy sites and freedom of religion.
Oak Flat, known to Apaches as Chi’chil Bildagoteel or “Emery Oak Extends on a Level,” has been at the heart of a 20-year struggle by Apache and other Southwestern Indigenous peoples to prevent the site from being given to a foreign mining company for a new copper mine.
Sarah Augustine, co-founder and executive director of The Coalition to Dismantle the Doctrine of Discovery, a ministry partner of MC USA and PSMC, said, “Oak Flat is the unceded traditional homeland and territory of the Apache people. It is a sacred site to many Indigenous Peoples, including the Yavapai, O’odham, and my relatives, the Hopi and Zuni. It is a sacred place of worship. While the Apache were removed to a reservation along with hundreds of other Native American tribes, they have continued to care for it and worship there.”
Oak Flat is the site of many important Indigenous religious practices, such as the coming-of-age Sunrise Ceremony for Apache women and sweat lodge ceremonies. It also is a place of rich resources, such as sacred medicine plants, animals, minerals and waters. It is considered the direct corridor to Apache religion and recognized in the National Register of Historic Places.
The struggle for Oak Flat
In 2004, Resolution Copper, a Phoenix-based affiliate of British-Australian mining companies, Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton, assumed control of the previously closed Magma Mine site near Superior, Arizona. The project partners discovered a rich new copper deposit that runs through Tonto National Forest and began a permitting process in 2013, according to the project overview.
In December 2014, Congress passed and President Obama signed the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2015 with a rider that authorized Resolution Copper to perform mining operations in Oak Flat in exchange for other land in Arizona. The rider, the Southeast Arizona Land Exchange and Conservation Act, authorized the transfer of 2,422 acres of Tonto National Forest land to Resolution Copper in exchange for 5,459 acres of private land.
According to Resolution Copper, the proposed copper mine would be the largest in North America, capable of supplying up to 25% of U.S. copper demand each year. In addition, it is projected to create about 3,700 jobs and to generate between $88 and $113 million per year in state and local taxes.
By legislating the land exchange, however, the government effectively tied the hands of the Department of Agriculture (USDA) Forest Service, which, according to the USDA website, has limited discretion related to protection of Oak Flat under federal law.
In response, Apache Stronghold sued the federal government to protect Oak Flat. On June 24, 2022, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals denied Apache Stronghold’s bid to halt construction of the mine. In a 2-1 decision, the court affirmed that the site is “sacred ground,” but said tribal religious beliefs as set out in the Religious Freedom Restoration Act or the First Amendment’s protection of the freedom to practice religion were not sufficient to overturn the land swap, according to AZ Central.
The amicus brief filed by MC USA Executive Board and PSMC argues, “The planned destruction of Oak Flat would impose a substantial burden on Apache religious exercise because that religious exercise is inherently tied to the sacred place where it occurs.”
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit agreed to rehear the case “en banc,” meaning in front of a full panel of 11 judges, with arguments next week.
“Oak Flat is a place where Native Americans have gone to worship, pray and conduct religious ceremonies for generations. The destruction of Oak Flat is a justice issue and a religious liberty issue. This should concern people of all faiths and calls us to stand in solidarity with the San Carlos Apache people,” said Lorraine Stutzman Amstutz, denominational minister for Peace and Justice.
How you can help
MC USA Executive board and PSMC encourage constituents to join in solidarity to protect the sacred Oak Flat site.
Stanley Green, executive conference minister for PSMC, said, “These are our neighbors. We dare not stand mute as bystanders while the land is ravaged, and their religious rights are trampled upon. Our scriptures call us to be a voice with the voiceless. To stay silent in the face of this callous disregard of their rights is a violation of our conscience.”
The Coalition to Dismantle the Doctrine of Discovery offers these suggestions:
- Demonstrate to the courts, your community and the nation that you stand in support of Oak Flat.
At the request of the Apache Stronghold, our primary tactic is focused prayer! Please consider organizing a prayer walk or run on March 19, 20 or 21, the days when the Apache Stronghold and communities of faith across the country will join in action. You will be joining people of faith across the country as you participate in action!
- Take photos of your prayer actions.
As a visual expression of prayer on March 19-21, please ask people to lift signs of support for Apache Stronghold that include the hashtag #saveoakflat and take photos to share with us! You can email them to Michaela at email@example.com so we can share them as encouragement with Apache Stronghold and spread the word on social media about their case.
- Pray during worship on Sunday, March 19.
March 19 will be a focused day of prayer for the Apache Stronghold. Please consider adapting and sharing this sample bulletin announcement with your faith community newsletters and bulletin announcements.
See this folder for prayers, liturgies and sermons from the Coalition for worship leaders and pastors to use in worship. Please share your written prayers with us as well!
- Pray on March 20 and 21 before and during the court hearing.
Mennonite Church USA is the largest Mennonite denomination in the United States with 16 conferences, approximately 540 congregations and 56,000 members. An Anabaptist Christian denomination, MC USA is part of Mennonite World Conference, a global faith family that includes churches in 59 countries. It has offices in Elkhart, Indiana and Newton, Kansas. mennoniteUSA.org
Written by Camille Dager
This video is shared with permission from Becket, the law firm representing Apache Stronghold.
Case summary from Becket.
Read a summary and hear a webinar recording of Vanessa Nosie, an Apache Stronghold leader, who shared with the Coalition’s Repair Network in October 2022.