Stepping on Sacred Ground: Defense Bill Includes Native American Land Grab

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The U.S. government may destroy sacred Native American ground with a bill that'll open 2,400 acres in Arizona's Tonto National Forest for a copper mine.
Members of the San Carlos Apache Tribe — whose reservation borders Arizona’s Tonto National Forest — recently had a two-day, 40-mile spiritual journey to protest a bill that may destroy sacred Native American ground within the forest with a copper mine. (Photos by Sandra Rambler)

Passed by Congress in December, the $585 billion National Defense Authorization Act for 2015 doesn’t only provide for the military. Lawmakers surreptitiously used the defense bill to push through a giant public lands package — the Southeast Arizona Land Exchange and Conservation Act, a release of 2,400 acres in the Tonto National Forest to the subsidiary of Australian-English mining company Rio Tinto in exchange for other parcels so it can mine a massive copper deposit there.

Portions of the land are considered sacred by the San Carlos Apache and other Native American tribes that live nearby. Within the forest are traditional burial sites and remnants of dwellings that could be destroyed by heavy industrial activity Tao Etpison, San Carlos Apache vice chairman, told TheBlot Magazine. The land was technically “exchanged” for other parcels also owned by Rio Tinto, but is basically being given away — and to a company that does business with Iran.

Arizona is a major mining state, and the industry contributes around $4.6 billion to the economy. Copper is the state’s most abundant mineral, and Arizona leads the nation in production of the metal; it is also a national leader in metal mining of silver and gold and refining uranium and coal. Advanced information technology and devices like cellphones, semiconductors and computer chips rely on copper.

The land swap had twice failed passage in the House of Representatives. The measure, which was never publicly discussed, was added to the must-pass legislation during secret talks between the House and Senate Armed Services Committees. It passed the Senate by an easy 89-11 margin.

Are U.S. Senators Holding Hands with Iran on Native American Land Giveaway?

Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton has spent more than $1 billion to dig the Arizona shaft, which is the deepest in the U.S. ( photo)
Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton have already spent more than $1 billion to dig the Arizona shaft, which is the deepest in the U.S. But local Native Americans are concerned, and rightfully so, for the impact on their tribes — and the environment — by further mining. ( photo)

What’s even worse than giving away Native American land to a mining company that does business with Iran, a state-sanctioned sponsor of terrorism and a notoriously bad-behaving world actor?

That both senators representing Arizona, John McCain and Jeff Flake, helped pilot the deal to a successful landing. McCain serves on the Armed Services Committee and Indian Affairs as well. That he knew of, and undoubtedly helped, affect the passage of the land giveaway in his own state is shameful.

Iran had invested in a Rio Tinto-owned uranium mine in Namibia, in which the country owns a 15 percent stake, the company said. Rio Tinto claims it has since removed Iran’s two members from a mine board and that they get no benefit from the Arizona land. Additionally, company officials have said there is no active partnership, that the firm has discussed the issue with the U.S. State Department and that no sanctions against Iran have been, or will be, violated.

However, this could all change if Iran is persuaded to end its uranium-enriching program in exchange for some sanctions ending, a possibility the State Department would not comment upon as negotiations are ongoing.

Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma mounted the most serious opposition to strip the lands measure from the bill, but secured only 18 votes in favor.

McCain and Flake claim that the project will create nearly 3,700 jobs. According to the deal, Resolution Copper will take control of the land under Rio Tinto in one year. The mine is a joint venture between Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton, a multinational mining, metals and petroleum company.

“The Native American Lands Are Held Sacred” — Yet Government Plays Role in Their Destruction

Recently, members of the San Carlos Apache Tribe — whose reservation borders Tonto National Forest — held a two-day, 40-mile spiritual journey walk and march from their administration headquarters to the city of Globe, ending at Oak Flat Campground. The next day, a Holy Ground Ceremony was held.

Etpison, a former judge for the Inter Tribal Council of Arizona and three-term member of council, is very concerned about the land giveaway, he said, for environmental and spiritual reasons. Apaches have historically dominated the area where the reservation is located, he said, and have resisted any development of the sacred ancestral land and burial grounds within the Tonto National Forest. San Carlos is in the eastern part of Arizona on Interstate 70, and the reservation nearly borders New Mexico with the forest in between the Apache lands and the Phoenix metropolitan area.

apache map
( photo)

“Apaches are very in tune with their religion as passed down,” Etpison said. “The lands are held sacred and are used in several traditional ceremonies. We’re very concerned that the land is going to be turned over, and to a mining company at that,” he said.

The forestland holds remnants of ancient Apache and other native dwellings, which could be destroyed if the land is mined. The reservation has shrunk over the years, as companies wanting at the minerals contained therein is an old story, but now the federal government is helping make it happen. In the process, the federal government is helping take the minerals out of the land with very little thought for the health of the land, the surrounding environment or its people.

“They were finding minerals in the area,” Etpison said. “The reservation shrank. I don’t know how many times they tried before.”

He is concerned mining could affect the water table and underground sources, the aquifer and drinking water for much of eastern Arizona. The lands include several locations that are special to native tribes and ceremonial places, including the Apache Leap and Oak Flat Campground area.

“It could affect the nearby mining town of Globe, too,” Etpison said. “If the water source is effected, it could then effect us. Any contamination of water could hurt us. It’s a big concern.”

The Latest in a Long Line of Insults Toward Native Americans

( photo)
Tao Etpison. ( photo)

To Etpison, the land doesn’t belong to anyone, but Apaches have been stewards of it for hundreds of years. “Apaches have used this land for many generations,” he said. “For the government to give the land away is very devastating.”

Resolution Copper has not addressed the San Carlos Tribal government’s concerns, but has asked to meet to satisfy a consultation requirement, Etpison believes. “Yes, very much disappointed,” he said. “It’s a really sad situation.” The company has pledged that some profits will go to the tribe and the tribal council of nations, but he remains skeptical in what amounts any assistance or proceeds from profits will be received, if any at all.

Around 15,000 people live on the San Carlos reservation, Etpison said, adding that members of the tribal government have met with federal government representatives to raise their objections.

“Our concern is rather simple at its core,” he explained. He wants a full Environmental Impact Assessment to be completed, but Resolution Copper has lobbied for an exemption. The company claims jobs will come as a result of the project, though Etpison pointed out most permanent jobs will require high tech skills and much of the work will be done out of state.

President Obama signed the bill into law on Dec. 19. In addition to the San Carlos Apache, almost every other tribe in Arizona opposes the land giveaway. If the mine becomes reality, vulnerable sites used by Apache tribes will be greatly affected and could be changed forever as heavy industrial processes like mining tend to not put things back into their proper or previous working order quickly, or ever for that matter.

Obviously, and sadly, the long history of Native Americans concerns being ignored and land that is special to their tribes being taken away never seems to end. This is just the latest insult.

Noah Zuss is a reporter for TheBlot Magazine.

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