The San Carlos Apache Tribe led a walk to 40-mile journey to Oak Flat in Arizona to protest a copper mine at a sacred site. Photo by Kenneth Chan / Facebook

Bill repeals land swap for mine on sacred Apache site in Arizona

A bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced a bill this week to repeal a land swap for a controversial mine on sacred Apache land in Arizona.

Congress approved H.R.3979, the National Defense Authorization Act, in the final days of the 113th session last December. Tucked into the 1,648-page bill was a provision, known as Section 3003, that authorizes the transfer of federal land to a foreign-controlled company that plans to build a huge copper mine at Oak Flat.

Members of the San Carlos Apache Tribe, other Apache tribes and their allies are now camping out at Oak Flat in hopes of protecting the land from development. They got a show of support from Washington, D.C., in the form of H.R.2811, a bill that repeals Section 3003, putting a halt to a controversial project that has inspired protests at Congressional offices, mainstream media attention and opposition across Indian Country.

Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Arizona) is the ranking Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee. Photo from Facebook

“What this unpopular corporate giveaway was doing in the national security bill is anyone’s guess, and we shouldn’t wait any longer to repeal it,” Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Arizona), who introduced the measure on Wednesday, said in a press release. “Congress shouldn’t be in the business of helping big corporations at others’ expense, and it certainly shouldn’t break faith with Native American communities."

The bill counts 14 co-sponsors. Most are Democrats but three are Republicans, including Rep. Tom Cole (R-Oklahoma) and Rep. Markwayne Mullin (R-Oklahoma), who are the only two members of a federally recognized tribe in Congress.

The swap itself was pushed by most members of Arizona's Congressional delegation, including Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick (D-Arizona) and Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona). The pair are gearing up for a battle in the 2016 U.S. Senate campaign and their support for the mine could be an issue for Native voters in the state.

Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick (D-Arizona). Photo from Facebook

Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Arizona) was another vocal proponent of the mine. He drew fire for referring to Native Americans as "wards" of the federal government but refused to apologize for his comments.

"The land exchange has impacts on many components but what they all tie to is theft," Wendsler Nosie Sr., a council member and former chairman of the San Carlos Apache Tribe said in an opinion for Indianz.Com. "The taking of property without the laws that apply normally. Isn’t that called stealing? And what is bad is that this theft has been approved by the U.S. government."

This image shows the area above Surprise, Arizona, where the Resolution Copper mine would be built. The area includes Oak Flat, Apache Leap and other sites used by Apache tribes for food, medicine and ceremonies. Image from SkyTruth / Google Maps

President Barack Obama signed the defense bill into law even as Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said she was "profoundly disappointed" by the mine swap.

More than 100,000 people signed a petition in opposition to the swap. The White House responded by saying the Obama administration will work with the mining company to address concerns about the sacred site.

In October 2014, Nizhoni Pike, a member of the San Carlos Apache Tribe, held a coming-of-age ceremony in an area that will be affected by the land swap and the Resolution Copper mine. Photo by Anna Jeffrey for The Apache Messenger

Although Section 3003 requires consultation of tribes that will be affected by the mine, it allows the swap to go through no matter how strong the objections. It only requires Resolution Copper, a company controlled by foreign corporations, to come up with "mutually acceptable measures" to address the impacts to the sacred sites.

Nearly every tribe in Arizona opposes the mine. It affects land used for food and medicinal gathering, as well as for ceremonies, including coming-of-age rites that were held as recently as October 2014.

The bill, known as the Save Oak Flat Act, was referred to the House Natural Resources Committee. A hearing hasn't been scheduled.

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