After years of bogus claims by Christian groups that their religion is under assault, there is one clear case where religious rights are being trampled with government complicity. Yet the right wing media that’s been so quick to support bakers’ rights to discriminate against gay couples has been uncharacteristically silent. Maybe that’s because the group whose religious rights are being trod upon aren’t white Christians, they’re the the Apaches of Arizona. Or maybe it’s because there’s a profit to be made.

Earlier this week, Washington DC saw two days of demonstrations organized by Apache Stronghold a Native American advocacy group to protest a deal which handed 2400 acres of sacred lands belonging to the San Carlos Apache tribe to foreign mining company, Resolution Copper. The land deal was slipped at the last minute into the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) last December by Arizona Republican Senators, John McCain and Jeff Flake where it sidestepped most of the usual scrutiny.

While the land known as Oak Flat had been declared a protected area in 1955 by President Eisenhower, the huge deposits of copper under it have had mining companies like Resolution Copper champing at the bit ever since. Over the last 10 years there have been several other, less successful proposals, to sell it off. Advocates of the sales were never able to garner enough votes to pass it on its own. Sticking it into the “must pass” defense bill got around that.

In December, when the bill was being pushed through, Apache spokesman Terry Rambler spoke in Washington on the importance of the land.

“Since time immemorial people have gone there. That’s part of our ancestral homeland. We’ve had dancers in that area forever — sunrise dancers — and coming-of-age ceremonies for our young girls that become women. They’ll seal that off. They’ll seal us off from the acorn grounds, and the medicinal plants in the area, and our prayer areas.”

The site is also adjacent to Apache Leap, an especially sacred site where warriors leapt to their deaths to avoid capture by American Cavalry. The company has promised to stop 1500 feet short of Apache Leap, but some among the Native Americans are unconvinced.

Last month, Democratic Congressman Raúl M. Grijalva, ranking member of the Natural Resources Committee introduced a bipartisan bill aimed at nixing the deal.

  “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. I’m proud to lead our bipartisan team in saying we should repeal this giveaway and stop treating corporate handouts as national defense priorities.”  

The land deal has other Native American communities concerned for the precedent it sets in giving away sacred lands and bypassing both legal and environmental restrictions.

Some people look at the land involved and see desert, beautiful, perhaps, but not extraordinary. The mining company sees copper and the vast riches it can be turned into. But the Apache see much more than that. Carrie Sage Curley, an Apache woman explained,

“It’s our sacred land — it’s where we come to pray. It’s the same thing as a church. We protect these temples, why can’t we do the same for our sacred land?”

For the Apache, this is more than just real estate, and it’s more than simply the location. The land itself is holy to them. When mining companies come in and mines, cart away the minerals and leave the holes to collapse the ground above, it is more than a land grab, it is desecration. Imagine the uproar if Christian holy sites were treated the same, the grotto of Lourdes turned into a quarry, the Vatican, an amusement park.

Wendsler Nosie SR., San Carlos Chairman said,

“Our homelands continue to be taken away, an action that constitutes a holy war, where tribes must stand in unity and fight to the very end.”

Being told that a person you don’t approve of is entitled to the same rights you’ve always had is not an attack on your religion. Having your holy sites appropriated so that a corporation can plunder it for profit is.

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