In southeast Arizona, the flat-topped mesas and rocky spires of Chi’chil Biłdagoteel (known in English as Oak Flat) give way to grassy basins where Emory oak trees grow, shedding acorns every year that are collected by members of Western Apache and Yavapai tribes. Spiky tufts of agave and cactus spring from ochre hillsides near the sites where the San Carlos Apache hold their coming-of-age ceremonies. Oak Flat — the ancestral homeland of numerous Southwestern tribal nations and pueblos — is currently managed by the United States federal government as Tonto National Forest. And for the past decade, a proposed copper mine has threatened to permanently alter the area through an underground mining technique that would cause the earth to sink, up to 1,115 feet deep and almost 2 miles across.
In late June, the Resolution Mine inched closer to reality when the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against a case brought by Apache Stronghold, a grassroots group of Apache tribal members and their allies. The lawsuit hinged on arguments involving religious freedom and the First Amendment, and the fact that, if the mine is developed, Indigenous people will lose access to physical and cultural landscapes central to their way of life.
Apache Stronghold will now appeal to the Supreme Court — one strategy among the many that tribes, conservationists and others are employing to stop the mine. Should the appeal prove unsuccessful, separate lawsuits are pending, focused on environmental concerns and a renewed tribal consultation process with the Biden administration. Still, the 9th Circuit's decision — which effectively admits that its hands are tied because Indigenous religious practices and cultures are not fully protected under current U.S. federal law — is a worrisome sign. What is happening at Oak Flat exemplifies the larger struggle that tribes face over protecting off-reservation lands, caught between laws rooted in colonial ideology, an inactive Congress and an unpredictable Supreme Court.