Oak Flat at the Crossroads: Culture and the Copper Economy in Modern-Day Arizona
Plans are in the works to develop the largest copper mine in North America on Arizona’s Tonto National Forest. The proposed site for the nearly 3,000-acre mine is Oak Flat near the town of Superior. It’s an ancestral home for several clans of the San Carlos Apache Tribe, some of whom are protesting the development. They believe the Oak Flat mine is another example of the conflict between the protection of sacred sites and economic development.
Colorful tents dot the picturesque landscape of Oak Flat on the eastern edge of the Sonoran Desert. For nearly four months, dozens, and sometimes hundreds of protestors have been camped here in opposition to the mine. One of them is Vernelda Grant.
“We’re just here to make sure that we tell the world that this place is significant,” says Grant, a San Carlos Apache and the director of the tribe’s Historic Preservation and Archaeology Department. “We’ve been praying here, we’ve been having our ceremonies and we’ve been doing all these things all these years. It just makes me want to say, ‘Doesn’t religion and having faith matter anymore over money and power?’”
For more than 400 years, Oak Flat has served as a home, ceremonial site and even a burial ground for several clans of the San Carlos Apache. Its abundant springs and oak trees made it an ideal place to put down roots. But those roots are sitting on top of one of the largest copper deposits in the world a mile below the Earth’s surface in a place known as Arizona’s Copper Corridor.
“There are some pit-house villages — lots of them concentrated around some of the springs and major washes down in there,” says Scott Wood, a retired archaeologist who worked on the Tonto National Forest for 40 years and surveyed the Oak Flat area extensively. “So there’s a good strong Apache archaeological presence up there.”
In 1955, President Dwight D. Eisenhower established protections for Oak Flat to keep the area from being mined for its copper. But an unusual federal land swap contained in the National Defense Authorization Act last year privatized the area, voiding Eisenhower’s order and paving the way for the largest copper mine in North America.
“Copper mining built this state and the economic powerhouse that is Arizona really developed around copper mines back in the day. This is where God blessed us with copper,” says David Richins, a spokesman for Resolution Copper, the company developing the mine.
He acknowledges the cultural and spiritual concerns of the San Carlos Apache, but says Arizona’s legacy as the leading copper producer in the country can’t be ignored.
“It’s a tough tradeoff. It’s a tough tradeoff. Economic development and job creation versus claims,” he says.
Representatives with Resolution Copper say over the course of the mine’s lifespan — about 60 years — it would create some 4,000 jobs, $60 billion in revenue for the state, and provide a quarter of the U.S. copper demand. Those are statistics that have garnered the support of Arizona Senator John McCain and Congresswoman Ann Kirkpatrick.
But those same statistics have created suspicion for Wendsler Nosie Sr., former chairman and current council member of the San Carlos Apache Tribe.
“That really blows me away when you have these people making these comments that it’s not holy or not sacred,” he says.
Nosie was in Flagstaff recently to deliver a lecture about the cultural significance of Oak Flat. He was joined by about 20 others who beat drums and sang songs for its protection.
“How can you argue where there’s ceremonial dances happening from the ancient times, and how you’re tied to the land, children being baptized in the Apache way, people coming there to be healed?” he asks.
Development of the mine has yet to begin in earnest. So for now, not only does Oak Flat sit atop an enormous and coveted copper deposit, it also sits at the delicate apex of culture, environment and economy.