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Oak Flat at the Crossroads: Culture and the Copper Economy in Modern-Day Arizona

Ryan Heinsius

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?’”

Credit Ryan Heinsius
Vernelda Grant, director of the San Carlos Apache Tribe's Historic Preservation and Archaeology Department, stands near an oak tree at the Oak Flat Campsite.

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.”

Credit Ryan Heinsius
Scott Wood, a retired Tonto National Forest archaeologist of 40 years, has studied Oak Flat extensively for decades. He says there's ample evidence of hundreds of years of Apache occupation 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.

Oak Flat is a sacred site to the Western Apache and the site of key religious ceremonies. A federal land swap could turn over ownership to the international mining company Rio Tinto for the construction of one of the nation's largest copper mines.
Credit Ryan Heinsius
Oak Flat is located just outside the town of Superior, within a half-hour's drive of other large copper mines in Globe, Miami and Kearny. The Oak Flat area includes oak trees, natural springs, abundant wildlife, recreation areas and ancient archaeological sites.

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. 

Credit Ryan Heinsius
Equipment for the now-inactive Magma Mine can be seen from the Oak Flat Campsite. Founded in 1875, it was originally named the Silver Queen Mine and produced copper, gold, silver, zinc and other metals until 1981. The sacred site of Apache Leap can be seen in the background.

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.

Credit Ryan Heinsius
Wendsler Nosie Sr. (second from left) is the former chairman of the San Carlos Apache Tribe and a current council member. He was recently in Flagstaff along with a group of fellow opponents of the Resolution Copper mine. They performed an Apache song for the protection of the area at the KNAU studios.

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.

Credit Ryan Heinsius
The Oak Flat Campsite.

“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.

Credit Ryan Heinsius
A variety of protest signs appear throughout the Oak Flat Campsite.

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.

Ryan Heinsius joined the KNAU newsroom as executive producer in 2013 and was named news director and managing editor in 2024. As a reporter, he has covered a broad range of stories from local, state and tribal politics to education, economy, energy and public lands issues, and frequently interviews internationally known and regional musicians. Ryan is an Edward R. Murrow Award winner and a Public Media Journalists Association Award winner, and a frequent contributor to NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered and national newscast.
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