Prayer is a powerful way to protect Oak Flat, a region of cultural, ecological and historical importance threatened with destruction.
That’s the belief of Apache Stronghold, a group of Indigenous people and their allies.
On Nov. 4, Indigenous people will gather at Oak Flat in central Arizona to pray, and they have invited people of all faith traditions to join them.
The Coalition to Dismantle the Doctrine of Discovery — a group of Mennonites dedicated to repairing the relationship between Indigenous peoples and the Christian church — is encouraging people to travel to Oak Flat for a day of prayer.
For those who can’t travel, the coalition suggests organizing prayer events at churches and in communities.
Each year, the coalition selects an Indigenous-led partner to support. The current partner is Apache Stronghold.
The coalition also supports Apache Stronghold through Community Peacemaker Teams training. CPT sends trained volunteers into tense locations to help prevent violence and peacefully protect people. In September, coalition volunteers are training to accompany Apache Stronghold at Oak Flat.
Situated in the Tonto National Forest, Chi’chil Biłdagoteel — or Oak Flat in English — is known for its unique geological formations, diverse flora and fauna and significance to Indigenous communities.
Ranging from desert lowlands to mountainous terrain, the geographical wonder 70 miles east of Phoenix has been the home of the San Carlos Apache ancestors for centuries, if not millennia.
In 2014, Arizona Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake included the transfer of Oak Flat to Resolution Copper — a subsidiary of the multinational mining and metals corporation Rio Tinto — in a National Defense Authorization Act. Resolution Copper plans to use Oak Flat to build the largest copper mine in North America, effectively destroying the sacred site.
Under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, Apache Stronghold filed a lawsuit on Jan. 12, 2015, to prevent the transfer. The suit raised concerns about violation of religious freedom and the rights of Indigenous peoples — particularly the San Carlos Apache, whose cultural and religious practices are closely tied to the land.
Last year, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 2-1 against Apache Stronghold. However, the court made the unusual decision to rehear the case, which it did in March, this time in front of a panel of 11 judges. The court has not announced a decision.
Responding to Apache Stronghold’s invitation to support the lawsuit, the Coalition to Dismantle the Doctrine of Discovery encouraged churches to sign amicus, or friend of the court, briefs. Mennonite Church USA, Mennonite Mission Network and Pacific Southwest Mennonite Conference answered the call — showing the court that people of many faiths believe religious freedom should apply to land-based spirituality.
In the court case, an attorney for the United States stated that an Environmental Impact Statement would initiate the land transfer this spring or summer, regardless of whether the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals had released its decision.
Hearing this news, the coalition urged people to email the White House. After receiving the emails, U.S. officials announced they did not have a timeline for releasing the Environmental Impact Statement. This gave Apache Stronghold more time to try to protect Oak Flat.
The leader of Apache Stronghold, Wendsler Nosie Sr., believes the struggle to protect Indigenous spirituality does not only concern Indigenous peoples.
“We call for an end of the sacrilegious use of any religion to justify the destruction of sacred land,” Nosie said. At Oak Flat, he said, the Apache “spiritually connect to the same Creator referred to in the Christian Bible and all religious sacred texts.”
Jim Lichti, a member of the coalition, said his work with Apache Stronghold strengthened his faith.
“They are bringing a new sense of prayer to me,” he said, “a kind of prayer without ceasing that flows through the Earth and each one of us, if we let it.”