Apache Stronghold and Mennonites, dancing together

Jon Zirkle, right, of Assembly Mennonite Church in Goshen, Ind., and Tim Nafziger participate in the Apache Stronghold run and walk from the San Carlos Reservation to Oak Flat. — Steve Pavey Jon Zirkle, right, of Assembly Mennonite Church in Goshen, Ind., and Tim Nafziger participate in the Apache Stronghold run and walk from the San Carlos Reservation to Oak Flat. — Steve Pavey

With Community Peacemaker Teams, I joined Apache Stronghold’s 10th annual prayer run and march for Oak Flat, a sacred site in Arizona. From Feb. 15 to 18 we ran and walked nearly 50 miles from the old site of a U.S. government concentration camp where Apache were held on the San Carlos Reservation to Oak Flat, tucked in the mountains at 4,000 feet above sea level.

This Apache-led community is inviting people to come to Oak Flat to be part of a movement stopping this sacred site from being turned into a massive copper mine by Resolution Copper. I connect regularly with this work and have been part of the CPT team on site and off since May 2023.

Apache Stronghold — an Apache-led community working to defend holy sites, protect freedom of religion and resist colonization — has filed a lawsuit arguing that destroying this sacred site violates their freedom of religion under the U.S. Constitution. On March 1, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals found in a closely divided 6-5 decision against Apache Stronghold. (The full court opinion extensively discusses Wisconsin v. Yoder, a 1972 case in which the U.S. Supreme Court found that states requiring Amish people to send children to school past 8th grade violated their freedom of religion.) Mennonite Church USA has written an amicus brief legal filing supporting Apache freedom of religion and asking the Supreme Court to hear the case. Individual Mennonite congregations are invited to join as well.

The last morning of the Oak Flat run in February, we closed the four-day sacred space as a community by dancing together in prayer. Dancers linked arms to create long and short lines that move four steps forward and then four steps back while moving clockwise in a circle. In the center were Apache drummers and singers. As dancers we co-created beautiful patterns of movement with children joining in and weaving their way among us.

I suddenly saw how our movements echo Mennonite four-part singing. Our lines wove backwards and forwards like the four singing parts move up and down the scale together in song.

In the popular imagination, Mennonite and Apache culture would seem far apart. U.S. dominant culture sees Apaches as ferocious warriors and a famous U.S. military helicopter. Mennonites are “quiet in the land” pacifists. Yet beneath the surface, there are similarities.

Both communities have wrestled with assimilation into the dominant culture of militarism and capitalism. We heard many stories of how the U.S. government tried to prevent Apache from practicing their religion. Within living memory it was illegal to practice Apache religion and even today, their ability to freely practice their ways is threatened by U.S. government promises to turn sacred Oak Flat spaces over to a foreign mining corporation. Mennonites also faced religious persecution and were imprisoned for refusing to fight as recently as World War I.

As we ran through historic mining towns, some passing drivers yelled racial slurs and curses at us. This area is steeped in centuries of racism towards the people who have lived here since time immemorial. Until 1976, Apache people were excluded from sitting with settlers in local restaurants.

In response to attack, Apache Stronghold leadership emphasized to us the importance of responding to evil with kindness. It was very similar to the Mennonite message I grew up with: “a kind answer turns away wrath” (Proverbs 15:1) and “heaping burning coals” through kind acts on our opponents (Romans 12:20). I was reminded of the message of Psalm 23; “God prepares a table before me in the presence of my enemies. My cup overflows.”

As we danced, hummingbirds buzzed and thrummed above us in a 300-year-old oak tree. Like Mennonites, teachings focused on resisting corporate greed, capitalism and materialism. We were reminded of the importance of listening to the animals and plants around us.

I grew up in a home where our meals were often cooked from the garden in front of our house. My chores involved canning and taking our food scraps out to the compost pile. My uncles hunted for deer in the Appalachian Mountains and a few in our family still farm. Both of our communities have a deep connection with the land.

When faced with pressures of assimilation, many Mennonites have given up our distinctive practices and assimilated into capitalism and reaped the benefits of colonial displacement of Indigenous people.

Apache Stronghold is inviting us to recover our old ways. They are inviting us to pray together as part of one circle. We will have to learn to dance along the way, but I promise it will be worth it. By bringing our voices to the circle, our songs will be transformed forever.

Tim Nafziger is a Mennonite organizer who lives in the Ventura River watershed on the traditional lands of the Chumash people in southern California. He works as a digital consultant, web developer, writer and photographer.

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