MC USA advocates for protection of sacred Indigenous site

Court rehears case to protect Oak Flat, an Apache holy site in Arizona

A member of the Apache Stronghold group who traveled from Arizona paints a protest banner March 20 at Self Help Graphics & Art in Los Angeles. — Damian Dovarganes/AP A member of the Apache Stronghold group who traveled from Arizona paints a protest banner March 20 at Self Help Graphics & Art in Los Angeles. — Damian Dovarganes/AP

The Mennonite Church USA Executive Board and Pacific Southwest Mennonite Conference joined other religious groups by signing an amicus brief and calling for prayer in support of Apache Stronghold and the protection of Oak Flat, a sacred site of Native American religious exercise in Tonto National Forest in Arizona.

The amicus brief is a method of legal advocacy for religious freedom in the Apache Stronghold v. United States court case, heard March 21 in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Pasadena, Calif. Apache Stronghold is an organization that works against colonization and defends holy sites and freedom of religion.

Oak Flat, known to Apaches as Chi’chil Bildagoteel (Emery Oak Extends on a Level), has been at the heart of a 20-year struggle by Southwestern Indigenous people to prevent the site from being given to a foreign mining company for a new copper mine.

MC USA described the site in a release as the home of many important Indigenous religious practices, such as the coming-of-age Sunrise Ceremony for Apache women and sweat lodge ceremonies. It is considered the direct corridor to Apache religion and recognized in the National Register of Historic Places.

“Oak Flat is the unceded traditional homeland and territory of the Apache people,” said Sarah Augustine, co-founder and executive director of the Coalition to Dismantle the Doctrine of Discovery, a ministry partner of MC USA and PSMC. “It is a sacred site to many Indigenous peoples, including the Yavapai, O’odham and my relatives, the Hopi and Zuni. It is a sacred place of worship. While the Apache were removed to a reservation along with hundreds of other Native American tribes, they have continued to care for it and worship there.”

Other religious groups supporting Apache Stronghold include The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Seventh-day Adventists, the Islam and Religious Freedom Action Team of the Religious Freedom Institute, the Christian Legal Society, the Jewish Coalition for Religious Liberty and the Sikh Coalition.

“Oak Flat is where my people have come to connect with our Creator for millennia, and we have the right to continue that sacred tradition,” said Apache Stronghold founder Wendsler Nosie Sr. in a statement after the hearing. “Today we stood up in court for that right, determined to stop those who think that our place of worship can be treated differently simply because it lacks four walls and a steeple. We are hopeful that this time around, the 9th Circuit will save Oak Flat.”

The National Defense Authorization Act of 2015 approved Resolution Copper to perform mining operations in Oak Flat in exchange for other land in Arizona. The copper mine would be the largest in North America, but Apache Stronghold sued the federal government to protect Oak Flat.

In a 2-1 decision last June, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals denied the bid to halt construction, affirming that the site is “sacred ground” but denying that the group’s freedom to practice religion was sufficient to overturn the land swap. The appeal was heard March 21 by a full panel of 11 judges.

MC USA’s amicus brief argues that “the planned destruction of Oak Flat would impose a substantial burden on Apache religious exercise because that religious exercise is inherently tied to the sacred place where it occurs.”

Stanley Green, Pacific Southwest executive conference minister, said: “These are our neighbors. We dare not stand mute as bystanders while the land is ravaged and their religious rights are trampled upon. Our scriptures call us to be a voice with the voiceless. To stay silent in the face of this callous disregard of their rights is a violation of our conscience.”

Religion News Service contributed to this report.

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