Skip to main content

The Apache Stronghold Standing in the Way of a Massive Copper Mine

By Brandi Morin (Cree/Iroquois) 

In the heart of the Arizona high desert lies a battle for the soul of the land.

The ancient, sacred grounds of Apache Native territory are under threat from a looming giant — a massive copper mine that promises riches for the locals, and a pathway to the so-called green transition. 

But, as is often the case, it comes at a cost. 

The San Carlos Apache Tribe calls it Chi’chil Bildagoteel, English speakers call it Oak Flat. It sits on a mountainous plateau within a 17.3-kilometer oasis in the Tonto National Forest. 

Rio Tinto and BHP, two of the world’s biggest mining companies, have staked their claim here through a joint venture called Resolution Copper. For over 10 years they’ve been lobbying governments for the right to build a colossal mine that would cover roughly 7,000 acres of surface area, and extend more than a mile into the ground. 
 

Dr. Wendsler Nosie Sr. overlooks the looming ‘evil’ of the Resolution Copper mine threatening to destroy his sacred territory. | Photo by Brandi Morin

The only thing that stands in their way is the resistance of the Apache Stronghold, a nonprofit community organization of Natives and non-Natives uniting to counter ongoing colonization, defend holy sites and protect freedom of religion, which was created to protect Chi’chil Bildagoteel. 

For generations, the Apache have revered the life-giving medicine that thrives here through various species of plants, animals, and Emory oak trees. Some of the oak trees here are over 1,000 years old, and provide the Apache’s most coveted ceremonial item and food source — acorn flour. 

The Tribe, whose holy people have always lived nearby, believes the natural springs flowing beneath Chi’chil Bildagoteel provide healing powers that can only be found here.
 

Brandi Morin and cinematographer Geordie Day produced a short video report on this story, and their trip to Oak Flat. 

“Understand we’re sitting in a holy place, in a sacred place. This is where God touched the world for us with who we are, when it comes to how we protect Mother Earth, not only as a human, but through the spirit of why we have, in Apache, we call them Gaan, but in the English, they call them angels,” said Dr. Wendsler Nosie Sr., an Apache elder and community leader. 

“And those angels live here today. Our ceremony, called Na’i, is a repeat of how creation was created, and how the angels brought us to the surface to see God’s work, and to live in the moment. These are corridors that God created for us, and it’s no different than parts of the Bible you would find about the beginning. These are real critical places for us and I guess in the White language, our religion.”

Nosie has been living at Chi’chil Bildagoteel for over two years in a bid to protect it from the proposed mine. He leads the Apache Stronghold. Nearby is Apache Leap, where Apache warriors jumped over a cliff to their deaths rather than surrender to the U.S. Cavalry in 1870.

Resolution Copper is owned by two foreign entities, Rio Tinto (which already has an atrocious track record for violating Indigenous rights, after blasting away an ancient Indigenous holy site in Australia in 2020), and BHP, the world’s biggest mining company. BHP also has a dark history of forcible displacement of Indigenous and Afro-descendant communities as well as catastrophic environmental damage. 

The mine will use about 250 billion gallons of water over 40 years to process ore in an already drought-stricken area. It will also use the water to help store toxic tailings in ponds that will stretch for miles. The company’s rhetoric argues that America needs copper, but it hasn’t yet said how it plans to keep that copper in the United States. 

It is said that meeting climate goals for vehicle electrification requires an urgent ramp-up in copper production, despite harmful impacts to land, water and communities. The International Energy Agency reports that production needs to triple by 2040. 
 

Cousins Wendslyn Hooke (left) and Lozen Brown-Lopez of the San Carlos Apache Indian Reservation take a break between dancing on their ancestral territories. | Photo by Brandi Morin.

Nevertheless, Apache Stronghold has been waging their fight against these giants in the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. In late April, the court rejected an appeal of a lower court’s ruling from 2021 that found the mine wouldn’t threaten the First Amendment religious practice rights of the Apache. Now, the group is taking their case to the U.S. Supreme Court. 

Chi’chil Bildagoteel was once protected. In 1955, President Dwight D. Eisenhower listed the area on the National Register of Historic Places as a Traditional Cultural Property. That designation stood until 2014, when former U.S. Senator John McCain slipped a rider onto a must-pass National Defense Authorization Act to allow the sale of Oak Flat to Resolution Copper. 

The area, where their ancestors lived for thousands of years, holds more than just ceremonial significance to the Apache. During the expansive wars between the Apache, the United States, and Mexico it was part of the San Carlos reservation and served as a prisoner of war camp. 

Nearby is Apache Leap, where Apache warriors jumped over a cliff to their deaths rather than surrender to the U.S. Cavalry in 1870.

“This is no longer a game of bows and arrows and shooting us physically, but it’s killing our religion, our way of life, and everything from what we do and who we are as a people.”

The remaining prisoners of war were rounded up and taken to a valley in the San Carlos reservation. The Apache now refer to it as Hell’s 40 Acres. It’s where Apache clans were imprisoned and killed by the U.S. Cavalry. 

“We once roamed all the mountains, and we lived in bands and communities and family,” explained Dr. Lian Bighorse of the San Carlos Apache Tribe Wellness Program. She’s also Nosie’s daughter. 

“And now we’re imprisoned on a reservation and a lot of our people have that mentality that that’s our home, that’s where we’re from… but that’s the land we were put on. They said you can’t go any further.”

Up until the 1960s, Apaches from San Carlos weren’t allowed to leave the reservation without the permission of the Indian Agent. Since then, bands like the Chiricahua have been returning to their ancestral homelands, like Oak Flat. 
 

Naelyn Pike, granddaughter of Dr. Wendsler Nosie Sr. at her ancestral Chich’il Bit Dagoteel territories. She says, ‘This is no longer a game of bows and arrows.’ | Photo by Brandi Morin.

Local Apache clans still pray at the same mountain nearby where famed Apache warrior Geronimo requested to pray before U.S. Cavalry soldiers hauled him away to Florida in chains. 

These lands hold the memories of their forefathers, like Geronimo, Cochise, Victorio, and Mangus Coloradas, and their fight to save their territories from invaders. Now, that cycle is repeating itself with the looming mine.

“When you don’t have a connection to the land, when you don’t know the history of the people, is when that doesn’t matter to you. Just being out here you can feel how beautiful it is and see the scenery and feel the wind, you can see the clouds. All those things that establish a connection, and when you don’t even take those moments and all you see is how you can profit off of things, when it’s that money and power and greed — it’s an illusion… if you call America your home, how can you just destroy it that way?”
 

Dr. Lian Bighorse, daughter of Dr. Wendsler Nosie Sr. stands near the former Hells 40 Acres valley on the San Carlos Apache Indian Reservation. | Photo by Brandi Morin.
 

This is not only a Tribal fight, but a family one. Multiple generations of the Nosie family have been at the forefront of protecting Chi’chil Bildagoteel. Nosie’s granddaughter, 27-year-old Naelyn Pike, has traveled with him across the United States to speak out against the mine. 

“This is no longer a game of bows and arrows and shooting us physically, but it’s killing our religion, our way of life, and everything from what we do and who we are as a people,” said Pike. 

“That in itself scares me because it tells me that what I identify with, what I physically feel connected to, my religion, way of life, doesn’t matter and that the federal government can still do this to our people today… It’s the federal government, everything that has been put into place, the systems are working as they should… by design.”

Pike had her coming of age ceremony at another Apache holy site, Mount Graham. Wendsler has been working for decades to protect it from research universities and the Vatican who are trying to expand a massive observatory there. 

“I was able to wake up that mountain. And that was a very powerful moment for me,” she pauses to wipe away tears falling on her cheeks. 

“When the United States comes out with their most critical list of important [resources], you find copper, gold, silver, you find all of that, but you don’t find water and air. It confuses us because as Indian people… But in America, they don’t protect it. They don’t care. They do not care.”
 

“Because as Apache people and as Indigenous people, we’re stewards of the land. We have a power to connect, to have these intimate relations with the Earth. And when that’s forcefully taken away, not only are we hurting as a people, but these places are hurting, too. When I had my ceremony there, I definitely felt the power of my ancestors. I felt the power of the mountain and the animals and there were so many beautiful and powerful experiences that I got to experience because of that fight of my people.”

Pike wants those same experiences for other young women to be preserved. 

“It’s reclaiming those spaces and revitalizing our culture, and the government tells us you can only have these ceremonies here on your reservation, but this is not where we come from.”

Reclaiming their ancestral lands, and protecting them from invaders, is dangerous. During the time Nosie’s been living out here, he’s been shot at four different times.

He draws courage from his ancestors, including his late mother who prepared him to combat the evils that arrived on their doorstep over 100 years ago. 
 

Dr. Wendsler Nosie Sr. near a rock wall at Chich’il Bit Dagoteel depicting pictographs drawn by his ancient ancestors. | Photo by Brandi Morin.
 

“(My mother) would say to me that you have to remember that this evil (colonization) already came here a long time ago, before (white people) came here. But the difference here on this side of the world was that there was one drum, one prayer, one circle. So this evil that was destroying on the other side (of the ocean) already came here. But because we’re all intact, it couldn’t penetrate. But it did turn to us and tell us that I’ll be back,” explained Nosie. 

“When all these white people came and they were doing all these ugly things to our people, we thought, it was them. And that’s where the evil sits because it started to destroy us, because now Indian people began to act like them. So there’s only a certain number of us that are left and we have to pull our people back and say, ‘you’re doing the same thing they’re doing,’ and you have to teach them that this evil has enslaved them and we have to wake them up.”

“These are multi billion-dollar companies. Me and my grandfather, our family, and the people, we don’t have money. We don’t have any means of protecting ourselves.”

When word spread that Nosie was being shot at, a Christian organization called Community Peacemaker Teams sent volunteers to be on the ground to help look out for him. 

“They’ve (Apache) already been brutalized for centuries really and now here we are with the copper mine and everything else trying to do the same thing and a lot of people are going to get, aside from losing their sacred space, it’s going to poison the water, it’s going to give people cancer at an early age and we’re going to see our land get destroyed here,” said Jeremy Gilchrist, a CPT Volunteer who took two weeks off his job as a meteorologist in North Carolina to be on site.

“Again, you’re going to see Indigenous People suffer once more from the same things they’ve been dealing with for all too long now. I think these corporations see them as vulnerable and an easy target because of all that, and because of their marginalized status, but they’re fighting back and I’m happy to see that.”

Nosie doesn’t do battle with modern day weaponry. He gains his strength through ceremony and prayer. He regularly walks the desert terrain and visits sacred corridors to conduct ceremonies. 
 

The resistance camp at Chich’il Bit Dagoteel. | Photo by Brando Morin.
 

His daughter Vanessa Nosie, Pike’s mother, visits her dad as often as she can. She cherishes Chi’Chil Bildagoteel and helps in the fight to protect it. 

“This is a place where all our teachings come from. This is a place that God has touched, Yossen the Creator,” said Vanessa while sitting at a picnic table in Chi’Chil Bildagoteel, just as the sun was setting. 

“This is where I can be a mom and teach my children, my daughters, what it is to be an Apache woman and to carry on the legacy of our people and our family.”

The Nosie family, however, worries for Wendsler’s safety. 

“We’re facing the two biggest mining giants in the world; they have the potential to get rid of him. It’s always been me and my dad. He sat down and talked to me, he said, ‘Ness, what better way to die than doing God’s work,’ Vanessa’s voice breaks and tears well up in her eyes. 

“He’s hated, just because he protects the land, and he prays for the land and the animals and the people that life is important. It’s just not about me and you, and progress. It’s about life.”

 “I had to… let him go cause when I was here, I wouldn’t leave. I stayed days, a few days and a day longer and said I don’t want to leave you, I’m scared. That was his thing — he said, ‘I know, I know you love me, and I love you too…’”

Pike believes her grandfather is a target because the mining company has made him out to be a troublemaker. 

“There are people out there (who are out) to get him. People who work in the mines, because in their eyes, the company is telling them, ‘oh, they’re trying to take your job.’ And that’s not the case. And then you have Resolution Copper, owned by Rio Tinto and BHP.

Rio Tinto being one of the notorious international companies who hurt and kill people in different countries — and we’re up against that. These are multi billion-dollar companies. Me and my grandfather, our family, and the people, we don’t have money. We don’t have any means of protecting ourselves.”

Bighorse says the priorities of those targeting her father are backwards. 
 

Dr. Nosie Sr.’s daughter, grandchildren and other relatives gather at Chich’il Bit Dagoteel. | Photo by Brandi Morin.
 

“He’s hated, just because he protects the land, and he prays for the land and the animals and the people that life is important. It’s just not about me and you, and progress. It’s about life.”

Rio Tinto refused Ricochet’s requests for an interview. The company responded via email stating they had conducted extensive consultation with local Tribes and that they’re heavily invested in the future of the residents in the area. 

The destiny of this holy place now lies with the Apache Stronghold’s upcoming court case. 

Meanwhile, Wendsler says he’ll never leave. 

“When the United States comes out with their most critical list of important [resources], you find copper, gold, silver, you find all of that, but you don’t find water and air. It confuses us because as Indian people, we’re like, those are the main two sources that you have to protect, right? But in America, they don’t protect it. They don’t care. They do not care… it’s why I left the reservation two and a half years ago to move back. 

“So, if they want to remove me, they’re going to have to remove me, forcefully.”


--Brandi Morin (Cree/Iroquois/French) is an award-winning journalist reporting on human rights issues from an Indigenous perspective.