Respect Sacred Waters: Save Oak Flat

A short film by Paper Rocket Productions documenting testimonials of the San Carlos Apache and their allies about the proposed mine at Oak Flat.

In the Southwest, water is a scarce resource. It is not hard to imagine why the people of the region would hold their water not just as essential, but as sacred. Since their internment onto reservations, indigenous nations of the Southwest have seen their water rights increasingly diminished as well as the poisoning of sacred lands and waters. The effects of climate change compound this situation, which stand to make water an even scarcer resource for the coming generations. This is a topic of vital importance in modern Southwestern environmental justice. As a minority, and often impoverished, population with a history of systematic oppression, Native Americans serve as a prime investigatory group for environmental justice. Native peoples in the Southwest have struggled for centuries with water rights, contamination, and access to sacred waters, and the case of the San Carlos Apache at Oak Flat is no different.

Across the entire United States, government and private industry has desecrated sacred waters. In the Southwest, most problems revolve around contamination from mines, contested water rights, as well as flooding of sacred places due to the West’s obsession with stockpiling water. Many environmental justice cases in the Southwest involve water, the most sacred resource in the region.

We grew up learning a tradition of respect for water, hearing our Elders praying with water. Water is a part of every second of our lives, everything has water flowing through it, everything has life.” –Crow leaders

Standing in solidarity with Oak Flat

In 2014, Senator John McCain (R, AZ) hid a land swap inside a 2,000-page military budget after it had failed to pass as a standalone bill multiple times. The tactic of hiding controversial deals in large, must-pass bills has been used for decades; when Congress passed the bill, the land swap was also approved. The deal traded 2,400 acres of Oak Flat, a federally owned portion of land, for 5,000 acres of land owned by mining company, Resolution Copper. At first glance, it seemed like a good idea: Arizona gained more than double the amount of conservation land they gave away. As in any controversial deal, however, it was not so simple.

Oak Flat Gaan Canyon

Oak Flat is a portion of the Tonto National Forest in Arizona that borders the San Carlos Apache Reservation. It is home to holy waters important in Apache religious ceremonies as well as historic sites and artifacts that are thousands of years old. It also sits on top of the largest copper ore deposit in North America. Senator McCain proposed the land swap so Resolution could mine the copper at Oak Flat.  The mining will cause an area of over a mile in diameter to sink 1,000 feet into the ground while covering even more land with rubble and waste. The mine will cause contamination of the local watershed, including polluting the entire aquifer located under the deposit. This would destroy the Apache’s sacred waters: waters on which they have subsisted and have used in religious practices for millennia.

Many people oppose this deal. In fact, it was struck down twice in Congress before McCain was able to sneak it into another bill. Besides Native Americans, the list of critics includes the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, the U.S. Secretary of the Interior, many politicians, public lands workers and advocates, archaeologists, and even local miners! The main three concerns are that 1) it will destroy sacred Apache sites and artefacts, 2) it will damage the (once) public National Forest land and will contaminate the aquifer and surrounding watershed, and 3) it sets a dangerous legal precedent in which Congress can just give away public lands with little oversight. In addition, the deal included conditions to bypass important parts of the required environmental and cultural evaluations, making it seem impossible to stop the mine.

“If there’s one thing we do all have in common it’s that we respect the Earth, and we are all fighting for our land.” – Wendsler Nosie Sr., San Carlos Apache Tribal Councilman

San Carlos Apache and other Native Peoples protest the destruction of traditional sacred waters

The Apache and Native American rights groups are the strongest objectors of the Oak Flat deal. The San Carlos Apache consider this land holy and require its existence to practice certain aspects of their religion. They have occupied the lands for thousands of years, but since Oak Flat is just outside reservation boundaries, the Apache have no legal claim to the land. This is a type of legal battle Native tribes across the country have struggled with since the inception of the reservation system. In the 1800’s, the American government forcibly removed the native peoples to the San Carlos Reservation and forced them to sign a treaty relinquishing the land using military force. The Apache did not willingly give up their ancestral homeland, but are now constrained in protecting it by these unjust laws and treaties. These cases disproportionately affect Native Americans who have little economic or political clout due to systematic oppression that has been institutionalized since the first arrival of Europeans on American soil.

 “Would (you) have this same position if an ore body were to be located beneath (your) church … and a company wanted to bulldoze or destroy it?” Terry Rambler, Chairman of the San Carlos Apache Tribe

The United States Constitution guarantees the freedom to practice one’s religion. It also guarantees that no private property shall be taken for public use without just compensation. Furthermore, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples states that indigenous people should have rights to their traditional lands and resources, even if they are currently held by another party (in this case, the U.S. government). In the Garma International Indigenous Water Declaration, indigenous peoples, including Native Americans, assert that scared waters are an integral part of their physical, cultural, and spiritual existence and they have an inherent right to them. These rights have all been violated by the careless trading and disrespectful and destructive proposed use of Oak Flat.

The San Carlos Apache have been protesting this gross injustice against their lands and waters for the past two years. Currently, some small steps have been taken to stop Resolution Copper. The National Park Service placed Oak Flat on the National Register of Historic Places, which will make it harder, but not impossible, to start the mine. Senator Bernie Sanders (D, VT) also introduced a bill to Congress in 2015 to stop the swap, but it has not yet been addressed. The San Carlos Apache continue to try to protect their ancestral holy waters, but they need your help. Write a letter to your senators and tell them that both the environment and Native American rights should be respected and to #SaveOakFlat.

More Cases of Native American Water Injustice:

Years after mining stops, uranium’s legacy lingers on Native land

Rainbow Bridge, Utah – Tsé’naa Na’ní’áhí

Navajo water supply is more horrific than Flint, but no one cares because they’re Native American

What is the Dakota Access Pipeline?

Navajo Nation sues EPA over toxic mine spill

Uranium Mining On Navajo Lands as a Violation of Tribal Sovereignty

When most people think of the Cold War they think of the conflict between the U.S and Russia and how a generation grew up in fear of nuclear war. However, the Cold War also significantly affected another group of people: The Navajo Nation. The Navajo suffered the negative impacts of uranium mining that was necessary to create nuclear bombs. The legacy of uranium mining on Navajo lands is a legacy of mistrust, exploitation, disease, and waste.ap105779489776_custom-5f8b50b562658f59d256675c5265381067e39f1c-s1500-c85

Starting in 1948, at the beginning of the cold war, the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) said it would buy all uranium for a guaranteed price, which set off a uranium mining boom in the Southwest. Mines were operated by private companies, but sold only to the US government until 1971[1]. The negative environmental and health effects of uranium mining in the Southwest landed heavily on the Navajo people. Currently there are 521 abandoned uranium mines on Navajo land, one for every 52 square miles of the reservation[5]. In Environment and Society, Robbins, Hintz and Moore write that the Navajo reservation “offered up an opportunity for a high rate of labor exploitation and negligent environmental practices, an avenue that many capitalists (and bureaucrats) were content to travel”[7] .


The United States government violated the Navajo Nation’s tribal sovereignty by supporting private uranium mines on Navajo lands. This is argument is supported by two main points: 1) Navajo people were not given adequate education on the dangers of uranium mining in order to make informed decisions, and 2) the history of disenfranchisement of native peoples by the U.S. government made the Navajo vulnerable to economic exploitation.

seal1Native tribes are defined by the Supreme Court as “dependent sovereigns” because “their sovereignty predates that of the United States, but that it is nonetheless internal to, and dependent upon, the federal government[3]“. Sarah Krakoff defines environmental justice for tribes as “the achievement of tribal authority to control and improve the reservation environment,” making a respect for tribal sovereignty central to tribal EJ issues.

The Navajo Nation did have a role in choosing to have uranium mining on their land but were given little to no information on its health and environmental risks. This took away the tribes ability to make an informed choice. By the 1930s there was scientific evidence of a correlation between uranium exposure and high rates of lung cancer[1]. At the beginning of the mining boom, many Navajo workers did not speak English and lacked formal education, and there was little effort by mining companies to help educate workers across these boundaries. For example, after a 1950 Public Heath Service study on uranium, English pamphlets were given out to some miners on health risks without any translations or further explanation[1]. The U.S. government and private mining companies withheld information from Navajo miners and tribal leaders, which violated their ability to make independent decisions based on all available resources.

The Navajo people are vulnerable to economic exploitation because, since the lands they once used for subsistence living were taken away by the U.S., they are forced to depend on wage labor. Tribal councils can approve or deny mining leases, but mining is often one1406311648000-uranium01
of the only economic growth opportunities for tribes. In this way Navajo governments are basically forced into mining as a short-term solution for economic survival, which leads to disastrous long term health and economic impacts.

The U.S. government passed the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) in 1991 which uses the distributive justice method to give former uranium miners compensation. RECA falls short in real justice because it only addresses a small part of the problem. RECA applies only to miners who worked before 1971 and doesn’t apply to non-miners in the affected community. Non-miners in Navajo communities continue to suffer from uranium exposure due to abandoned mines and water contamination. It is also hard to compensate people with money for things that are difficult to quantify, like losing a family member. The social justice framework outlined by Gary Bryner in Justice and Natural Resources should be used because it aims to tackle the root of injustices, look at power dynamics and take into account cultural losses[2]. It asserts that every single Navajo citizen has the right to clean water, affordable and adequate healthcare and safe working conditions. Using this framework, the U.S. government’s approach could address all the impacts of uranium mining and treat it as current, pressing injustice to the Navajo people.

The Navajo are fighting back against the uranium industry. In 2005, the Navajo Nation banned uranium mining on their land in the Dine Natural Resources Protection Act[4]. The kids-protest-2-1act was passed in response to a push by the Bush administration to increase the use of nuclear power as a clean energy source. In 2013, the Navajo Nation Council voted to block Uranium Resources Inc. from building new mining projects on the reservation[6]. Now that the Navajo Nation has information on and experience with the health and environmental harms of uranium mining, they are rejecting it from their lands.

It is clear that the U.S. government and private mining companies exploited the Navajo people and violated their tribal sovereignty by failing to educate the Navajo on the risks of uranium mining and taking advantage of their vulnerable economic situation. Robbins, Hintz and Moore sum it up, writing: “The Navajo uranium era, as such, represents a classic and tragic case of environmental injustice – where unhealthful or dangerous conditions are disproportionately proximate to minority communities[7].”

Sources and Further Readings: 

  1. Brugge, Doug and Rob Golbe. “The History of Uranium Mining and the Navajo People.” American Journal of Public Health, vol. 92, no. 9, 2002, pp. 1410-1419.
  2. Bryner, Gary C. “Assessing Claims of Environmental Justice: Conceptual Frameworks.” Justice and Natural Resources, edited by Mutz, Kathryn M., Gary C. Bryner and Douglas S. Kenney, Island Press, 2002, pp. 31-55.
  3. Krakoff, Sarah. “Tribal Sovereignty and Environmental Justice.” Justice and Natural Resources, edited by Mutz, Kathryn M., Gary C. Bryner and Douglas S. Kenney, Island Press, 2002, pp. 161- 183.
  4. LaDuke, Winona. “Navajos ban uranium mining.” Earth Island Journal, 2005.
  5. Loomis, Brandon. “Abandoned uranium mines continue to haunt Navajos on reservation.” The Arizona Republic.
  6. Minard, Anne. “Navajo Nation Slams Door on Deal That Would Have Allowed Uranium Mining.” Indian Country Today Media Network. August 1, 2014.
  7. Robbins, Paul, John Hintz and Sarah A. Moor. Environment and Society: A Critical Introduction, John Wiley & Sons, 2014.

Additional Video Resources: 

Photo Credit Links: