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The Fight For Indigenous Religious Freedom

Oak Flat is a site in the Tonto National Forest that is sacred for the San Carlos Apache Tribe and other Native Americans.
Oak Flat is a site in the Tonto National Forest that is sacred for the San Carlos Apache Tribe and other Native Americans.

Oak Flat is about 4,300 acres of desert landscapein Arizona’s Tonto National Forest, about an hour east of Phoenix. It’s a world-renowned rock climbing spot and a popular hiking and camping destination. 

For the Apache, it’s a sacred religious site. The area also hasa massive copper deposit. In a 2014 deal, Congress gave part of Oak Flat to one of the world’s largest copper mining companies.

A grassroots activist group called the Apache Stronghold sued the federal government, arguing that the land transfer violates religious freedom protections.

What does this casemean for othersacred sites around the country?And what does it tell us about religious freedom?


1A received the following statement from RioTinto, the parent company of Resolution Copper:

“Resolution Copper continues to consult and partner with local communities and Native American Tribes to shape the project, which can deliver significant benefits by providing copper needed for the United States to achieve its clean energy ambitions and helping to drive Arizona’s economic future. 

There has been extensive consultation with Native American Tribes over the past decade, on the terms defined by each consulting tribe. During this time, there have been over 550 documented consultations by the US Forest Service. 

As a result, Native American Tribes have considerably influenced the project approach, including reducing the land exchange area, placing the culturally significant Apache Leap under permanent protection, and implementing an Emory oak conservation program. 

The Resolution Copper project is strongly supported by many community leaders, labor unions and local businesses, and we are committed to using the many years of consultation ahead of us to deepen our dialogue with local communities and Native American Tribes.”

Copyright 2021 WAMU 88.5

Katie Anastas, Amanda Williams