‘It may be that we are the ones in need of saving’
by Eileen Schuhmann, Presbyterian Hunger Program | Special to Presbyterian News Service
OAK FLAT, Arizona — On Nov. 4, about 150 people gathered in prayer at Chi’chil Biłdagoteel (Oak Flat) in the Tonto National Forest of Arizona, sacred land of the San Carlos Apache and other Indigenous nations.
Eileen Schuhmann, Associate for Global Engagement and Resources in the Presbyterian Hunger Program, traveled to Oak Flat representing the Hunger Program and as a delegate with the Coalition to Dismantle the Doctrine of Discovery.
That day, people came together to repair the broken circle, a circle that was broken with the arrival of colonizers who murdered Indigenous peoples and stole their lands. We settlers were invited to take our place in the circle alongside our Indigenous siblings. We were invited to join in solidarity and unity as relatives, as family, in defense of Mother Earth and in defense of Indigenous sovereignty and freedom of religion.
Oak Flat is included in the National Register of Historic Places as a Traditional Cultural Property and qualifies as an Indian Sacred Site within the American Indian Religious Freedoms Act.
However, the Apache Stronghold, an Apache-led organization, and its allies have been struggling for years to prevent the U.S. government from trading the land to a United States subsidiary, Resolution Copper, of the Australian mining companies BHP and Rio Tinto.
In 2015, the United States Senate inserted a midnight rider into the must-pass National Defense Authorization Act to mandate the public land transfer of the Oak Flat area to Resolution Copper for proposed copper mining operations.
Resolution Copper plans to use block cave mining techniques, which will cause Oak Flat to collapse into a crater approximately two miles wide and 1,000 feet deep. The mining operations will have major impacts on the water supply of the area, impacting water accessibility, causing contamination, and inevitably leading to worsening drought conditions.
The destruction of Oak Flat, which is about 100 miles north of Tucson, will also prevent the Apache and other Indigenous peoples from worshiping at the sacred site in their traditional ways. They have already lost access to their holy mountain Dził Nchaa Si An (Mount Graham) after an international observatory was installed on its peaks. Now Indigenous peoples are treated as trespassers and prevented from accessing the mountain.
It is for these reasons that the Apache Stronghold called its white Christian settler and Indigenous nations allies to gather to pray together on Nov. 4 at Oak Flat.
Indigenous peoples played drums and sang ancient songs, songs older than the Bible, as supporters gathered in the corridor of the sun and waited to enter the circle shaded by oak trees. Dr. Wendsler Nosie, the leader of Apache Stronghold, said, “The song we sang today is about taking our soul to God’s house.”
We white settlers were invited to enter the circle after our Indigenous siblings entered and found their seats. Event organizers emphasized that it’s important to enter the right way. So, we followed the lead of our hosts and entered the circle and walked clockwise around the fire and the drums and the holy tobacco and found our seats under the oak trees on the outside of the circle, with a view of the mountains in the distance.
Nosie began his advice to us with these words: “When you breathe right now, it’s life. This is real Mother Earth that you have your foot on, this is the mother that provides for you. This is real. The water that it gives us to carry on life, to give birth, this is real. The reason why I say this is, it was told to me, ‘You are going to hear so many different things, son, but come here,’ taking me outside to feel the wind, see the trees and see the animals. This is what God created. This is what is here for us.”
Nosie encouraged us to take a hard look at ourselves, to analyze our attitudes and actions. He said, “Evil starts with us. We create that evil. What you see again, all these things that happen in the country, it’s because it’s created by us.” And he went on to say that we have the power to change the direction that we’re headed.
Nosie explained that in Apache there are no words for colonization or capitalism. Essentially, those forces disconnect us from the Earth and from one another. He argued, “There is only one God, only one Mother Earth. We cannot let corporations dictate the future.”
Many people from different Indigenous nations came into the circle and offered advice to us white settlers. Then Nosie offered the Rev. Carol Rose, co-pastor of Shalom Mennonite Fellowship in Tucson, the basket of holy tobacco, indicating that her acceptance of the basket brought with it great responsibility and a mandate for us white settlers to do the hard work that was coming to dismantle the systems of oppression that we have perpetuated for too long.
Speakers were invited by Rose to “take up the gift of commitment” and “to give a piece of that into the fire” before speaking.
Rose started us off by stating, “We say, ‘Save Oak Flat’ … It may be that we are the ones in need of saving. My faith is in need of saving. I am a Christian and my faith has been co-opted by capitalism and colonialization for a very long time, by racism and so many other oppressions … I think Christianity needs saving … and it may be that the sacred land and a reconnecting with the sacredness of land is what will do that.”
When it came time for me to offer the holy tobacco and my commitment into the fire and speak, I offered a prayer inspired in large part by the apology made to Native Americans, Alaskan natives and native Hawaiians by the 222nd General Assembly (2016):
Creator God, we pray that you give us the endurance to travel this long, painful, and necessary journey of repentance, reconciliation, and healing.
We pray for the commitment to work toward ensuring that we will never again use our power as a church to hurt others with our attitudes of racial and spiritual superiority.
We seek God’s forgiveness, healing grace, and guidance as we take steps toward building mutually respectful, compassionate, and loving relationships with Indigenous peoples.
We pray for the courage to take meaningful action towards restorative practices and policies at the relational, communal, and national level.
We pray that we restore our relationship with all of Creation and deepen our understanding that the Creator and Creation are not two, but one.
We pray that you will hear the sincerity of these words and that you will witness the living out of our words in our actions.
We pray for the sacred lands of Oak Flat, the Apache Stronghold, and all those gathered here, and praying from afar.
Many Presbyterian churches from all over the country joined in prayer that day. Other Presbyterian Hunger Program staff gathered in the backyard of the program’s coordinator, the Rev. Rebecca Barnes, to pray in solidarity. And Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson sent a delegation to Oak Flat that day.
Learn more about the proposed Save Oak Flat from Foreign Mining Act here.
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Categories: Environment, Hunger & Poverty
Tags: apache stronghold, dr. wendsler nosie, oak flat, presbyterian hunger program, rev. carol rose, save oak flat from foreign mining act, shalom mennonite fellowship tucson arizona, Southside Presbyterian Church
Ministries: Environmental Issues, Presbyterian Hunger Program