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Presbyterian pastors team up to bring awareness to a land deal that will harm Native people in Arizona

A bill and a court case could prove helpful for Native Americans living near Oak Flat east of Phoenix

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Oak Flat, about an hour east of Phoenix, Arizona, is a sacred site for many tribal nations, including the San Carlos Apache Tribe. (Photo courtesy of Andrew Black)

LOUISVILLE — A bill introduced Friday in the U.S. House of Representatives to prevent copper mining on a location sacred to several tribal nations in Arizona is being applauded by two Presbyterian pastors who have visited the Oak Flat site and met with tribal leaders there.

U.S. Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva, D-Arizona, the ranking member on the House Natural Resources Committee, has introduced the Save Oak Flat from Foreign Mining Act. In a statement, Grijalva noted that citizens of the San Carlos Apache Tribe have visited the area for millennia to conduct cultural ceremonies and gather traditional food and medicine.

In 2015, Grijalva noted, a late-night rider was inserted into the must-pass National Defense Authorization Act that mandated the public land transfer of the Oak Flat area to a copper mining company owned by a foreign mining conglomerate. The Biden administration has since rescinded an Environmental Impact Statement completed during the Trump administration but will still be mandated by law to proceed with the process after the release of an updated EIS.

The Rev. Andrew Black, left, and the Rev. Eric Ledermann, right, are pictured with Wendsler Noise, second from right, and his daughter, Vanessa, of the San Carlos Apache. (Photo courtesy of Andrew Black and Eric Ledermann)

“Our Tribe strongly supports passage of this bill,” said the San Carlos Apache Tribe’s Chairman, Terry Rambler, adding that the copper mined there would not directly benefit the American people and would instead “cripple Arizona’s already increasingly scarce water supply by consuming enough water for 140,000 people each year for 40 years.”

The Rev. Andrew Black, the associate pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and the founder of EarthKeepers360, and the Rev. Dr. Eric Ledermann, pastor of University Presbyterian Church in Tempe, Arizona, joined members of the San Carlos Apache Tribe on a march last month to Oak Flat, about 60 miles east of Phoenix.

“They want other religious leaders to hear about what happens to sacred areas,” Black said. “They want the bigger denominations to know what’s going on.” It’s the kind of awareness that’s the logical next step for a denomination that has already repudiated the Doctrine of Discovery, Black said.

“For me, Oak Flat is an incredibly spiritual and profound place. When you’re in the landscape, you can sense that. It gave me the opportunity to reflect on my spirituality,” Black said, adding he was turning over in his mind images of “dust to dust” and “Creation and Creator, how important that is to our own tradition.”

“We have ancient texts that speak to the same narrative, of a God who journeys through the Garden with us in solidarity and the breakdown of all that,” Black said. “We have lost that sense of being one with the Earth. … Creation is not outside of us. It is part of who we are. We lift that up with Lent, and then Jesus on the cross reminds us we are one with Creation and that the dividing walls of hostility need to be torn down.”

Since meeting with the San Carlos Apache people, Black has been preaching about what he learned there. “On Ash Wednesday, they wanted to hear, ‘From dust you have arisen and to dust you will return,’” Black said. “I put ashes on their foreheads and reminded them that it’s a discipline to remember that Creation is not something outside you.”

The Rev. Andrew Black is photographed at Oak Flat. (Photo by Eric Ledermann)

Black said “a profound lightbulb turned on for me about our ancient texts. We focus on the ashes on our heads and the death part, but let’s not forget that before death there is birth. The journey is about the birth, and Lent is a rebirth of our faith. Let’s pay attention to that.”

Ledermann said the pattern with too many mining companies is “they come in and do all this mining and cause all this destruction, and they always seem to go bankrupt right before they have to clean it up. … Ever since Citizens United, it seems like corporations have exercised their personhood with a serious bravado that I think is really dangerous.”

With the nation’s long history of ignoring all or parts of treaties with Native people, “we have treated them like second-class citizens and have seen their land as disposable,” Ledermann said. “I feel it’s Christ’s call to stand with those who are being marginalized and help amplify their voices and their concerns to create a better society.”

Ledermann said members and friends of the Arizona congregation he serves “have been glad I went. I have shared a little of what was going on. The congregation tends to be pretty supportive of actions I take in defense of people being silenced. I’m proud to be part of that and it’s a reason I believe they called me and why I accepted the call” 11 years ago.

For Ledermann, the other aspect important to the work they’ve taken on is climate change, “what we are doing to the Earth, to natural resources and to people’s lives. … We have tons of copper and there’s no need to do such massive mining. It’s gratuitous.”

“If there was a massive gold deposit under the U.S. Capitol, would we go implode it? Of course not,” Ledermann said. “I feel Christ compels us to stand on the side of those who are being objectified and abused, which is exactly what’s happening here. I feel invigorated by this [march],” Ledermann said, “and I wish I could be more involved.”

Watch a video on the Save Oak Flat movement here. Later this month, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is scheduled to hear a First Amendment case on Native Americans’ religious rights if Oak Flat land is indeed transferred for mining purposes. Learn more about the legal case here.

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