‘Oak Flat’ Chronicles a Battle to Save Sacred Land

For decades, a plot of federal land in southeastern Arizona called Oak Flat has been at the center of a fight over resource extraction. Since 2005, a mining venture has been pushing the U.S. government to let it excavate the site’s copper ore, which was discovered in 1995. The potential consequences of the mine go far beyond the estimated 1.5 billion tons of waste it would produce: it would destroy land that has been sacred to the San Carlos Apache tribe for generations. Oak Flat, called Chich’il Bildagoteel in the Apache language, would quite literally collapse into a void; if that happens, “our spiritual existence will be threatened,” tribal chairman Terry Rambler says in Oak Flat, Lauren Redniss’s new book about the conflict. 

Oak Flat takes a unique approach to the difficult task of putting the stakes of this conflict to paper. Like Redniss’s three previous books, which focus mainly on science and history, Oak Flat combines intensive reporting with Redniss’s own illustrations and design touches. Pages filled with historical detail or snippets of interviews are accompanied by hand-drawn portraits and sometimes give way to more surreal illustrations and poetry-like musings. As a nonfiction graphic novel, Oak Flat makes centuries of history feel immersive and concrete, managing to give proper weight to everything that stands to be lost along with the land, and showing just how deep injustice runs when Native Americans fight to protect what’s theirs.

oak flat
(Photo: Courtesy Penguin Random House)

Redniss became interested in writing about Oak Flat in 2015 after reading a short op-ed in The New York Times about the land-transfer debate. There wasn’t much mention of the people who would be affected, she remembers. Her own reporting would come to revolve around those who live on the San Carlos Indian Reservation and in the nearby town of Superior. She spent the next five years getting to know a family with multiple generations of activists: Wendsler Nosie, his daughter Vanessa Nosie, and her three school-age daughters, Naelyn Pike, Nizhoni Pike, and Baasé-O Pike. Redniss also spent time with local families who have worked in the mining industry for decades. “Whether they support the mine or are against the mine, I wanted to understand their lives and their challenges and their reasons,” she told me. “I didn’t want to paint individuals with blame. I think that what we can hold accountable is the government and the corporations.”

When it came time to write, Redniss, who is not Native American, wanted to make sure she presented stakeholders’ voices in as unmediated a way as possible. She devotes many pages to transcripts of conversations with the Nosies and to Naelyn’s testimony at a congressional hearing about Oak Flat in 2013. She contrasts the Pikes’ incredible activism with their everyday lives as teens and preteens. (At one point, Naelyn posts on Instagram, “I’m just a modern day Apache female warrior fighting for my people against corporations trying to take over mother earth!”) Throughout Oak Flat, Redniss takes care to let the family’s sense of humor and closeness come through.

The book is, in large part, about bearing witness to the religious and environmental significance of the land. Oak Flat is known to Apaches as the home of the Gaan, or mountain spirits, and is the location of many ceremonies. The land holds some of the best-preserved Apache archaeological sites, as well as untouched flora and fauna like old-growth trees and threatened species like ocelots, which Redniss draws in realistic detail. She returns often to the Sunrise Dance ceremony held on Oak Flat for every girl when she reaches puberty, depicting the dance with portraits of the women’s faces or illustrations of the event in deep red tones. (Such dances were outlawed by the Department of the Interior and held in secret for a time in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.) Toward the end of the book, Naelyn speaks again to members of Congress, telling them that “Oak Flat sets a precedent for all sacred sites.” Redniss then guides us through sweeping illustrations of each site as Naelyn names them: Hawaii’s Mauna Kea, New Mexico’s Chaco Canyon, South Dakota’s Black Hills. “If these sacred lands are gone, who are we?” Naelyn asks.

The ongoing battle over Oak Flat is a helpful demonstration of the (often deliberately) confusing political maneuverings that make extractive industries so hard to fight. In 2014, some members of Congress amended an unrelated bill to sneak in a land exchange that gave Oak Flat to the mining company Resolution Copper. President Obama then signed it into law. The Forest Service has since been inching along with an environmental impact statement on the proposed mine; simply publishing the document would legally mandate that the land be transferred to the mining company within 60 days.

Since Oak Flat went to print, the situation has sped up considerably. In recent months, the outgoing Trump administration has been trying to rush the deadline for the environmental impact statement so that the land transfer can be triggered before the Biden administration takes over. Although it’s not clear whether the president-elect would save Oak Flat if the process were delayed until he takes office, he has promised to work more closely with tribal leaders. In early January, the Forest Service announced it would proceed with publishing the environmental impact statement by January 15, despite multiple objections from the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, one of the federal agencies consulting on the land exchange, that it hadn’t adequately consulted with the tribe. On January 12, Apache Stronghold, a group led by Wendsler Nosie, sued the federal government in an attempt to stop the land transfer, saying they hadn’t been given proper notice about the review and that their religious rights were being violated.

Oak Flat translates this aggravating world of red tape and tedium into a thoughtful, often beautiful, and deeply human story. The book manages to do justice to Oak Flat as its own universe of nitty-gritty legal details and clashing interests, but one that’s also representative of broader dynamics and abuses that have played out in America for centuries. At seemingly every turn in the history of the fight, there is bureaucratic nonsense, disingenuous political grandstanding, and evidence of the blatant disenfranchisement of Native Americans. “We think of the history of the United States as a history of conquest and treaty violations,” Redniss says. “And what we see here is that it’s not just history.”

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Lead Illustration: © 2020 by Lauren Redniss, from Oak Flat

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