Earth+Bone, Part 6: San Carlos Apache Divided Over Copper Mine

By Laurel Morales
February 13, 2017
Laurel Morales
Former San Carlos Apache Chairman Wendsler Nosie Sr. has fought a copper mine for many years.
Laurel Morales
Resolution Copper Permit Manager Vicky Peacey, President Andrew Taplin and senior advisor of Native American Affairs Tara Kitcheyan stand in front of Apache Leap. The company has agreed to mine around Apache Leap but not Oak Flat.
Laurel Morales
A mural in downtown Superior shows the history of mining in the area.
Laurel Morales
San Carlos Apache member Carrie Curley comes to Oak Flat to pray.
Laurel Morales
Oak Flat Campground is on the Tonto National Forest. The Apaches consider it their ancestral land. As the crow flies it's 10 miles from the reservation boundary.

The Dakota Access Pipeline has brought a megaphone to the battle between what tribes believe to be sacred and what westerners consider fair game all across the United States. KJZZ’s Fronteras Desk Correspondent Laurel Morales spent months digging deeper into this pervasive issue here in the Southwest to produce this series Earth+Bone.

A craggy mountain hovers over the eastern edge of Superior, Arizona. In the mid-1800s settlers encroached on this land.

As the story is told by Apache elders, a band of about 75 Apache warriors discovered a secret trail to the top of the mountain and camped there in attempts to protect their land from settlers. Weeks passed before the calvary discovered their path.

One morning, just before the sun came up, the settlers took the Apaches by surprise. The Natives woke to the sound of gunfire. The white settlers killed most of their enemy. The remaining Apaches saw they were surrounded, and rather than surrender, turned to the edge of the steep cliff and jumped to their deaths. Today this place is called Apache Leap.

"There’s a lot of tragic history here,” said former San Carlos Apache Chairman Wendsler Nosie Sr. “Like every other tribe we’re exiled out of our indigenous homelands.”

Nosie led the tribe during a long battle with lawmakers to save this place. Like those fighters this place is named after, Nosie’s tribe fought for this land, but this time in Washington. They won protection for Apache Leap against a massive mining operation. 

Nosie said this place, this burial ground of sorts, is sacred to him.

“There’s no way to describe it, except to say it’s who you are,” Nosie said. 

Since that fateful day when Apache Leap got its name, the reservation has shrunk in size five times to accommodate the mining industry. So when Nosie heard about Resolution Copper’s plans to develop the largest copper mine in North America on another sacred site, he said enough.

"We have wake up and we have to know when enough is enough,” Nosie said. “I’m not going to lie you’re angry first. From angry you go back to prayers and try your best to find out why people do this and why they think that way.” 

Not far from Apache Leap is Oak Flat.

“This is where our spirit people live,” Nosie said. 

Giant oak trees stand guard over another threatened camp. San Carlos Apache member Carrie Curley comes here to pray.

“It’s definitely given me light that I couldn’t find in the modern world,” Curley said. “So when I come back here I’m recharged. Just like today, just like Wendsler was saying, you could probably jump up and probably touch the clouds. That’s what these sacred places give to you.” 

But not all Apaches find spirit at Apache Leap or at Oak Flat. 

“My traditional teachings did not teach me that that area is special," said San Carlos Apache member Tara Kitcheyan. “I come from a long line of traditionalists, a long line of medicine people. And it is those teachings and it is those blessings that allow me to be here, to be the voice.”

She’s the voice of the mining company that owns this land now.

Kitcheyan is senior advisor of Native American Affairs for Resolution Copper. Before taking the job, Kitcheyan asked elders in her family if they believe this land is sacred. And many weren’t familiar with the ceremonies held there. She said there are a number of other places that she considers special.

“All of those areas (they) have a song, they have a story, they have a meaning, they have a prayer dedicated to that area,” Kitcheyan said. “And it is through those teachings that I honor those areas.”

Part of Kitcheyan’s job is to talk to tribal members about what’s really happening at Resolution Copper. And many are interested in the possibility of a job. More than half the tribe is unemployed. 

“I truly believe that people want to live,” Kitcheyan said. “People want hope to hold onto. And they want an education and a good future.”

Resolution Copper currently employs 300 people. Ten percent are Native.

During construction the company will have as many as 3,000 temporary jobs. Then Resolution will hire about 1,400 people to operate the mine. While some jobs underground will be automated, they’ll need a variety of skilled labor — everything from engineers and geologists to shaft miners and mechanics.

The company president is expecting a 40-year mine life.

But this isn’t just a jobs versus land story. Employment opportunities aside, you have to look at the resource, the copper. You may not realize this but we depend on copper to run most of our modern day technologies cellphones, lights, heat, even cars. 

And Resolution Copper’s Vicky Peacey said the land deep beneath Oak Flat is rich with copper. 

“There is a geologic wonder that sits in the backyard of the town of Superior,” Peacey said. “And the Resolution deposit is about 1.7 billion tons at around 1.5 percent copper.” 

This site could meet as much as a quarter of the country’s demand for copper.

But the copper is so deep, 7,000 feet deep (more than a mile), Peacy said the most economical way to mine the ore is an underground method called block caving. And it will have a severe impact on the land. 

“Shafts are sunk to the base of the deposit and tunnels are driven beneath it and then there’s drilling and there’s blasting that breaks up the rock,” Peacy said. “And through gravity, as we remove ore, more ore continues to replace it. So you’re allowing by gravity for the block to cave in on itself and you pull it out.” 

Essentially the land will gradually drop away. When the area is mined out, it will be a completely changed landscape. 

The company has been trying to mine this land for more than a decade. With the help of people like Arizona Sen. John McCain they were able to negotiate a land swap 2,400 acres of national forest land near the San Carlos Apache reservation in exchange for twice that amount. The mining company is putting 5,300 acres of riparian land back in trust. 

And Resolution has agreed to follow federal environmental regulations even though the land is technically private. That means slogging through a long process called an environmental impact statement (EIS). They will have to weigh what cultural and environmental harm mining the land would cause, and make some compromises. 

“I think there is a misunderstanding out there that somehow by having the land exchange we will avoid having to do an EIS, that the rules and regulations of the United States won’t apply to us but that couldn’t be further from the truth,” said Peacy, who manages permitting and approvals for Resolution Copper.  

Resolution has been willing to make several compromises, one big one. The company will not mine Apache Leap. Resolution Copper President Andrew Taplin said about 800 acres, where the Apaches leapt to their deaths, that land will be preserved. 

“When we have been able to get people at the table we’ve been able to find solutions,” Taplin said. “We’re seeing, as a function of time, more dialogue, more and more healthy engagement on this topic. I’m very confident we’ll find some solutions.”

You won’t see San Carlos Apache Wendsler Nosie at that table anytime soon. He’s banking on a lawsuit brought by the tribe and environmentalists to stop the mining at Oak Flat. Like his ancestors Nosie refuses to surrender. 

“This walk that I walk, I can see why a lot of them have stopped because it’s hard,” Nosie said. “I mean it’s a really hard road but every time I turn back and look, I see how far I came.”