Apache Stronghold v. United States: Apaches Fight For Sacred Land In Court

March 22, 2023

Oak Flat is like Mount Sinai to us — our most sacred site where we connect with our Creator, our faith, our families, and our land.

Head of the Apache Stronghold, Wendsler Nosie, whose organization is fighting to retain land that is sacred to Native people in the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

What To Know: On Tuesday, judges on the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments in the Apache Stronghold v. United States suit. The court initially heard the case in October of 2021, ruling against Apache Stronghold; however, in November 2022, the court announced it would rehear the case by the court’s full panel of judges.

The plaintiff, Apache Stronghold – a coalition of Apaches and other supporters dedicated to preserving indigenous holy sites – is trying to stop the government from swapping land in eastern Arizona, known as Oak Flat, with a foreign-owned company that plans to mine copper from the land.

Luke Goodrich, an attorney arguing for Apache Stronghold, said the mining would destroy the land, “barring the Apaches from ever accessing it again and ending their core religious practices forever.”

What Is Oak Flat? Head of the Apache Stronghold explained, “[Oak Flat] has been sacred to us since long before Europeans came to this continent, and it is imperative that it be protected for generations — so our children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren can continue our religious ceremonies that make us Apaches.”

What Does The Mining Company Say? Andrew Lye, former project director for Resolution Copper (the company planning to carry out the project) “said the company recognized some key opportunities to further preserve the cultural history of the area,” and that funding has been provided for cultural preservation and for education to tribal members, azcentral reports.

Big Picture: The land swap was initially approved by Congress in 2014, however, it has taken years for the proper documents to be published in order for work to begin. In the meantime, the Apache Stronghold argues that in allowing mining on Oak Flat, the government is in violation of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act by placing a “substantial burden” on the Native people by destroying the site that has been sacred to them for years.

Becket Law, which represents the group, says the federal government has protected the sacred site for more than six decadesand that the destruction of the site “would irreparably harm the religious expression and practices of the region’s first inhabitants.”

Meanwhile, Resolution Copper argues they are not taking the land, but exchanging it with the government for thousands of acres of conservation lands around Arizona,and that the mining project will provide thousands of jobs to the community surrounding the land as well as adding “up to $1 billion a year to Arizona’s economy” (The Associated Press).

What’s Next? A decision from the 9th Circuit is expected in the coming months.

A More Detailed Write-Up: Resolution copper mine goes back before appeals court in a major religious rights case (azcentral)

Apaches tell court copper mine would harm sacred sites (The Associated Press)

Judges weigh religious rights issues in a hearing over proposed Resolution copper mine (azcentral)

Photo Credit: Apache Stronghold

by Jenna Lee,