“It’s our sacred land — it’s where we come to pray.”
Carrie Sage Curley, an Apache woman
Religious Freedom is, on its surface, a relatively simple concept, one which implies the freedom to believe as one chooses, one which implies the freedom to practice said beliefs without interference by others. Sounds simple enough, but is readily complicated if or when the practice of a given set of religious beliefs requires the imposition of such beliefs on others. One of the more common examples of such imposition is the current thesis that those who believe gay marriage to be evil are, by virtue of their religious freedom, implicitly permitted to publicly discriminate against those who do not share their same beliefs. There is, obviously, more than a little resistance to that particular belief.
At the same time there’s this, the other side of the ‘religious freedom’ coin, a situation where the ‘religious freedom’ concerns of Native Americans are either overlooked or completely disregarded. A current and ongoing example began last December when Arizona’s pair of Republican Senators (John McCain and Jeff Flake) attached an 11th hour rider to the “must pass” National Defense Authorization Act. The rider authorized the ‘swap’ of 2400 acres in Arizona’s Tonto National Forest in exchange for 5300 acres of Arizona land privately owned by a consortium of multinational corporations (British and Australian) whose sole interest in Arizona is copper mining. The problem is, the land which McCain and Flake effectively handed over to the multinationals contains a portion known locally as Oak Flat, an area considered by the Apache People to be sacred. Their reaction is detailed and discussed in the Think Progress essay entitled Citing Religious Freedom, Native Americans Fight To Take Back Sacred Land From Mining Companies. Here are some appropriate excerpts which discuss both the impacts on the Apache People as well as their ‘religious freedom’ based reactions to same.
Arizona’s Native American population was outraged by the deal, having fought against several efforts by Republicans in Congress to broker similar agreements over the years. Some locals have argued that the land grab shortchanges American taxpayers, since profits will go primarily to companies rooted outside the United States. In addition, environmentalists and the Apache people have repeatedly expressed fears that, since the mining industry is often exempt from portions of environmental laws such as the Clean Water Act, the invasive copper mining project could damage the area’s water — a resource many Native Americans claim a spiritual obligation to protect.
“I have a great-grandmother who is buried at Oak Flat — we want to respect her, let her rest in peace,” said Sandra Rambler, an Apache woman from San Carlos, Arizona. “My granddaughter had a [religious] dance there last year, and I’m hoping that my future grandchildren will dance there as well.”
The religious connections to Oak Flat are so powerful that mining the land could constitute a violation of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act. That law, which was passed in 1978, stipulates that the federal government has an obligation to protect the religious liberty of Native Americans — including guaranteeing access to sites they hold sacred.
“It’s the same thing as a church,” Curley said. “We protect these temples, why can’t we do the same for our sacred land?”
Representatives from Resolution Copper have rejected such claims . . .
[. . .]
The campaign crescendoed this week in Washington, D.C., when a group organized largely by Native American advocacy organization Apache Stronghold staged a series of protest actions over the course of two days. In addition to a procession at Rock Creek Park, Native Americans embarked on a spiritual “run” throughout the city on Tuesday that concluded with a prayer service in front of the White House. And on Wednesday, a hundred or so supporters rallied on the West Lawn in front of the U.S. Capitol building to dance, chant, and give speeches expressing their frustration with the mining project.
“We have a freedom of religion,” Wendsler Nosie Sr., an Apache elder and former tribal chairman, told the crowd. “Congress shouldn’t ignore rights of people … It’s not right. Congress should repeal the law.”
Participants at the rally hailed from a number of different tribes, but they were unanimous in their condemnation of efforts to mine Oak Flat.
“I feel violated — I feel like I’ve been raped,” Rambler said, choking back tears as she spoke about the possible destruction of a place she calls holy. “I feel that the earth has been raped. The Native American people are the caretakers of Mother Earth. When she’s violated, we’re violated. When you desecrate the land, you desecrate us.”
“When you take that away, you take away the identity of the Apaches,” she said.
My guess is that there are few reasons for optimism amongst the Apache People and other sympathetic Native Americans. First of all, the Oak Flat corner of the Tonto National Forest is federal land, and is NOT parcel to the adjacent San Carlos Apache Reservation. Second, there’s undoubtedly lots of money to be made in the mining project, and we all know what THAT means. Third, the land is sacred only to the Apache, and even though there’s that 1978 Native American religious freedom law, there’s gotta be a way around it, right? I mean, what kind of ‘religious freedom’ could a bunch of heathen Apaches ever want anyway, much less deserve? They’re not Christians, after all. Heck, they’re not even white!
As the cited article further notes,
It remains to be seen whether Congress will repeal what Rambler called the “sneaky rider” that McCain and Flake used to create the controversy. There is ample reason to be skeptical, as American history is rife with examples of Native Americans consistently losing fights with the federal government over land. As the Huffington Post noted this week, Native Americans in Hawaii and California are currently embroiled in efforts to keep outside groups from developing on their sacred spaces.
In the final analysis, I can’t help but recall the words of a long dead aboriginal chieftain who summed up a huge segment of his world in one brief paragraph, when he said,
“We know that the white man does not understand our ways.
One portion of the land is the same to him as the next, for he is
a stranger who comes in the night and takes from the land whatever
he needs. The earth is not his brother, but his enemy —
and when he has conquered it, he moves on.”
~Chief Seattle (Suqwamish and Duwamish)
Chief Si’ahl (Seattle) spoke those words more than 150 years ago. Sadly, they’re as true today as they were then, as the ongoing travesty involving 2400 acres of land, sacred to the Apache People, demonstrates.
Meanwhile, it seems only fair to apply the word “travesty” to the concept of ‘religious freedom’ both in the current Christian and Apache issues, but for completely different reasons. Travesty is defined (Dictionary.com) as: “Seems to me that’s a close fit in both cases because (a) to the Apache People, ‘religious freedom’ is presumed to disallow the desecration of land which they consider sacred, land in which ancestors are interred. In case (b), however, no land, no resources, nothing sacred is destroyed or at risk; the ‘religious freedom’ case is based strictly on their presumed “right” to discriminate against those whose beliefs and/or lifestyles are considered to be in conflict with alleged biblical premises.
It seems a safe bet to thereby point out that if (a) Apache concerns are unheard or disallowed, or if (b) the right to discriminate against people of different lifestyle/viewpoint is heard and eventually upheld, then the most descriptive word that suits and describes probable outcomes in both cases is a simple one. TRAVESTY. Dare we hope that such will not be the case in either instance? Maybe, but I’ll not hold my breath in anticipation.