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Members of the San Carlos Apache Tribe, along with high school students, protested outside U.S. Sen. Mark Kelly’s office in Phoenix, Ariz. last Thursday, urging the Arizona Democrat to support legislation protecting, Oak Flat, a sacred site threatened by a proposed copper mine near Superior.

The crowd of about 20 demonstrators carried signs that read, “Save Oak Flat” and “Senator Mark Kelly – Protect Our Religion.”

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Protesters want Kelly to support the Save Oak Flat Act, sponsored in the Senate by Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and in the House by Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ). Neither bill has moved forward since the spring.

The bill aims to protect Oak Flat – considered sacred by Apache and other Indigenous people – from a vast copper mine proposed in the Tonto National Forest about 60 miles east of Phoenix. Mining could lead the land to collapse and leave behind a 2-mile crater.

Kelly’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Oak Flat supporter (Photo/Courtesy)

Oak Flat, known to the Apache as Chi’Chil’Ba’Goteel, was federally protected until it became part of a land swap approved in a federal defense bill, slipped in by then U.S. Sen. John McCain, in December 2014. Under the deal, the federal government agreed to exchange public land that included Oak Flat to Resolution Copper, a joint venture by Rio Tinto on BHP.

The land holds religious and cultural significance to Indigenous communities, especially the San Carlos Apache, who still hold ceremonies on the land.

Brophy High School senior Aidan Parr, 18, said destroying the land is a cultural attack on the Native American community.

“If there was a huge copper deposit discovered under St. Peter’s Basilica, no one would be like, ‘Let’s mine it even if it destroys the church,’” he said.

Sandra Rambler, a San Carlos Apache, said her ancestors were buried on Oak Flat ground, so she feels strongly about keeping the land sacred and free from mining.

“Leave them alone, leave our way of life alone,” she said.

The bill follows years of uncertainty regarding the status of the land. Arguments in a lawsuit filed in January by the nonprofit Apache Stronghold were made before the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in October.

A ruling is expected next year. The group’s website says its mission is “to battle continued colonization, defend holy sites and freedom of religion.”

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