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Native Americans protest proposed copper mine in Arizona

ELISSA NADWORNY, HOST:

In Arizona, members of the San Carlos Apache tribe are on a long protest march and run today. They're headed to the site of a planned copper mine, which would sit on land they consider sacred. As NPR's Kirk Siegler reports, this comes as a federal appeals court is expected to rule any day on whether the mine can move forward.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: On the remote high desert of Eastern Arizona, a couple dozen native runners gather for a holy ground blessing. San Carlos Apache elders in traditional dress offer prayers with eagle feathers tied to four wooden crosses fastened in the red dirt.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting in non-English language).

SIEGLER: Elder Jerry Thomas says the run is a spiritual movement from the reservation to the Apache's ancestral land that the U.S. government excluded them from in an 1852 treaty.

JERRY THOMAS: Oak Flat is a holy ground. It's a holy place that we don't want destroyed.

SIEGLER: Oak Flat, where they believe their creator came from, is also the site of the planned Resolution Copper Mine. It was first greenlighted in 2015. When the late Senator John McCain got a federal land swap through congress, they gave an international mining company control of the site.

THOMAS: We're lost. We're fighting. We're fighting. We've been colonized. This is how I - this is how I look at it. This is how I've seen it.

SIEGLER: Required environmental review of the land swap was finished just before Donald Trump left office. As activists were suing, President Biden took over and halted the swap, calling for more review. In Indian Country, the land swap was seen as just another treaty violation. The U.S. government is supposed to protect the environment on ancestral land.

WENDSLER NOSIE SR.: I don't really have faith.

SIEGLER: The protest's leader, Wendsler Nosie Sr., is a former tribal chairman at San Carlos. He says the land swap is now federal law, so it's not clear what the Biden administration can really do besides promise more consultation with the tribes.

NOSIE: You know how like they say they're going to throw us a bone with a little bit of meat? You know, before they were just throwing us a bone.

SIEGLER: Now there's also a lot of pressure to open the copper mine and several more rare earth metals mines across the West that the country needs for its clean energy transition. Down the steep Red Rock Canyon from Oak Flat is the town of Superior, where Mila Besich's mining family goes back five generations.

MILA BESICH: When we're talking about electrical vehicle production, I mean, every commercial - every other commercial for the Super Bowl was about one of these electric vehicles. The copper for that has to come from somewhere.

SIEGLER: Besich is now Superior's mayor. She says while it's been waiting for the final go-ahead, the mining company has helped improve her town's infrastructure and cleaned up toxic messes left by previous companies. A Democrat, Besich is frustrated that Trump's environmental review was tabled.

BESICH: And because the administration pulled that back, they are holding this community back.

SIEGLER: The Biden administration is in a bind here. The U.S. needs more domestic copper, but the president also pledged to right a legacy of injustices against Native Americans.

NOSIE: OK, before I get the runners together, just a quick announcement.

SIEGLER: Early this morning, Wendsler Nosie Sr. gathered the mostly younger runners for the 40-mile trip to Oak Flat, where he has been camping for the past two years in protest of the mine.

NOSIE: And we originated from these places. So since they neglected to take care of it like they said they would, the promises they made to our great grandfathers, grandmothers, you know, I'm going home. And from that point, you know, whatever they want to do with me, well, let's see.

SIEGLER: Tribal members running from across the southwest are convening with Nosie at Oak Flat for a weekend of prayers, dances and songs.

Kirk Siegler, NPR News, San Carlos, Ariz.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE MATTSON 2 AND RAY BARBEE'S "CHI NINE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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