The Show on KJZZ

Listen live weekdays at 9 a.m.

Apache Stronghold welcomes faith groups from nationwide to save Oak Flat through the power of prayer

By Gabriel Pietrorazio
Published: Tuesday, November 7, 2023 - 9:09am
Updated: Tuesday, November 14, 2023 - 8:46am

Audio icon Download mp3 (7.22 MB)
Coverage of tribal natural resources is supported in part by Catena Foundation

A sign for the
Gabriel Pietrorazio/KJZZ
A sign for the 'Oak Flat Prayer Rising' on Saturday morning can be seen from U.S. Route 60 heading from the town of Superior toward the campground.

More than 60 miles east of Phoenix within Tonto National Forest near the town of Superior, Oak Flat has been a site of legal battles and court cases. But it turned into a spiritual hub over the weekend when the Apaches sang, blessed themselves and burned tobacco before letting their “settler siblings,” as they say, walk around their campfire in a circle twice. 

Those songs tell about how the soul travels to God’s house and how to pray through instruments. “The drums represent the universe. When you hear them pounding, it’s the thunder. The sticks are the lightning and when it hits, creates the sound,” according to Apache Stronghold founder Wendsler Nosie Sr.

They welcomed them from all walks of faith: Mennonites, Baptists, Evangelical Christians, Jews and other denominations to the Oak Flat Campground. And Nosie invited this flock of non-Native faithfuls to fix the broken Baah-seh, or hoop, caused by the sins of colonialism.

“And that gap is all the people who have come here, so today represents a birth … a healing … a new beginning,” Nosie added. “And we want to thank you for coming in the way you did.”

Wendsler Nosie Sr. is the founder of the Apache Stronghold group.
Gabriel Pietrorazio/KJZZ
Wendsler Nosie Sr. is the founder of the Apache Stronghold group.

Bound together by a common belief in the Creator, a national interfaith coalition united on Saturday. A day filled with lots of singing and praying underneath the shade of trees bearing acorns. Oak Flat is a holy site where Apaches believe the Gaan, or mountain spirits, reside. It’s also where they’ve performed sweat rituals and coming-of-age ceremonies for generations.

“There are deities, angels, that live here,” says Nosie. “You’re sitting very close to it.”

Their way of life is now in danger from copper mining.

The world’s two largest foreign-owned mining corporations — Rio Tinto and BHP — are trying to extract minerals through Resolution Copper, one of the largest undeveloped copper projects across the globe. It’s supposed to create about 3,700 jobs eventually and boost Arizona’s local economy by $61 billion over the project’s six-decade lifespan — adding at least $288 million in local, state and federal taxes annually.

Nosie says extracting the copper deposits more than a mile beneath sacred lands can sever that relationship with the mountain spirits. He added it’s essential for Indigenous religious practices to be seen as equally authentic to other faiths. 

Faith advocates from around the country congregated underneath the shade of trees at the Oat Flat Campground.
Gabriel Pietrorazio/KJZZ
Faith advocates from around the country congregated underneath the shade of trees at the Oat Flat Campground.

Navajo, Tohono O’odham and tribal allies spoke to faith leaders who traveled to the Southwest to gain a deeper understanding — while dozens of congregations nationwide coalesced in spirit from afar.

“Seeing you all out here gives me hope for my little one right here, with her sister, because that’s who we’re fighting for,” says Morgun Frejo, who has Navajo ancestry.

“She doesn’t have a voice yet,” Frejo added, “to tell these companies over here not to destroy her water, destroy her air, destroy her life, her sister’s life.”

He told them to open their hearts, minds, and also to: “Listen, but not only just to us. Listen to the wind. Take that moment you hear that wind come through, pause … reflect …”

Anne Jeffrey did.

Born and raised in Superior, she grew up in a mining family where her father worked as a local smelter. He later died from brain cancer. And she has frequently trekked up Apache Leap and elsewhere around Oak Flat.

But little did she know this land, special to her upbringing, was ever at risk.

“When I first heard about it, I had no clue what was going on,” Jeffrey says. “I do remember as a kid, seeing how Globe and Miami just got all torn up. I thought to myself, they would never do this to Superior. It’s too precious. It’s too beautiful. And now here, they’re doing it.”

A longtime non-Native friend to the Nosie family, she met them through a local grassroots group called the Concerned Citizens and Retired Miners Coalition that formed in opposition to the Oak Flat copper mine construction.

“Always loved my hometown, but I’ve been really hurt by their closed mindedness, that same old mining way of thinking is going to bring the town back to life,” says Jeffrey. “In reality, it will not. We’ll end up like the town of Hayden.”

And that’s when she started praying to save Oak Flat from its pending desecration, adding that “we’re all one people, one drum — all on one Earth, one circle.”

Apaches and their allies sit around a campfire at the Oak Flat Campground.
Gabriel Pietrorazio/KJZZ
Apaches and their allies sit around a campfire at the Oak Flat Campground.

Recently, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals heard the Apache Stronghold’s case after a prior ruling against them.

“This is not an Apache fight,” says Nosie. “It’s a fight for religion, because once the U.S. win this court case, then it’s the precedent that is set across this country.”

That’s why the Apache Stronghold is soliciting help from other religious groups.

Angela Wu Howard traveled to Oak Flat as a senior law fellow at the Becket Institute. It’s an academic project for the nonprofit Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. That D.C.-based law firm represents Apache Stronghold in their ongoing legal battle.

Howard shared: “If we lost in the 9th Circuit, we would have to appeal to the Supreme Court.”

She asked faith leaders to back them by filing amicus briefs should the Supreme Court one day take up their case, mentioning that “the more diverse the voice, really the better.”

For now, the fate of Oak Flat remains uncertain. 

But this rising group of religious activists, together with the Apache Stronghold, are turning to the power of prayer and song.

More stories from KJZZ

Oak Flat is considered to be holy land by the Apaches where the Gaan, or mountain spirits, reside.
Gabriel Pietrorazio/KJZZ
Oak Flat is considered to be holy land by the Apaches where the Gaan, or mountain spirits, reside.
Town of Superior resident Anne Jeffrey prays for Oak Flat on Saturday.
Gabriel Pietrorazio/KJZZ
Town of Superior resident Anne Jeffrey prays for Oak Flat on Saturday.
Morgun Frejo sits next to a drum he pounded upon while singing a song.
Gabriel Pietrorazio/KJZZ
Morgun Frejo sits next to a drum he pounded upon while singing a song.
Native allies from across Indian Country — not only Arizona — came to support the Apache Stronghold on Saturday.
Gabriel Pietrorazio/KJZZ
Native allies from across Indian Country — not only Arizona — came to support the Apache Stronghold on Saturday.
Non-Native religious allies came from near and far to stand in solidarity with Apache Stronghold over the weekend.
Gabriel Pietrorazio/KJZZ
Non-Native religious allies came from near and far to stand in solidarity with Apache Stronghold over the weekend.
Wendsler Nosie Sr. speaks to the crowd about their ongoing religious struggle at the Apache holy site.
Gabriel Pietrorazio/KJZZ
Wendsler Nosie Sr. speaks to the crowd about their ongoing religious struggle at the Apache holy site.
Apache Stronghold welcomed their “settler siblings,” as they say, walk around their campfire in a circle twice to observe their traditional ways.
Gabriel Pietrorazio/KJZZ
Apache Stronghold welcomed their “settler siblings,” as they say, walk around their campfire in a circle twice to observe their traditional ways.
A group of Native and non-Native musicians and singers unite in the center of the circle to perform an Apache creation song after their gathering ended.
Gabriel Pietrorazio/KJZZ
A group of Native and non-Native musicians and singers unite in the center of the circle to perform an Apache creation song after their gathering ended.
Rev. Carol Rose, an ordained Mennonite minister from Tucson, stepped up to accept the responsibility of a hand woven basket containing tobacco from Nosie’s grandson after joining their cause.
Gabriel Pietrorazio/KJZZ
Rev. Carol Rose, an ordained Mennonite minister from Tucson, stepped up to accept the responsibility of a hand woven basket containing tobacco from Nosie’s grandson after joining their cause.
The Resolution Copper project overlooks the Oat Flat Campground inside Tonto National Forest.
Gabriel Pietrorazio/KJZZ
The Resolution Copper project overlooks the Oat Flat Campground inside Tonto National Forest.
This service road leads to the Resolution Copper mining site.
Gabriel Pietrorazio/KJZZ
This service road leads to the Resolution Copper mining site.