Oak Flat Unity Summit shows strength of the Save Oak Flat coalition

Saving Oak Flat is an important environmental issue. But it’s also an important religious freedom issue.

by | Dec 15, 2022

Members of Congress joined high school students from Arizona and advocates from across the country to call for the protection of sacred land at an Oak Flat Unity Summit in Washington, D.C.

On Nov. 15, the students came together with Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Arizona, Rep. Sharice Davids, D-Kansas, and Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minnesota. Each lawmaker gave remarks about the importance of the Save Oak Flat Act (H.R. 1184/S. 915) and answered questions from the students.

In addition to participating in the summit, the students had dozens of lobby visits with members of Congress and officials at the U.S. Department of Agriculture during the week.

Since 2021, the students have participated in Oak Flat prayer runs held annually in February. Several students focused their remarks at the unity summit on these annual prayer runs. Not only do they pray while running, but running itself is an act of prayer as their feet massage the earth with each step.

Kiana Beazley, a junior who is White Mountain Apache, described the importance of the sunrise ceremony in Apache life, noting that one purpose of the 4-day-long female coming-of-age ceremony is “to allow the girl to fall back on her sunrise dance” and know she can overcome difficulties that may come in the future.

In describing her own ceremony, she said, “I felt the presence of my ancestors and the ultimate support of my community coming and praying for me to overcome any obstacle that stands in my way and to have a bright future and fight for what I know is right.”

Turning to Oak Flat, Beazley said she is fighting to protect Oak Flat because “Oak Flat [is] sacred and holy land to the Indigenous community who surrounds Oak Flat.”

Camilla Simon, executive director of Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO), was one of several partners to address the summit. “We’re uniting our members all to come around and support this and use their power as local elected officials and community leaders to speak out against this,” she said. “HECHO is out there with you all. We’re here in solidarity with you all.”

BJC has been working for two years with many participants in the Unity Summit to bring the religious and religious freedom community together to support the continued protection of Chí’chil Biłdagoteel, which is loosely translated as “Oak Flat” in English. We have two primary goals: increase awareness among individuals who care about religious freedom for all people and recruit religious and religious freedom organizations to join the fight. I’m excited to report that we are gaining traction towards both goals.

Unlike most issues that stand alone, religious freedom advocacy is typically an intersecting issue. Saving Oak Flat absolutely is an important environmental issue. But it’s also an important religious freedom issue. Holy ground not marked with a steeple is no less deserving of protection than a big steepled church that is the heart of a downtown.

On Earth Day this year, BJC created a list of 18 things anyone could do to get involved in the effort. Why 18? We wanted to hammer home the 1.8 mile-wide crater that will be created if mining commences at Oak Flat. We asked people to consider how big a hole with a 1.8 mile diameter really is: it’s the size of the National Mall in D.C. or the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.

In addition to connecting individuals who care about religious freedom, BJC knew that we needed to recruit organizational support from the religious and religious freedom community to save Oak Flat. So far, we’ve recruited a total of 120 organizations to sign advocacy letters and encourage their members to join the effort. Half of these groups are national while another 10 are Arizona statewide religious groups.

BJC is grateful for the positive response we have seen across the theological spectrum, including from The Episcopal Church, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Committee for Religious Liberty, the Sisters of Mercy, the Christian Legal Society, the National Council of Churches, the Union for Reform Judaism, National Council of Jewish Women, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, Hindu American Foundation, Progressive National Baptist Convention, Interfaith Power and Light and so many others. The coalition we have built is strong, diverse and proud to support the San Carlos Apache Tribe in their efforts to save Oak Flat.

BJC will continue recruiting organizational support within the religious and religious freedom communities and leveraging that support in the halls of Congress. In November, BJC sent a petition to Congress signed by more than 1,200 advocates from across the country demanding swift passage of the Save Oak Flat Act. The petition continues to gather signers and will be re-released as often as needed to get Congress to take action.

Together, we’ve made it clear that saving Oak Flat is a priority for protecting religious freedom in the United States today.

Too often our Indigenous neighbors have been expected to sacrifice their religious practices on the altar of capitalism. For far too long, we have ignored their calls to protect the Earth in order to feed our greed to extract as much as we can, as fast as we can. It’s time to change course and answer the call to save Oak Flat.

To learn more about BJC efforts and see how you can get involved, please visit BJConline.org/SaveOakFlat.

The Rev. Jennifer Hawks is associate general counsel of BJC.

This column first appeared in the winter 2022 edition of Report from the Capital. You can download it as a PDF or read a digital flip-through edition.