On Friday, the Senate passed a $585 billion defense spending bill that will have an immensely negative impact on Native American tribes. The transfer of sacred Arizona land to Australian-English mining company Rio Tinto will act as a devastation to the southwest Apache tribes in particular.
The National Defense Authorization Act went through with a vote of 89 to 11. The highly controversial Rio Tinto land rider, known as the Southeast Arizona Land Exchange, failed twice in the House of Representatives prior to Friday’s session.
Two thousand four hundred acres of the Tonto National Forest will be granted to the Rio Tinto Group. This land is a place of incredible importance to Natives as it covers ceremonial and burial grounds. Digging it up for mining purposes is equivalent to ransacking a National cemetery. In addition, Apache Indians turn to this land as a crucial source of food and medicine.
Terry Rambler, chairman of San Carlos Apache Tribe, says, “That’s part of our ancestral homeland. We’ve had dancers in that area forever–sunrise dancers–and coming-of-age ceremonies for our young girls that become women. They’ll seal that off. They’ll seal us off from the acorn grounds, and the medicinal plants in the area, and our prayer areas.”
The implementation of this rider into the NDAA is largely thanks to Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona. McCain, along with fellow Republican Arizona Senator Jeff Flake, sees the mining project as a source of job opportunity.
Flake says, “It’s never good to see big packages with so many things in them–that’s what we want to get away from. But it’s been very difficult to move individual pieces of legislation over the past few years.”
Republican Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma attempted to remove the land package from the larger bill, but ultimately failed with only 18 supporting votes.
This rider was never discussed publicly. In fact, it was added to the NDAA in a secret negotiation between the House and Senate Armed Services Committee. The deal was revealed just last week when the House began work on passing the bill.
Rio Tinto’s subsidiary Resolution Copper will officially take hold of the land next year. The company talks about working in the best interests of Native Americans, “Resolution Copper plans to work to expand existing partnerships and create new ones with neighboring communities and Native American tribes. The company will endeavor to hire locally and regionally whenever possible.”
Unfortunately, no claim of allegiance will alleviate the blow of destroying acres of spiritual significance. This act exists as yet another preposterous demonstration of the government’s inherent disrespect for Native roots and rights.