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This week’s ‘March to Oak Flat’ by Apache Stronghold is still trekking along, a decade later

Coverage of tribal natural resources is supported in part by Catena Foundation

This week marks the 10th annual "March to Oak Flat" — a site within the Tonto National Forest that’s sacred to Apaches. The 48-mile, multi-day spiritual journey is organized by the nonprofit Apache Stronghold, as tribal communities continue to oppose a massive copper mining project proposed on that public land.

The march begins on Thursday in Peridot at the Old San Carlos Memorial on the San Carlos Apache Reservation. Less than 30 miles east of Globe, it’s located on a bluff overlooking San Carlos Lake.

This scenic overview on that nearly 3,000-square mile reservation has a dark past. A mass grave lies deep below its waters due to flooding from the Coolidge Dam during the 20th century.

The remains of at least 200 Apaches still reside underwater.

That’s partly why former San Carlos Apache tribal chairman Wendsler Nosie Sr. helped construct a memorial at this historic spot in 2009.

Now, as founder of the Apache Stronghold nonprofit, Nosie has returned there each February for the last decade to start his annual ‘March to Oak Flat.’

It’s also where a forced occupation once occurred — nicknamed “Hell’s 40 Acres” — that led to the creation of the modern-day San Carlos Apache Reservation, now spanning some 1.8 million acres in three counties.

For those reasons, Nosie says he’s always sought to never forget their past. This trip, sprinkled with stops along the way for prayer and ceremony, is also a way to share that troubling history with those who accompany him.

“This place became the centerpiece to begin to migrate home,” said Nosie. “We leave out of there, every year, on sacred journeys back to our sacred places. That’s what this place holds.”

During that long trek, on foot, they’ll travel through ancient “corridors,” or “structures that were given to all of us in the beginning of time,” meant to impart knowledge about “the environment and all life that sits above the earth,” as Nosie explained it.

From Mount Graham to Oak Flat, where a 2-mile-wide crater could be carved out for the Resolution Copper mine by the world’s two largest foreign-owned mining companies: Rio Tinto and BHP.

Extracting copper deposits more than a mile beneath these lands, which are claimed to be sacred by Apaches like Nosie, can sever that relationship with the mountain spirits, also known as the Gaan.

They’re likened to angels among Apaches.

This special place, deep within the Tonto National Forest, has been a popular destination for Indigenous peoples, particularly Apaches, not only to pray, but for them to practice their tribal faith in peace.

A years-long legal battle pitting tribal and environmental advocates against the mining project made it to the Ninth Circuit Court again last year.

Their case has been reheard after a prior decision against them, so a new ruling is expected soon. But Nosie says that verdict won’t sway them moving forward.

“We cannot afford to ever stop this, because it gives protection to the future of Mother Earth,” said Nosie. “There’s corporations out there that are ready to destroy the environment for profit.”

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Gabriel Pietrorazio is a correspondent who reports on tribal natural resources for KJZZ.