When Apache Stronghold went to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals March 21st to have their case for Oak Flat heard, they were not alone. Over 20 members of the Coalition to Dismantle the Doctrine of Discovery joined many other community activists who came in person to support Apache Stronghold, both for their hearing and the days that preceded it. Oak Flat (Chi’chil Biłdagoteel) was signed over to mining company Resolution Copper through a midnight rider attached to the National Defense Authorization Act in December 2014. Apache Stronghold, a non-profit group of San Carlos Apaches and their allies, sued the United States government under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. They lost their 9th Circuit Court of Appeals case in a 2-1 decision that came out last year. However, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decided the case should be reheard – this time, in front of eleven justices instead of three. The court’s decision, which is yet to be announced, could set a precedent for sacred site cases to come.
Carol Rose, pastor of Shalom Mennonite Fellowship in Tucson, AZ, was invited to join Apache Stronghold on their convoy to Pasadena. She accompanied Apache Stronghold as they began their journey in Tucson on March 12, meeting with Quechan Nation tribal members, the La Jolla Indian community and other community activists along the way to the 9th Circuit Court. The convoy included San Carlos Apache, people of other Indigenous nations, settlers, elders, adults and children. They began each morning and ended each day in prayer.
Shalom Mennonite Fellowship, Trinity Mennonite Church, and Pasadena Mennonite Church were congregations who provided hospitality to Apache Stronghold on their spiritual convoy to Pasadena, CA.
On March 18th, members of the Coalition gathered at the house of Lisa and Rob Muthiath of Pasadena Mennonite Church for prayer and preparation. In the morning, people worshiped at Pasadena Mennonite Church and also joined Apache Stronghold for a prayer event at Hahamongna, a Tongva site. Representatives of other Indigenous nations offered gifts, prayers and support to Apache Stronghold. Then, on March 20th, Coalition members joined Apache Stronghold to build art and create signs in support of Oak Flat before sharing a meal together.
On March 21st, Coalition representatives showed up at Defenders Park near the courthouse to gather in prayer. Stanley Green, Pacific Southwest Mennonite Conference Minister, and Sue Park-Hur, Director for Racial/Ethnic Engagement for Mennonite Church USA, were among the participants. Some representatives entered the court to hear the case from indoors, while others stayed outdoors to continue in prayerful witness. After the hearing, there was a press conference and a final gathering for prayer and send-off in Defenders Park.
Jim Lichti was one Coalition representative who went inside for the court case.
“Sitting inside the courtroom on Tuesday morning, very softly, one could hear the beating of the drums outside from time to time. That was very moving…how prayer penetrates through thick walls and closed windows,” Jim said.
As Apache Stronghold’s legal counsel argued for the protection of their religious freedom in court, many Mennonites stood behind them because of a shared belief in the importance of a separation between church and state, and a recognition of the ways Christians have oppressed Indigenous people.
The Doctrine of Discovery is a legal doctrine that came out of 15th century papal bulls, which the Vatican recently renounced for dehumanizing Indigenous people. These papal bulls and other legal doctrines form a paradigm justifying colonization that has been used in United States Supreme Court cases to deny Indigenous people their land and culture.
In a video posted on Facebook, Coalition member Tim Nafziger notes the importance of Apache Stronghold’s religious freedom case to Anabaptists. Anabaptists’ ancestors were killed for their religious beliefs, which included a belief in the separation of church and state. The government should not interfere with spiritual practice, and a Christian doctrine like the Doctrine of Discovery should not stand in court.
Apache Stronghold’s court case affects all people because we are all connected to the land and to the spirit.
“In this court case, Apache Stronghold is fighting not only for Oak Flat, but also for us all, and for the earth. If we humans are to turn from destruction and back to God and the land, if the climate is to be healed, we must learn to follow indigenous leadership. They have not forgotten how earth and God are connected,” Carol Rose said.
Tim Nafziger said the way Apache Stronghold welcomes everyone into this movement is similar to the way Jesus welcomes people in the Bible. Katerina Gea, Coalition Organizer, also saw Christ in the Apache’s deep connection with the land and prayer.
This deep connection struck Jim Lichti as well.“They are bringing a new sense of prayer to me: a kind of “prayer without ceasing,” that flows through the earth, each one of us if we let it. It comes across in talking about what life means to us, what we mean to each other, and how we are all connected,” Jim Lichti said.
When asked if there was a moment throughout the case that brought them hope, multiple representatives of the Coalition mentioned the welcome Apache Stronghold provided them, and the opportunity to offer hospitality, prayer, and logistical support to Apache Stronghold.
While we wait to hear the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decision, we can continue to offer our prayers. We can call our congressional representatives to ask that they support the Save Oak Flat Act. Congress has the power to stop the land transfer, and we can organize our communities to support this bill recently reintroduced in the House and Senate. We can write letters to the editors of our local newspapers about the importance of religious freedom and protecting Indigenous spirituality. We do this because we are connected to Apache Stronghold. What happens to their land and their spiritual practice impacts us all, and as we build relationships with our Indigenous neighbors, we recognize our interrelatedness. By the end of Apache Stronghold’s convoy, Carol Rose said the children were calling her “Gramma Carol.” It is these kinds of relationships that remind us that we are connected to each other, and must share in each other’s struggles for freedom and justice.
– Michaela Esau, Communications Coordinator and Indigenous Solidarity Organizer