Native American Tribes Block Copper Mining Company From Destroying Ancestral Lands

For too long, our justice system has sided with the government and corporations at the expense of the rights of indigenous peoples like Native Americans. But a ruling by a judge against a mining company in Arizona may be setting a new precedent.

For thousands of years, the Tohono O’odham Nation, Pascua Yaqui Tribe, Hopi Tribe and several others have buried their ancestors at the Santa Rita Mountains and use the surrounding areas to keep themselves connected to the natural world that they revere.

So, it’s understandable that when Hudbay Minerals sought to dig a massive copper mine at the location and dump thousands of tons of toxic waste in the water and on the surrounding public lands the tribes were horrified.

“Our relationship to the land is first and foremost,” Tohono O’odham Nation San Xavier District chairman Austin G. Nuñez said in a statement. “When our Hohokam ancestors’ laid their loved ones in their final resting place, they never envisioned having them disturbed. We make every effort to not disturb them. We still feel their spirits today.”

It’s not the first time a mining company has tried to rape these lands in the pursuit of riches. A company actually went bankrupt trying to excavate a mine under the remains of ancient tribe members. Mining companies are also seeking to exploit the Grand Canyon area and other National Parks and public lands for their own greed even though these lands belong to the people, not corporations. The industry also wanted to build a mine just outside of Yellowstone National Park, only to be shot down by a judge because the operation threatened to poison waterways much like Hudbay would do in the Santa Rita Mountains. Poisoning the waterways here would deal a devastating blow to the fragile eco-system.

That’s why the tribes sought help from Earthjustice attorney Stu Gillespie.

“One of the most fulfilling parts of this case was sharing food with the Tohono O’odham leaders, [and] understanding their cultural ways of life and how important the sacred springs are,” Gillespie said. “We wouldn’t want someone building a mine in Arlington Cemetery.”

Indeed, if a mining company built a mine in Arlington, Americans across the country would lose their minds, and rightfully so. That’s exactly how these tribes feel about Hudbay trying to build a mine on their sacred burial grounds.

Gillespie sought a preliminary injunction to halt the project, only for the judge to go even further by ruling that Hudbay had no legal rights to claim the land under an old outdated law known as the Mining Law of 1872.

“He laid out an unbroken line of Supreme Court decisions, saying, ‘No, you don’t have rights under the Mining Law to pollute this land under billions of tons of waste rock, without evidence of valuable minerals,'” Gillespie explained. “The federal government and Hudbay tried to put up as many arguments as possible, but it was all smoke and mirrors. The judge cut through that really clearly. It’s a powerful decision that stands for the proposition that nobody should get a free pass to wreak havoc on our public lands.”

Of course, the mining company will likely appeal and a higher court could overturn the ruling, delivering yet more injustice to Native Americans and disrespecting their history and connection to the Earth.

But the tribe hopes a new precedent has been set instead.

“The judge’s ruling shows that there is hope in the system,” Chairman Nuñez noted. “There are good people who believe in the sovereignty of Native nations and their fundamental, inherent right to land and water. It has reinforced our vow to protect and enhance the lands we do have. We prayed that that mine would never be built. So it felt like our prayers had been answered.”

Hopefully, the Santa Rita Mountains and surrounding lands will be protected forever from exploitation from the fossil fuel industry. It’s time for this country to show more respect to Native Americans and their culture.

Featured Image: Wikimedia

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Stephen D. Foster Jr.

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