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Native Americans Hope to Protect Ancestral Sites

Credit: Nicole Neri, Cronkite News

By Daisy Finch for Cronkite News

LeRoy Shingoitewa dug his hiking boots into loose gravel and sand, watching the early November morning sunlight slowly spread across shrubby hills and rocky valleys near the proposed site of an enormous copper mine.

Resolution Copper plans to develop the mine east of Superior and predicts the mine will meet about a quarter of the nation’s demand for copper once it is in full production. The company says the mine, which may cost as much as $8B, is the “largest single investment in Arizona history.”

It has been passionately opposed by some Native Americans who say it will destroy a sacred site near Oak Flat Campground in the Tonto National Forest about 70 miles east of Phoenix.

The Resolution Copper-Oak Flat controversy is not lost on Shingoitewa, even though he’s a field director for a team of Native American “tribal monitors” chosen for a program funded by Resolution Copper and designed with help from the U.S. Forest Service.

The monitors are charged with documenting culturally significant Native American sites that could be affected by the mine, which is expected to cover 11 square miles. They hope their work will help save at least some of what’s at stake – the ancestral lands and cultural resources that are part of who they are.

Shingoitewa began working as a tribal monitor when the program started in January. Members of this “TCP crew” – Traditional Cultural Property crew – visit sites archaeologists already have marked via coordinates. They detail cultural, spiritual and historical significance on a form that enables them to present significant sites that could be eligible for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places, under the National Historic Preservation Act.

But the Preservation Act doesn’t guarantee a site valued by Native Americans will be protected “from disturbance and damage,” according to National Register Bulletin 38, “Guidelines for Evaluating and Documenting Traditional Cultural Properties.”

The bulletin states that “if in the final analysis the public interest demands that the property be sacrificed to the needs of the project, there is nothing in the National Historic Preservation Act that prohibits this.”

The Cultural Significance

From sunrise to noon on one November day, the men and women on the monitoring crew visited two areas, finding pieces of prehistoric mortars, grinding stones, chipstones that might have been used for toolmaking and the flat stones of prehistoric archaeology. They also spotted wild plants Native Americans may have used for basket making, food and medicine.

To Shingoitewa, the land is spiritually, historically and culturally significant.

He said he didn’t want to see this landscape disturbed by mining activities. But he understood his limitations as a tribal monitor. He can’t decide where mining activities might take place. He can only point out Native American sites and hope mining officials decide to protect them.

The Copper Mine

Oak Flat land was federally protected from development until it became part of a land exchange signed by President Barack Obama in 2014. Under the exchange, the federal government agreed to swap 2,422 acres of public land – including Oak Flat in the Tonto National Forest – to acquire 5,344 acres owned by the mining company.

It’s unclear when the copper mine would become fully operational. Resolution Copper is still in the permitting process, including getting approval by the federal government under the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act, according to the company’s website.

The Tonto National Forest land the tribal monitors are surveying includes the proposed mine site and areas where tailings, pipelines and mine-related facilities could placed, said Victoria Peacey, senior manager of permitting and approvals for Resolution Copper.

The U.S. Forest Service now is working on an Environmental Impact Statement necessary to move forward with permits for the mine. Information gathered by tribal monitors will be included in that report.

The Uncertainty

Shingoitewa and other monitors hope that by recording their findings, the sites and artifacts will be left alone.

“When we find things, we put them back to where it was at,” he said. “It was left for a reason, so we don’t mess with a lot of this stuff. We respect what’s here, who was here.

And if the mine goes forward as expected, then “at least maybe we can influence part of the decision” and protect some ancestral sites, he said.

Read more at Cronkite News.

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