Wendsler Nosie, Sr., broke his arm when he was 9 years old, the kind of thing that happens to 9-year-olds. I didn't know it then, but the accident would help shape his life as a native cultural rights activist.
"My mom took me to the hospital and they couldn't fix it," Nosie said, pointing to a place near her shoulder. "They would have to send me to Phoenix for surgery."
But before making the 110-mile trip from his home in Peridot in the San Carlos Apache Reserve to Phoenix, Nosie's mother, Elvera, wanted a second opinion.
"As soon as we left the hospital, we drove a bumpy road across the river to a healer," he said.
Nosie was taken to a sacred place, where the healer prayed. "He talked to my mother for a long time." Elvera then sat the boy and explained what would happen, a scene that Nosie still remembers.
"He said the ga & # 39; an (a spirit of the Apache mountain) was going to hit you, and then you would be fine," Elvera told her son. "He told me to take a light with you."
"The next day, someone came and slapped me on the back," Nosie said. “I screamed, turned around and thought that my sister's little daughter had hit me. But there was no one there ".
A few days later, the Nosies drove to Phoenix for surgery. “The doctors took x-rays and said:‘ Who fixed his arm? Everything is in its place. We don't have to do surgery, "Nosie said.
More than 50 years later, Nosie's experiences, both secular and spiritual, have taken him to his current residence: an RV at Oak Flat Campground in the Tonto National Forest.
Known by the Apaches as Chich’il Biłdagoteel, Oak Flat, about 65 miles east of Phoenix, and its surrounding lands sit on one of the largest remaining copper deposits on the planet.
Resolution Copper, a mining company owned by British-Australian firms Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton, wants to extract that copper using a technique known as block cave mining. The construction of tunnels under the vein causes the ore to collapse into funnels and pre-excavated access tunnels, which miners use to extract the ore. The Geo Engineer mine information site says that the costs of block cave mining can be up to 90 percent less than conventional methods.
But the process would destroy Oak Flat, and opponents fear the mine may also collapse near US Highway 60. UU. And Apache Leap. The mine would also require a tailings facility to store toxic leftovers, most likely in a wash that is part of the Gila river basin. That particular installation would require a dam of almost 600 feet, or 60 stories high.
Opponents say that if the dam that holds the tailings explodes, heavy metals and other toxic substances could reach the Gila. They also fear that the use of mine water may affect water supplies, not only for the Apaches and other tribal peoples, but also for hundreds of thousands of people in the San Tan Valley, the Globe-Miami area and others. parts of central Arizona.
Nosie, the former president of the Apache tribe of San Carlos, along with his family, other tribal members and allies, now offer prayers to stop what they say would be the desecration of Oak Flat, a sacred place for many Apache people, as well as an important area for collecting food and medicinal plants.
& # 39; This is who you are in the community & # 39;
Nosie, 60, was born and raised in the San Carlos reserve, Elvera's youngest son, a housewife, and Paul Sr., a miner who worked at the Seneca asbestos mine, near the head of the Canyon from the Salt River.
The 1.8 million acre region of desert, mountains, Ponderosa pine forest and the Gila River is not the ancestral land of the family. Nosie's paternal ancestors, the bedonkohe band of Chiricahua Apache, were expelled from their homeland in southeastern Arizona, including Mount Graham, in the San Carlos reserve.
The ancestors of Elvera, the Tonto Apache and Yavapai peoples, come from a mountainous region of central Arizona that includes Oak Flat, the Pinto Valley and the top of the world. The springs, the emery oak stands and other plants kept them for centuries.
Nosie said he realized at the beginning that a higher power had more reserved for him than following his father to the mine.
"When I was much younger, maybe 3, 4 or 5 years old, I went to the Holy Land with my grandmother April," Nosie said. On a trip, a healer instructed Nosie dance with the Apache cross, which symbolizes the four directions. “He said that when you dance with the cross it meant that you were a role model, that people would see you and know that you are like that in the community. I remember that my mother was very happy and crying. "
In fact, Nosie inherited at least part of her impulse to protect, preserve and create prosperity for her people from her mother.
Elvera traveled to Washington, D.C. in the early 1960s to advocate for decent homes in the reserve. Congress took note and created a housing program for the Apache tribe of San Carlos. An article from the Republic of Arizona of 1964 details how happy the family of nine were to finally have a home with running water, electricity and internal pipes.
In 2007, Nosie told the Navajo Times that, before another audience in Washington to discuss housing shortages in the reserve, he consulted with Elvera about what to tell officials. She continued to be a stone of familiar and cultural touch until she died in 2016.
Elvera's willpower sustained the family when Nosie's father died of leukemia in 1966. Nosie was 7 years old. Elvera lived up to the challenge and got a job as a community health representative to support her five youngest children.
Another ceremony, in its first 20 years, further marked Nosie's future path.
Every year, he said, the Apache healers gathered to pray and receive blessings during the year. Nosie took her usual place with the cross. But this time, Nosie said, they removed the cross and invited him to the line of healers.
"I thought I did something wrong," Nosie said. Instead, he was ordered to align with the healers for the annual blessing. "I came back with my mother, who had a big smile on her face."
Nosie began to realize that she was born with a gift from Usen, or Creator in Apache. He said he has followed that gift all his life.
Nosie enters politics with the hope of bringing change
Nosie went to Phoenix, and then to California, for college, with a major in banking. But he returned to San Carlos and became director of the tribal work experience program. In 1988, Nosie, 29, was elected for the first of three periods as a tribal councilor. He also served a term as tribal president.
During his first term on the council, Nosie met Theresa Beard, a Navajo. The couple married in 1992 and have six children and 15 grandchildren.
Nosie hoped to build a strong tribal community during his time in office. He advocated for better housing and security services. Nosie also supported the development of the workforce through a private organization he founded.
Nosie continued her cultural work, supporting tribal efforts to block the use of reclaimed wastewater to create artificial snow in the San Francisco Peaks, a struggle that ultimately failed.
One of Nosie's highlights came when he argued against what the Apaches describe as the desecration of one of their most sacred places.
Mount Graham arrest and trial
Mount Graham, known by the Apache people as Dził Nchaa Yes & # 39; an or "Big Seated Mountain", plays a central role in the Apache religion and identity. The 10,700-foot peak has been the site of the Dawn Dance, a rite of initiation for Apache girls, and burials and prayers for centuries. The Apaches still climb their slopes to pray, perform ceremonies and collect medicinal plants.
As of 1981, the University of Arizona, the Max Planck Institute and the Vatican joined together to build several telescopes at the summit of Mount Graham, despite tribal objections and the presence of a squirrel in danger of extinction.
Environmentalists protested hotly, and some militant groups planned to "destroy" the project with acts of chaos.
Throughout more than a decade of protests, Nosie maintained her focus on nonviolent media to boost public opinion against the observatory, which according to the Apache elders would desecrate the mountain areas considered sacred.
On August 30, 1997, Nosie traveled to Mount Graham to pray and prepare for a sunrise dance. Fearing an injury from an approaching storm, he took the fastest path downhill, the construction road of the UA. A forest service ranger saw him and called the university police officers. Nosie was arrested and charged with a misdemeanor for intrusion.
Nosie felt that she should not have to pay the $ 100 fine or obtain a permit to pray on the sacred mountain of her tribe, as required by the Forest Service at that time, and decided to fight.
Attorney Jeff Bouma and two other lawyers defended Nosie from the charge of intrusion. "I will never forget the night before the hearing," held in Safford, Bouma said. "I had flown from outside the city and they beat me, but we still had to meet with Wendsler and the witnesses that night."
Nosie had a different plan.
"They said:" First we have to do a ceremony; we have to prepare for battle, "Bouma said. But he was surprised to discover that the prayers left him full of energy and completely awake.
Thus fortified, the lawyers and Nosie prepared for the trial, armed with jurisprudence, a report prepared by the former dean of the Faculty of Law of the Arizona State University, Paul Bender, and accompanied by a statement recorded on video by an anthropologist from Yale.
Witnesses during the one-day trial included an Apache healer as an expert in religion. Bouma believes that Nosie's older brother, Paul Jr., translated for the healer. Defense attorney William Foreman argued Nosie's case, which Bouma said included an exciting closing argument.
Bouma said the trial was probably the longest and largest trial for a misdemeanor offense ever conducted in the county. He finally moved to the Graham County supervisors meeting room due to the large crowd of spectators, including the ACLU, tribal members and the media.
The trial was largely covered by European media, which Bouma said they saw the case as an example of the Catholic Church using its power to force Native Americans not to practice their traditional religions.
A week later, Nosie was acquitted.
Nosie abandons politics, resorts to spiritual activities
On November 30, Nosie and two of her teenage grandchildren completed a two-day run west on US Highway 60 from San Carlos to Oak Flat Campground.
A small crowd gathered to greet the runners on the icy day. The snow covered the Kings Crown Peak and hid in the shade of the thickets of grease and the emery oaks. Nearby, a disabled Greyhound bus perched on the side of the road, its passengers curled up and tried without much success to keep warm in the narrow strip between the bus and the high desert bushes. They looked carefully at the mixture of natives, environmentalists and local residents.
The welcome was briefly interrupted by a white van with the logo of the international security firm G4S, the private security contractor of Resolution Copper. A cool-faced guard leaned out from his windshield as he passed.
Three years before, Nosie had finished her political career of more than 15 years to embrace a spiritual path to cultural, social and environmental justice. After his resignation in 2016 from the tribal council, he entered what he called "ceremonial mode", preparing himself spiritually to face a multinational mining company and its allies with prayer and ceremony.
Nosie strengthened her ties with religious leaders throughout the country, including Christian ministers, Jewish rabbis and Muslim imams, who could help her advocate for justice for all people.
"We see Wendsler as an elder among us in the movement with very clear eyes and a clear head on what is at stake for both his people and the country," said the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, co-chair of The Campaign of the Poor "I count him as a brother in spirituality and honor him as a family man."
In a letter to the Forest Service announcing his intention to remain permanently in Oak Flat, Nosie said he was prepared to die to preserve the region and stop the mine.
Nosie said he "returned home" to Oak Flat to stand up and embark on his greatest battle: avoid building the mine that would destroy Oak Flat.
"I don't know what will happen," he said, sitting around a scorching fire the day after arriving at the camp. "Oak Flat could reject me, the wind could rise and tear down what we put here."
Or, he said, the federal government could finally evict him, other Apaches and his allies who camped in the camp for five years.
"I thought of Geronimo and how he was told that the only way to protect him was to exile him out of state," Nosie said. "They could decide to protect me by exiling me from here and back to the reserve."
In a statement emailed to The Arizona Republic, officials from the Tonto National Forest said: "In the spirit of government-to-government consultation, the Forest Service allows tribal members to remain in Oak Flat while tribal members decide to do so. ".
He told The Republic that G4S security vehicles pass through his camp daily. During a visit, Nosie and his supporters pointed out what they said was a Resolution Copper helicopter, which flew over the meeting.
In addition to the prayers, Nosie takes more mundane safety precautions. He brought the RV to Oak Flat in addition to a tent and a teepee donated by a friend. He also wears a bulletproof vest when he walks or drives around the area. He said those steps will help reduce the danger of being assaulted.
The quest to preserve Oak Flat and the surrounding region of cultural and environmental devastation is affecting his family.
His daughter Vanessa, who works closely with her father on cultural and environmental issues, said: "We understand if you can't be there for birthdays or to have coffee at home."
"My children have really intervened because I am doing this for everyone," Nosie said. "I miss being there all the time." At that, Vanessa, who has been sitting nearby, cries.
Nosie's activism and willingness to put her health, her family life and even her life at stake to provoke a non-violent resistance to the mine and its possible environmental consequences have been noticed and appreciated by many.
"Wendsler is one of the most dedicated and brave people I've had the privilege of meeting," said Robin Silver, co-founder and board member of the Center for Biological Diversity, who has known Nosie since the fight at the Mount Graham telescope. "He is completely committed to his people and his Creator."
Bouma said he had the honor of defending Nosie, especially when he described how the San Carlos Apaches and Chiricahua Apaches have been treated in recent decades. "Wendsler is a very impressive man," he said.
"The University of Arizona tried to scare him by arresting him at Mount Graham when he came back from praying and preparing for his daughter's sunrise dance ceremony," Silver said. "They failed. Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton will also fail at Oak Flat."
Barber perceives Nosie in a more important role: "I see him in the same tradition of Gandhi, the King, César Chávez, whose love was so tremendous and powerful that they could not keep silent about the problems of injustice."
Contact the reporter at [email protected] or 602-444-8490. Follow her on Twitter at @debkrol.
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