Resource Colonialism: Land-Grabbing and Pollution in Indigenous Nations Located Within Arizona

Arizona is home to over 21 tribes, though it is important to note that there are many Indigenous communities who are still not legally recognized by the United States, so it is possible that there are more than 21 tribes in Arizona. Among them are the Ak-Chin Indian Community, Cocopah Indian Tribe, Colorado River Indian Tribes, Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation, Fort Mojave Indian Tribe, Fort Yuma Quechan Tribe, Gila River Indian Community, Havasupai Tribe, Hopi Tribe, Hualapai Tribe, Kaibab Band of Paiute Indians, Navajo Nation, Pascua Yaqui Tribe, Pueblo of Zuni, Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, San Carlos Apache Tribe, San Juan Southern Paiute Tribe, Tohono O’odham Nation, Tonto Apache Tribe, White Mountain Apache Tribe, Yavapai-Apache Tribe, and Yavapai-Prescott Indian Tribe. Together, they control more than a quarter of Arizona’s resource-rich lands, including those with highly polluting energy sources. 

These communities have existed for tens of thousands of years, predating the creation of Arizona’s and the United States’ borders. Early European colonizers violently spread disease and Western religions, devastating hundreds of thousands of Indigenous peoples during the colonization of the continent. Following this, additional policies arbitrarily drew borders, traded Indigenous lands, banned traditional practices, and forced young Natives into boarding schools, fueling the displacement and ongoing genocide against Indigenous peoples. Today, Indigenous nations still persist in Arizona, but their territories have shifted and shrunk drastically. In the quest for the expansion of extractive industries like coal, natural gas, uranium, and crude oil, Indigenous communities have seen their homes unwillingly become sites for these energy resources while they are left to suffer the public health consequences. 

In Victims of Progress, John Bodley dissects how social engineering, economic development, global warming, and ecocide affects Indigenous nations. At the core of these issues lies resource colonialism, the “prior ownership rights and interests of aboriginal inhabitants [being] totally ignored as irrelevant by both the state and the invading individuals,” a concept Indigenous communities in Arizona are all too familiar with. All of Arizona’s commercial coal reserves are divided between Navajo and Hopi lands in the Black Mesa coal field and the former Kayenta mine. The Navajo Nation´s Dineh-bi-Keyah (also called The People’s Field) has produced nearly 20 million barrels of crude oil since the 1960s, making it responsible for almost all of Arizona’s crude oil production.

The Cost of Environmental Racism in Indigenous Communities

In nearby New Mexico, the robust oil and gas industry has similarly affected Indigenous folks. A large methane cloud now hangs over the Four Corners region (where Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico meet), suffocating local communities with the smell of burnt rubber and rotten eggs, inducing or exacerbating sore throats, headaches, nausea, asthma, and more lethal conditions. Carol Davis, the Director of Diné Citizens Against Ruining our Environment (CARE), told Scientific American, “I’ve been in those areas where some of the flaring and oil and gas sites are, and it smells bad. It smells like rotten eggs.”

More than 500 uranium mines have opened in Navajo Nation, which produced nearly 4 million tons of uranium between 1944 and 1986, and polluted nearby sources of drinking water. Helen Nez, a member of Navajo Nation, lost seven of her ten children to a disorder called ¨Navajo Neuropathy” — linked to high uranium levels in drinking water — which causes poor weight gain, short stature, corneal ulcers, damaged nerves, and systemic infection. 

During her pregnancies, Nez drank from a spring containing uranium levels five times higher than normal, leading to the death of four of her toddlers and significant health complications for an additional three. Unfortunately, her story is not unique; dozens of deaths have been tied to these dangerously high uranium levels. Despite the deadly consequences, the EPA has still failed to clean up more than a handful of abandoned mines with the $1.7 billion they reached in settlements with mining companies. In an interview with NPR, Chris Shuey, Director of Uranium Impact Assessment at the Southwest Research and Information Center, explains the reasoning for this, stating:“The law places more importance on the relationship between EPA and the companies that caused the problem than it creates a right of sitting at the table of the local affected community. And so on Navajo, that is institutional racism.” 

Resource Colonialism is a Bipartisan Affair

Many point to Arizona’s Republican trifecta as the driving force behind these environmental and public health disasters, but the reality is that resource colonialism is a bipartisan affair. According to a poll conducted by NPR, 39% of Native Americans are more concerned with the discrimination perpetuated by laws and government policies rather than individual prejudices, signaling how continual institutional violence has stoked justified skepticism and distrust within their communities. Political parties and opponents often engage in public squabbles to prove themself as the more inclusive, moral, and righteous party when more often than not, they are two sides of the same oppressive coin

Democrats are typically painted as the party of progress, but a Democrat-controlled Senate and Democrat President Obama passed the Resolution Copper bill in 2014 as part of the National Defense Authorization Act. This exchanged 2,400 acres of federal lands to the Rio Tinto-owned company Resolution Copper despite resistance from the Indigenous communities whose sacred land — called Chi’chil Bidlagoteel or Oak Flat — would be destroyed in the process. 

If constructed, Resolution Copper´s mine would make up 25% of America’s copper supply, create 3,700 new jobs, and $61 billion in economic benefits — but at an enormous cost. In an environmental impact statement published by the U.S. Forest Service, researchers found that the mine would eventually collapse under its own weight and create a two mile wide sinkhole, destroying Chi’chil Bidlagoteel, which is part of the Apache’s ancestral lands. 

Chi’chil Bidlagoteel is at the center of Apache teachings about life and creation and acts as a bridge between them and the earth. Several Apache tribes — and other local Native communities, such as the Yavapai-Prescott Tribe, Gila River Indian Community, Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Tribe, the Hopi Tribe, and the Pueblo of Zuni — have used this land to pray, collect medicinal plants, hold ceremonies, and honor buried loved ones. For Apache women and girls, Chi´chil Bildagoteel holds additional importance as a site for sunrise ceremonies (called na´ii´ees); during this rite of passage their relationship with their family, tribe, and land strengthens and creates an eternal connection between her and the land where the ceremony occurs. After being banned from practicing sunrise ceremonies by the U.S. federal government for several decades, the loss of this spiritual site would be especially harsh. 

It is also a major source of cultural richness; Chi’chil Bidlagoteel contains hundreds of Indigenous archaeological sites associated with more than a dozen different communities that are over 1,000 years old. Resolution Copper created a plan to “protect cultural heritage.” This includes reducing the land exchange area requested by Resolution Copper from 3,325 acres to 2,422 acres, excluding Ga’an Canyon, Apache Leap, and portions of Oak Flat. The plan would place Apache Leap under permanent protection in a special management area, and provide ongoing access for Indigenous communities and tourists to Oak Flat Campground. However, these assurances mean little from a company that blew up the 46,000 year old Juukan Gorge Cave in Australia, a sacred site for the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura peoples. 

Regardless of these alterations, Resolution Copper’s mine would still consume an incredibly important heritage and spiritual site. Terry Rambler, chairman of the San Carlos Apache tribe, says it would ultimately “obliterate the primary physical location that is the heart of our spiritual, cultural and religious beliefs. There is no other location on Earth that can replicate the importance of Chí’chil Biłdagoteel to our people.” 

Indigenous Resistance to Resource Colonialism

Apache resistance to colonialism has existed for centuries. In 1852, Chief Mangas Coloradas signed the Treaty of Santa Fe with the U.S. federal government after they were violently displaced from their homes; this promised to create defined territorial boundaries and pass laws benefiting Apache folks. Unfortunately, this treaty, like many other contracts between Indigenous communities and the federal government, was never honored. Twenty years later, settlers came in search of precious metals and attacked Apache communities more than 30 times. Following this, the federal government once again displaced Apaches by coercing them onto the San Carlos reservation, another Native community, and abducting young children to be forced into boarding schools. In protest to these atrocities, a group of Apache folks fought to preserve their communities but were ultimately placed in prisons. Today, Indigenous communities continue to fight for their families, rights, and ancestral lands.

Dr. Wendler Nosie Sr., former Chairman and Councilman of the San Carlos Apache Tribe, explains that Chi’chil Bidlagoteel must be defended because “[The government] declared war on our religion, we must stand in unity and fight to the very end, for this is a holy war.” In an act of reclamation, Nosie has since camped out on Chi’chil Bidlagoteel, despite the constant presence of security vehicles. In a show of intergenerational strength, Indigenous students from Brophy College Preparatory

 from their homes to Chi’chil Bidlagoteel, wearing shirts with the messages “Protect Oak Flat” and “Defend the Sacred” emblazoned across them. Along their journey, the students took turns carrying a sacred staff used by Apache elders — not as a feat to their athleticism or skill, but as a testament to how important Chi’chil Bidlagoteel is to Apache tribes and other Indigenous communities. 

The Biden administration has temporarily halted the construction of Resolution Copper’s mine in response to Indigenous resistance. In a statement issued by the U.S. Forest Service, the federal government “concluded that additional time is necessary to understand concerns raised by the Tribes and the public and the project’s impact on these important resources.” Despite this small win, Michael Nixon, an attorney for Apache Stronghold, says “Oak Flat is still on death row […] The Forest Service is just changing the execution date,” in an interview with The Guardian.  It was under the Obama administration that the federal government facilitated the theft of Apache land and it is the responsibility of the Biden administration to not only halt Resolution Copper, but to repeal it and begin honoring the needs of Indigenous peoples by passing the Save Oak Flats Act.

Climate and Environmental Justice and Arizona’s Government

Thanks to Black and Indigenous folks, climate and environmental justice have slowly begun permeating the broader climate movement. Arizona, like several other states during the 2021 legislative session, is beginning to understand the role of equity, racial justice, and representation through the proposal of SB1470, An Act Establishing The Arizona Climate Resiliency Planning Group. 

If passed, SB1470 would re-establish former Governor Janet Napolitano’s climate resiliency planning group but with an increased focus on people of color. The planning group would require representation for Native American tribes and nonprofit organizations specializing in environmental inequalities experienced by racial or ethnic minorities. Senator Engel, the bill’s co-sponsor and a key member of Napolitano´s original planning group, told Climate XChange that she intentionally created an inclusive list of stakeholders to better reflect Arizona’s diverse communities and needs.  

Newly-minted Arizona state Commissioner Anna Tovar, the first Latina to ever hold this office, also recognizes the increasing need for genuine representation of low-income and marginalized communities. The Arizona Corporation Commission´s history shows these key groups are often excluded from stakeholder meetings, despite its purpose as a public forum for the state´s utility projects. Tovar, whose own battles with cancer were caused by exposure to environmental toxins, believes that, ¨Regardless of where you live, or what your zip code is, or how much money you make, you should be able to benefit from how [Arizona] moves forward with carbon free [energy].¨ 

Though she is a staunch opponent of the coal industry, Tovar emphasizes that Arizona should leave coal, not low-income coal communities — which include Native tribes — behind. During her time as mayor of Tolleson, Arizona, she observed ¨that there were many constituents that wanted to be part of [moving towards] a planet that would be safe and healthy for generations to come […] You don’t have to be in a [wealthy] class to want that.¨ As the state transitions away from non-renewable energy sources, Tovar hopes to facilitate investment and re-investment in Indigenous communities that provide viable, ¨green energy jobs,¨ address the ongoing public health crisis, and other issues of inequity. 

Arizona Public Service´s $140 million “Just Transition Plan” is a recent example of proposed community investment. Currently, it is under the Arizona Corporation Commission´s review. If passed, it would electrify homes, increase renewable energy products, and promote economic development in (largely) Navajo and Hopi nations. Though there are clear efforts to prioritize the needs of overburdened communities, representation can only go so far in a system designed to erase and displace Indigenous peoples. 

Working in Solidarity with Indigenous Communities 

Indigenous peoples absolutely have the right to be represented in the legislative process, but the solution goes far beyond legal systems and government institutions. It starts with actively supporting the fight for Indigenous sovereignty and recognizing the battle against climate change cannot be won without Indigenous liberation. Across the globe, Indigenous scholars, activists, land defenders, and community members have led the LANDBACK movement for generations, demanding the reclamation of Indigenous lands into Indigenous hands.

In the United States, Indigenous communities have fought for and defended their ancestral lands, such is the case of the Keystone XL Pipeline. Several other key battles, like the Dakota Access Pipeline, Line 3 Pipeline, Thirty Meter Telescope, and now Resolution Copper´s mine, are ongoing and in need of support. Until every system and symbol responsible for perpetuating white supremacy, colonialism, and anti-Indigeneity is dismantled, the work is not over.

Featured Image: Photo by Josef Muench, Arizona Highways, January 1956, via Tim Simpson on Unsplash