Born to Fight
The story of Naelyn Pike, a 21-year-old Chiricahua Apache, and her fight to keep sacred Apache land from becoming a copper mine.
All photos by Andrew O’Reilly
“You must speak straight so that your words may go as sunlight into our hearts. Speak Americans … I will not lie to you; do not lie to me.” —Cochise, chief of the Chokonen band of the Chiricahua Apache
In handwoven leather moccasins and a flowing, richly patterned ribbon skirt, Naelyn Pike climbs a rocky hillside toward a high desert plateau deep in Arizona’s Tonto National Forest. As she reaches the top of the outcropping, she gazes out into the distance as the crepuscular rays of the day’s dying sun cast a deep golden hue over a landscape of rugged mountains, budding Emory oak trees and deep canyons.
Off to her right is Apache Leap, where in the 1870s a group of Apache horsemen leapt to their deaths rather than face either annihilation or imprisonment at the hands of the United States Cavalry. Behind her, two wickiups and a few scattered tents stand as lonely sentinels over a rutted gravel road leading to a camp site. And in front of her stretches the 6.7 square mile expanse of Oak Flat, an area that the Apache people have held sacred for longer than recorded history, but that in recent years has come under threat by the multinational mining company Resolution Copper as it looks to exploit a massive copper deposit beneath its surface.
“My people have held this place sacred since time immemorial,” Pike said. “As a young girl, I would come here with my family to pray, to pick acorns, to be free, to be an Apache without anyone telling me that I shouldn’t.”
She added: “Going to Oak Flat has always kept me grounded and connected me to my roots, but it has also instilled in me a reason to fight.”
At just 21, Pike is already a seasoned warrior in the battle to protect her heritage. She has led protests, spoken at meetings and townhalls, held prayer vigils, been involved in lawsuits and even participated in a running relay from Oak Flat to the federal courthouse in Phoenix. Last spring, Pike testified before the House Committee on Natural Resources’ Subcommittee for Indigenous Peoples of the United States.
“Apache people are deeply connected to our traditions and to the land that we have called home since first put here by Usen, the Creator,” Pike told lawmakers. “My great-grandmother and my ancestors lived along Oak Flat’s ridge and the river, which runs down from the north. They fought to keep Oak Flat and Apache Leap. This was home, the place where Usen put the Ga’an to bring blessings to the people.”
Pike is descended from a long line of fighters. While she grew up on Arizona’s San Carlos Apache Indian Reservation—an area once known as “Hell’s Forty Acres” for its arid environment and substandard health conditions—Pike is Chiricahua. With chiefs and warriors such as Cochise, Mangas Coloradas, Nana, Naiche, Victorio and Geronimo, the Chiricahuas put up the strongest resistance to American imperialistic expansion into the Southwest until their eventual surrender and imprisonment in 1886. The succeeding generations of Chiricahua Apaches may have grown up on the reservation, but, as Naelyn shows, they have not lost their will to fight.
“We’re fighting for the spirit of Oak Flat because when that is gone, we can’t teach future generations,” Pike said. “What they’re proposing would murder the Apache religion and heritage.”
Pike herself is following in the direct footsteps of her grandfather, Wendsler Nosie Sr., the former chairman of the San Carlos Apache Tribe who, along with his granddaughter, has become one of the most vocal opponents of mining at Oak Flat.
“For my granddaughter to be right there beside me—and me not force it on her and for her to take up the role—as a grandfather, I am really proud of her,” Nosie said. “I would never have supported her if it was not in her heart. But because it comes from inside of her, this where I stand back because it is a gift from the Creator.”
He added: “It is something far more spiritual, and I respect that, and I love her for that.”
Nosie, whose stark black hair and almost lineless face seems to hide the fact that he is in his 60s, has led the fight to protect Oak Flat, or Chi’chil Bildagoteel in the Apache language, for almost two decades. He’s lobbied congressional leaders in Washington, staged countless protests and, most recently, abandoned his home on the reservation to camp at Oak Flat permanently as a protest against the mining push.
“Mining here would be really devastating because it takes away our identity. It takes away who we are. It takes away the character that God made us to be because this is where our deities live,” Nosie said. “We call them Ga’an in Apache, but in English they are “holy spirits,” and once they’re gone, what does that mean for the rest of us when all there is here is a really big pit hole? It destroys everything we are, so we have to stand up for that.”
A respect and a need to protect Apache cultural identity and these sacred places are things that Nosie has passed down to his granddaughter, and that Pike in turn has embraced. But Pike is also firmly a member of Gen Z and has embraced her generation’s tech-driven lifestyle alongside that of her ancestral culture. Pike attends college part-time while also working for the San Carlos Apache Tribal chairman and loves Japanese anime and skateboarding—her car is covered in stickers related to both interests.
For Pike, social media is a way for her to spread the message about Oak Flat and reach a far larger audience than her grandfather was able to before. Pike still attends rallies and protests, still speaks at town halls and before lawmakers, still participates in all the traditional forms of non-violent protest that her grandfather taught her, but she pairs this activism with a new media savvy. Thanks in large part to Pike’s growing celebrity in the activist world, the Instagram account for Apache Stronghold—the organization established to protect Oak Flat—now boasts more that 12,000 followers, and the cause of Oak Flat has been championed by the likes of Sen. Bernie Sanders and Interior Secretary Deb Haaland.
Pike, however, believes that her visibility in the activist world is only good if it prevents her ancestral lands from being developed for mining, and she knows the sad truth that has befallen many Apaches before her: The US government has time and again made promises it has failed to keep, and if the Apaches want to protect something they will have to fight for it themselves.
“Time and time again, the US has broken promises to us,” Pike said. “I’m always wary because of the history of betrayal of my people, and that is why we alone must take up this fight.”
Oak Flat has been sacred to the Apache people long before the United States’ westward expansion, and the federal government officially promised to protect the land as part of the 1852 Treaty of Santa Fe. President Dwight D. Eisenhower later ordered the area closed to mining, but in 1995, one of the largest undeveloped copper deposits in the world was discovered below the ground.
In 2014, then-Arizona Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake, both Republicans, attached a late-night rider to the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act that gave the land in the Tonto National Forest to Resolution Copper for mining development. Resolution Copper has promised to work with the Apaches and argued that it is years away from actually beginning any mining operations in Oak Flat.
“We have committed to maintaining public access after the Land Exchange to areas within Oak Flat including the campground, recreational trails and climbing, and to working to seek consent from the 11 Native American Tribes before any decision on the project’s development, consistent with the International Council on Mining and Metals (ICMM) Statement on Indigenous Peoples and Mining,” the company said in a statement in early 2021.
But the history of mining around the globe is rife with promises broken and atrocities committed. Rio Tinto—one of Resolution Copper’s parent companies—has a checkered history that includes allegations of ordering hits on activists, widespread corruption and fomenting separatist movements in countries they operate in.
Since McCain’s late-night rider, Pike, her family and fellow Apaches have waged a constant battle to protect the sacred site from Resolution Copper’s plans. The issue has fallen victim to the changing power dynamics in Washington DC. But with a current White House administration—and a Democrat-controlled House and Senate—that seems to look more favorably on the Apache’s cause, one could be forgiven for thinking that Pike and her grandfather are optimistic about the chances of saving their sacred land. But as Indigenous peoples, and in particular as Apaches, they know firsthand what it is like to be promised something by leaders in Washington only to have it quickly taken away.
“I have to come full circle as this government is no different than the one my forefathers dealt with,” Nosie said. “I’m still living in that same condition of how they undermine us. They still pull the carpet from underneath us and still disrespect us.”
Besides their wariness of promises from Washington, Nosie worries about the safety of Pike as she moves to the forefront of the fight to save Oak Flat. Nosie himself knows the dangers and risks that accompany taking a stand against mining operations in a region where the industry holds so much sway. He has faced threats of violence and, at times, has had to wear a bullet-proof vest. Since relocating to Oak Flat permanently, he frequently moves his camp out of fear of being attacked while unaware.
“I’m really hated for what I do to protect and preserve the future of this place and of our religion,” he said. “I really worry about my granddaughter because unexpected things seem to happen to people who oppose mining.”
For her part, Pike acknowledges the risks of being well-known in a public battle, but adds that her forebears, from Cochise and Geronimo to her grandfather, have taught her to stand up and fight to protect the land and Apache culture.
“My grandfather taught me to break off the invisible shackles that hold down the Apache people and to fight for our freedom,” she said. “And I have been fighting since I took my first breath because we were not meant to be here. The United States didn’t want us to be here, but we survived, and we kept on fighting.”