Oak Flat: A Fight for Sacred Land in the American West
Random House / 2020 / 288 pp/ $30.00 Hardcover / $20.00 Paperback
Reviewed by Laura Johnsrude / December 2021
Lauren Redniss’s fourth visual nonfiction book, Oak Flat: A Fight for Sacred Land in the American West, is a literary documentary about southwestern American mining and the repercussions; about rituals and sacred sites significant to the Apache; about historical and contemporary manipulation of Native American land rights by force, by legislation, by messaging. With her visual art and language, Redniss creates character portraits and landscapes, as well as recurring images and motifs—black-background pages evoke deep space copper creation, underground mining tunnels and the sensation of being lost, volcanic rock and obsidian, and first-light viewed by telescope.
The conflict is introduced swiftly: copper, a resource integral to our society, is found on federal land, beneath Oak Flat, a sacred ground to the Apache. Newly formed mining company Resolution Copper wants to mine and sell the ore. If the plan goes forward by the proposed block caving method, “. . . Oak Flat will collapse into the void.”
In fifteen chapters, the author writes about Resolution Copper’s efforts to acquire Oak Flat (transfer of federal land requires national legislation) and about opposition efforts
by Apache leaders Naelyn Pike, Wendsler Nosie, and Terry Rambler, and she includes insights and opinions from people with generations of involvement in local mining.
Redniss, and her prior works, have won accolades, including a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant,” a Guggenheim fellowship, and a 2011 National Book Award Finalist nod. She deftly shapes the Oak Flat narrative, weaving science and history and politics between, and around, visual art imagery and the stories told by locals, presented as script-like dialogue, intimate and informal, as though overheard on a front porch. Characters bloom into flesh on the page, each describing what it’s like living near Oak Flat, or in Superior, Arizona, or on the San Carlos Apache Reservation.
Redniss is particularly artful in using dialogue to develop characters, and characters to convey the big issues by talking about the small, personal ones. We hear town citizens—Jackie and Evelyn Gorham, Mike and Deb McKee, Patricia Gorham—discuss what Superior used to be like, when the Belmont was a brothel and before the Environmental Protection Agency was formed, when the air tasted of sulfur. They share stories about hard and sometimes dangerous working conditions inside the mines, and then Mike McKee reflects:
“Everything in the world causes cancer. At the mine, you were making 21 dollars an
hour. Good money. Plus the insurance. You can’t beat the insurance. We’ve lived a good
life with our retirement and especially the insurance. I don’t regret it one bit.”
We learn about sacred lands, and about life on, and off, the San Carlos Apache Reservation, from the Nosie family: Wendsler (founds Apache Stronghold group opposing mining of Oak Flat) and wife, Theresa; their daughter Vanessa (employed at reservation’s Apache Gold Casino); their granddaughters Naelyn, Nizhoni, and Baasé-o.
Redniss includes first-person narratives to illustrate the importance of Apache tradition and religious practices, some of which take place at Oak Flat or Mount Graham. In rich detail, the Nosie family members describe the Sunrise Dance, a four-day reenactment of the Apache creation myth marking a girl’s onset of puberty. Each speaker offers bits of the story, creating images with personal details from attending, or participating in, a ceremony, as we hear from Nizhoni:
“The girl dances to the sun asking to bear children later in life. You are on your knees. Your hands are on your knees. The godmother picks them up for you and sets them, so your hands are up and you’re swaying from side to side.”
Historical efforts to erase Native American people and their culture are described, including the 1883 national policy criminalizing their religious practices. Within a first-person narrative about Wendsler Nosie’s pilgrimage to Mount Graham, prompted by his wife’s prophetic dreams, Redniss relays the story of powerful players—including the Vatican—working to build an observatory there, and their willful disregard of the site being a spiritually-important Indigenous space. It’s satisfying, then, to read researched examples of Native American land rights advocates comparing their own sacred sites to those valued by other groups, trying to appeal to non-Indigenous decision-makers. Opposing a planned paved road before the Supreme Court in 1987, a California Indian Legal Services lawyer commented, “It would be like building an interstate through the Vatican.”
The author reveals contradictions and complexities by gathering counterpoints, and by weaving related and tangential material into personal narratives and interviews shaped like conversations. Redniss notes the power of “naming,” thereby claiming a word for messaging and/or profit, and she unspools a list of appropriations of the word Apache, including an Army Apache helicopter, an Apache motorcycle, Apache safety glasses, and an Apache open-source web server.
And she hears many versions of the Apache Leap story, set on a cliff visible from the town of Superior. The tale concerns cornered warriors jumping to their deaths; some believe the tragedy was true, others believe it a myth. Either way, there’s an annual Apache Leap Mining Festival, and Resolution Copper is now a principal financial sponsor for that civic event, as well as other local Superior school activities and necessary town services.
Redniss never appears with a first-person point of view but shapes the material through her structural choices and her visual art, drawn with colored pencils as though created in the moment, on a lap sketchpad. (Cover design and artwork are also by Redniss.) Between the unembellished drawings of terrain and the detailed descriptions, the panoramas are vivid. We see sketches of Oak Flat and read:
“There are juniper trees, agave plants, yucca, hedgehog cactus. Bobcats, foxes, and mountain lions wander through the site. Bear leave gobs of dung at the base of lichen-encrusted boulders. At least one ocelot, a threatened species that looks like a house cat in a leopard costume, has been spotted in the vicinity. Prickly pear cacti sprout scarlet fruit shaped like hand grenades.”
Nature imagery reflects the spiritual value placed on earth and her plants and creatures, like the hummingbird hovering over Naelyn during her Sunrise Dance and the owl flying through the abandoned Magma mine smelter.
“Early in the morning, you could see it glide toward the brick facade, snap its wings shut to pass through a broken window, extend them to sail across the smelter’s empty interior, and pull them shut again to exit through another open window on the other side.”
Oak Flat is a clear-eyed, unsentimental portrait of a fight over land, still unfinished. The book’s wide-angle lens includes uncomfortable truths and broken promises as well as socioeconomic, environmental, and cultural implications of Resolution Copper’s proposed mine. Through the eyes of individual stakeholders, we see more personal and immediate daily concerns, bringing us close. People think about building wickiup frames for Sunrise Dances, seeing oncoming storms from the top of Mount Graham, watching the cliffs glow gold during sunsets, remembering the disorientation of being lost in a dark mine. They think about paying bills, holding onto health insurance, unemployment on the reservation, boarded-up storefronts on Main Street, and the protest encampment site on Oak Flat where folks leave things behind, as though claiming their space.
Laura Johnsrude’s creative nonfiction pieces have been published in Hippocampus Magazine, The Spectacle, Please See Me, Bellevue Literary Review, Fourth Genre, Minerva Rising, and The Boom Project anthology. She is a recent graduate from Spalding University’s Master of Arts in Writing program, Professional Writing track.