I first visited Oak Flat, an Apache sacred site, in January 2021. After many trips, I lived for four months on the San Carlos Reservation with the Nosie family. Dr. Wendsler Nosie Sr. is a former chairman of the San Carlos Apache Tribe and spiritual leader of the Apache Stronghold, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting native sacred land. He has led the fight to protect the sacred sites of Dził Nchaa Si’an (Mt. Graham) and Chi'chil Biłdagoteel (Oak Flat) from desecration and destruction. The Apache Stronghold fights not only to defend their religion but also to preserve the environment for future generations.

Oak Flat, part of Tonto National Forest, is threatened by a foreign mining company, Resolution Copper. The proposed mine will destroy this irreplaceable site, create a crater two miles wide and 1,000 feet deep, raise local temperatures, contaminate the surrounding area, and use massive amounts of water in a state already affected by severe drought. The legislation promising a transfer of the land from federal ownership to Resolution Copper also exempted the corporation from all environmental law, meaning once the land is theirs, there will be no restrictions or oversight of their actions.

Dr. Nosie has worked tirelessly for decades to hold the Forest Service and, by extension, the entire US government, accountable for their disregard of the Apache religion and failure to protect these sacred sites from destruction. He considers the fight for their religion to be the last battle facing all indigenous peoples. It’s one they cannot afford to lose, particularly after having lost so much already to colonization and genocide.

Though initially focused solely on Oak Flat, my project quickly expanded to examine the larger story, which offers context for the fight to protect sacred sites: looking at Apache culture, religious ceremony, history, and daily life. The Apaches continue to fight for their cultural traditions, religion, and way of life to be recognized. They work towards healing, even as they continue living near the site where the US military imprisoned their ancestors in a concentration camp, now called a reservation. The reality of Apache life today is inextricable from historical events and inherited trauma that led to this point. They work towards healing, protecting the sacred for generations to come.

"The War America Forgot" is an ongoing project that is currently unpublished. To see more or inquire about licensing, please contact molly@mollypetersphoto.com.

Molly Peters Photography

Molly Peters is a Los Angeles-based photographer working in fine art photography and documentary storytelling.
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