Last semester in Professor Zuni Cruz’ Law of Indigenous Peoples course, I chose to fulfill my writing seminar requirement by researching an issue of great importance to my tribe: protection of sacred Apache holy sites. My paper, Indigenous Resistance: The San Carlos Apache Fight to Protect Sacred Holy Sites, discusses Apache resistance to the desecration of sacred sites as a modern-day embodiment of the indigenous legal tradition of the San Carlos Apaches. It illustrates the resiliency of the San Carlos Apaches, that despite a history of forced removal and assimilation, San Carlos Apaches are fighting for our inherent right to be Apache by utilizing the indigenous legal tradition.
In the paper, I explore the San Carlos Apache fight to protect sacred holy sites and identify traditional Apache beliefs as the legal tradition of the San Carlos Apaches. Part I discusses the historical background, relating to creation of the San Carlos Apache Tribe, that is necessary to understand the complexities of legal protection for Apache Holy sites. Part II broadly identifies the traditional beliefs of the San Carlos Apaches as the chthonic law of the San Carlos Apache Tribe. Part III examines the San Carlos Apache resistance to the attempted desecration of two sacred sites, Mt. Graham and Oak Flat, as evidence of a modern-day survival of the indigenous legal tradition of the San Carlos Apache Tribe.
In researching the issues, largely due to the nature of the work, my methodology consisted of qualitative methods such as interviews, literature reviews, and legal research. I began with informal interviews with San Carlos Apache elders within the reservation community in order to understand the history and importance of these sacred sites from the Apache perspective. Additionally, I consulted various journal articles, legislative documents, court cases, and newspaper articles.
In summation, I chose to pursue this topic as a means of learning more about the legal issues surrounding my tribe’s efforts to protect sacred places and bring light to the battle that the San Carlos Apaches are fighting in order to preserve our inherent right to practice our Apache religion within ancestral lands. Furthermore, as a Native American law student, I found this experience of being able to research my own tribe’s legal issues profoundly important. For me, the experience highlighted the importance of having Native American voices as legal advocates for issues that are important to our communities and the future of our people.
Kristen Polk is a second-year law student at the University of New Mexico School of Law. She is a member of the San Carlos Apache Tribe and endeavors to pursue a career practicing Indian and Tribal law.