By Joanna Lawrence Shenk
This is the sixth sermon in our Lenten series on the Christian mystics called “A Voice to Call Us Home.”
On this Palm Sunday and final Sunday of our series on mysticism, we turn to a contemporary mystic, Wendsler Nosie Sr. So far in the series, all of the mystics we’ve learned about have been Christian. This Sunday we expand beyond the Christian tradition, recognizing the mysticism in many other spiritual paths. Wendsler Nosie Sr. is also the only one of the mystics in our series who is still living.
Wendsler is a person who sees the connections between things. He sees the oneness. He sees the oneness of colonialism from its very beginnings far beyond this continent. He sees the oneness of the web connecting diverse peoples in the spiritual effort to resist and dismantle it. And he sees the power of prayer to make people one as they protect that which is sacred, no matter the cost.
When Jim Lichti and I talked with Wendsler during his time in San Francisco with the spiritual convoy in October, he said the Apache people were some of the last Indigenous people to be colonized which means they are the least acclimated to colonization. They have a role to play, he says, in helping others to break free from the chains of colonization. For people who came from Europe, he said, your colonization was so long ago you don’t even remember it happened. You can’t see your chains.
He said what we’re doing at Oak Flat is a call to all people to see the chains of colonization, now in the form of capitalism, and break free. No matter where you are from or how you came to be where you are now, we can join together with one prayer, one drum and one circle to throw off the chains.
He reminded us that this is first and foremost a spiritual battle against the powers of evil. The powers of evil, Lucifer as he calls it, have always been seeking control and prior to colonization on this continent the people came together to resist and drive Lucifer away. But with colonization Lucifer came back with incredible force.
Wendsler talked about how his ancestors fought back, and among the Apache tribes, his was the last to surrender to US forces, and only then after years of resistance. He is a descendant of Geronimo who would not accept the forced removal to the reservation, and escaped many times leading others with him.
As a young person Wendsler’s Apache identity and understanding of history was shaped by his mother Elvera. He learned about the sacredness of his ancestral lands and how his people were exiled. He learned that Apache identity is communicated through ceremony on their lands. He learned that Usen, the Creator, continues to be present and communicates directly with people at Oak Flat.
His mother was a deeply spiritual woman who also advocated for justice in material terms for their tribe. In the 1960s she went to DC to demand adequate housing on the San Carlos Apache reservation. This resulted in her family and others on the reservation getting homes with running water, electricity and indoor plumbing for the first time.
Following high school Wendsler went away to college and studied finance. He came back to the reservation and served as the tribal work experience director, as a council person, and later the tribal chairperson. In these roles he focused on improving housing and work opportunities, as well as supported cultural efforts and the protection of sacred lands.
In 2016 Wendsler resigned from his role with the tribal council and stepped away from politics and into “ceremonial mode” as he called it. This was to prepare spirituality for the battle against the mining company seeking to destroy Oak Flat, the most sacred Apache land.
In 2014 Congress set in motion a complex process intended to give Rio Tinto, a multinational mining corporation, 3,000 acres of federally-owned land in the Tonto National Forest, including Oak Flat. Beneath Oak Flat sits one of the largest copper deposits in the world. It’s estimated that 40 billion pounds of copper could be extracted for use in all kinds of “clean” energy industries.
The mine, if created, would be a quarter mile longer than the Golden Gate Bridge and as deep as the Eiffel Tower is tall. It would obliterate Oak Flat where Apaches have held ceremony since time immemorial and where the Creator and holy spirits dwell.
“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,” Wendsler 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.”
To those ends the Apache Stronghold, led by Wendsler, sued the federal government on the grounds of religious freedom to keep the mining company from taking possession of the land. Wendsler argues that, for example, Christians would be up in arms if their holy sites were on the brink of destruction, like the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, where Jesus was believed to be buried or the Vatican where the pope resides.
Just because Oak Flat lacks a cathedral, it is no less holy or deserving of protection. Wendsler points out that the land on this continent was never deemed holy by the colonizers. Their holy land was across the ocean. They saw this land, and still see it, as a resource to be exploited for profit.
Last weekend Shalom Mennonite Church in Tucson had a church campout at Oak Flat. Co-pastor Carol Rose reflected to me that the depth of spiritual connected-ness at Oak Flat could very well be related to the 40 billion pounds of copper under the ground. Copper is a highly conductive metal, used for all things electrical to create the current. Could it not also be a conduit for the spiritual connection that the Apaches have honored on that site for countless generations?
In November of 2019 Wendsler left the San Carlos Apache Reservation and returned to Oak Flat to live permanently. He led a relay run of nearly 50 miles spanning the distance between the reservation and Oak Flat, reversing the path of his ancestors’ forced removal in the 1870s.
He wasn’t sure what would happen to him upon his return, but Oak Flat has continued to be his primary residence since then. He often changes his location to avoid harassment and wears a bulletproof vest. Carol told me he was shot at recently. When he reported this to the forest service they said they could do nothing to protect him unless he was actually hit.
When you walk with Wendsler at Oak Flat, she said, you can witness his depth of connection with the land and creatures. He pauses to notice their tracks and counts them a prayerful blessing. For Wendsler prayers are walked, prayers are danced, prayers are drummed, prayers happen in silence, prayers happen while running. His mysticism is steeped in prayer and this prayer clarifies all things in the spiritual battle he wages.
Wendsler is clear that Lucifer is embodied in Rio Tinto and its subsidiary Resolution Copper who seek to destroy Oak Flat. Just as Indigenious peoples came together to defend and resist, Wendsler is calling on all of us to come together in prayer and action to save the sacred land of Oak Flat and break the chains that separate us from each other and from the land.
“We’re siblings in one Creator God,” Carol Rose reflected. “Just because the Apache understand better what would be lost if this place was lost, doesn’t mean that we won’t all lose. We talk about how prayers of healing are kept in this land. That’s healing for the Earth, and it’s healing for all of us.”
At the age of twenty Wendsler was invited by tribal elders to stand with the medicine men. Through many paths he has brought healing to his people. Just as Jesus was clear that he had to confront the leaders in Jerusalem, Wendsler is clear that he must remain at Oak Flat. “I have to come home to protect what’s left. Now what the United States government decides to do with me, that’s going to be their decision. And once Resolution Copper takes over and it becomes a private property for them, then they’re going to do what they want to do with me. So be it.”
We battle not against flesh and blood but against the principalities and powers, against the spiritual forces of evil. May the prophetic mysticism of Wendsler Nosie Sr. illuminate the chains we carry. May his witness at Oak Flat embolden us to break free and join together in one prayer, one drum and one circle to defend all of humanity. Amen.