In 2021, they ran from the north. One hundred eighty-eight miles, carrying their prayers for the protection of land that they and others consider sacred.

They are the Brophy Native American Club. The land? Oak Flat, just outside of Superior, Arizona.

The students’ participation in the run stems from an invitation that was extended to Cooper Davis, a teacher at Brophy College Preparatory and the club’s moderator.

A Navajo elder blesses the shoes of the runners with sage as the Brophy Native American Club prepares to run a 230-mile trek from Flagstaff to Oak Flat in February 2022 (photo by Shaun Marcus).

“I received an invitation to go pray at Oak Flat last February,” Davis recalled.

Oak Flat is known to San Carlos Apache as Chi’chil Biłdagoteel and considered a sacred site. Home to a diverse desert ecosystem, it’s also currently federal land within the Tonto National Forest. In December 2014, a land-exchange rider attached to a National Defense Authorization Act Bill included Oak Flat in a land exchange, giving multinational mining company Resolution Copper the area to build one of the largest copper mines in North America in exchange for 5,459 acres of conservation lands.

While Resolution Copper has said that certain areas will be protected, such as Apache Leap, and that access to Oak Flat will be maintained, organizers of the nonprofit Apache Stronghold believe that the mine will permanently decimate Oak Flat and surrounding desert features and they, along with dozens of conservation groups and other Indigenous and religious groups, are actively fighting to repeal this land exchange.

When Davis went to Oak Flat in 2021 and met Wendsler Nosie, the leader of Apache Stronghold, he spoke about the Brophy Native American Club and thought that the students would be interested in participating in the run.

“I came back to the club, asked them if they were down, and they were all excited about the idea.”

The group, made up of about a dozen students, would run the 188 miles as a relay, one runner, one mile at a time, from Flagstaff to Oak Flat.

“We were originally going to be the group that ran from Phoenix, Davis said. “But the organizer for the run for Flagstaff dropped out at the last minute. A lot of our kids are Navajo and Hopi or even from tribes as far north as Alaska, so we decided it would be fitting if our group ran from the north.”

One student who was excited about the run but wondered how they would be able to make a difference, was Aidan Parr, a junior at the time.

“It was like one of those things, like, oh, well, this is gonna happen,” he said and recalled asking, “What can we do about it?”

But when he heard that there was a run to support the movement to save Oak Flat, as a member of the cross country and track team at school, he was 100 percent behind it, but he still hadn’t fully grasped the enormity of what was at stake.

“It kind of came to me like halfway through,” he said, explaining that, as a runner, one way to distract yourself from focusing on your body is to either zone out or just look around at your surroundings. “And when I looked around me, I just saw this beautiful Arizona landscape. And then I like started to realize…it slowly came to me…people are going to destroy this.”

As the group ran the final leg of the journey together, Aidan had an unexpectedly emotional response when they entered Oak Flat.

“There’s an area with four crosses, with all four directions there…” and Aidan broke down crying, which was “kind of gross, a little embarrassing,” he said. But that moment he could only describe as “spiritual.”

The cool, perennial waters of nearby Ga’an (Devil’s) Canyon house a diversity of bird and aquatic life (photo by Russ McSpadden; courtesy of Center for Biological Diversity).

Another student, Andrew Reed, had a similar experience. A sophomore at the time, he wasn’t in any running clubs and a run from Flagstaff in the middle of winter felt pretty daunting.

“I was freezing,” he recalled, laughing.” At first, I was like, ‘Do we really have to run through the mountains in the snow like this?’”

But he was determined, and as the miles passed, he found that it wasn’t so bad after all, and by the middle of the first day, “I was like, this is awesome!”

When they reached Oak Flat, and the group ran together in solidarity, Andrew said that it was a really touching experience to meet the people of the land that they were running to protect, and something clicked into place.

“It kind of felt like the end of a journey but it was more like the start of a new one.

“Beforehand, I hadn’t really been involved in my native identity, but after this…it’s been something I’ve tapped into and embraced. I think I have this club to thank.”

He added, “In history, a lot of people have always been about the money, but at some point, you just gotta focus on the dignity of people, and respecting what they believe in.”

As for other young people who might want to get involved in causes that speak to them, Andrew offers this advice: “I think one of the biggest things is, like, take that first step. Even if you think it isn’t gonna do anything.”

Since their run in 2021, the club has remained engaged by protesting outside of the Ninth District Court of Appeals in solidarity with Apache Stronghold, and actively engaging with their senators and representatives. This year, the club ran again, beginning the journey on Feb. 17, once again from the north, and finishing in Oak Flat Feb. 20. But this year, the journey was 230 miles, and they were joined by more runners. Both Aidan and Andrew participated again. Aidan even challenged Davis to a full marathon (26.2 miles) within the run.

The Brophy team does the “Save Oak Flat” pose at Mormon Lake during the 2022 run (photo by Shaun Marcus).

While the primary focus of the event is the prayer run aspect, Davis says that another big part of participating is to raise awareness, and to give the students an opportunity for their voices to be heard.

“We have a history in this country of not listening to native people when they speak out about issues affecting them and we have a history in this country of not listening to young people when they speak out, and I think this is a really unique opportunity to let, you know, some youth, some indigenous youth, kind of guide us and show us…what issues they care about for their future.

“By the time this mine’s impacts are going to be seen, we’re going to probably be dead and gone, but these are the kids that are going to be living with the legacy here and they’re speaking up now in defense of their future, which I find inspirational.”

H.R. 1884 Save Oak Flat Act, introduced in 2021 by Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-AZ, and an identical bill introduced in the Senate by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-VT, currently await further action in Congress. And so, the members of Brophy Native American Club continue to push for legislative relief, they continue to pray, and they continue to run.

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