‘Oak Flat: A Fight for Sacred Land in the American West,’ by Lauren Redniss: An Excerpt

MICHAEL MCKEE: “She was mean, but she was the type of woman that didn’t waste anything. When I was a kid, she’d tell me, ‘Go get that turkey out of the coop.’ I’d get it, and we’d hang it up and we’d kill it. We’d have boiling water, and we’d pluck it and gut it. Same thing when we had to kill a cow. She ate the brains, the tongue, the eyeballs, the milk glands, the stomach. I mean, she ate everything.”

PATRICIA BROWN: “She cooked cactus with green chili or scrambled eggs. Anytime we’d have leftover tongue, she would grind it and make cockles. Michael and his sisters would come over and say, ‘What is it, Grandma?’

“‘It’s meat.’

“‘Okay. We’ll eat it.’”

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In 1873, a soldier working on the construction of a road just north of Oak Flat discovered black lumps of silver. The area was part of the traditional homelands of various Native tribes, including the Hohokam, the Salado, the Yavapai, and the Apache. Fortune-seekers staked claims and two mines were built, the Silver King and the Silver Queen. By the turn of the century, the value of silver had plummeted, the mineral veins were nearly exhausted, and the silver mines closed. Prospectors in the area turned to copper. A Michigan firm called the Lake Superior & Arizona Mining Company invested, and the tent communities where silver miners had lived—Pinal, Hastings—were dismantled. By 1902, the place had a new name: Superior. The Magma Copper Company was established in 1910. Between 1912 and 1996, the Magma mine yielded 1.3 million tons of copper. The town of Superior grew up around the mine. Businesses were established, children born and raised. Superior existed to support the Magma Copper Mine, and the mine sustained the community.

Superior was often violent.

MICHAEL MCKEE: “There used to be 22 bars in this town.”

PATRICIA BROWN: “There was the ‘Bucket o’ Blood.’ You know why they called it Bucket o’ Blood? Because in the morning, before they opened up, they’d have buckets of water and clean the blood from the night before off the sidewalks. Fights.”

Which bar was the wildest?

MICHAEL MCKEE: “All of them.”

In 1918, Superior was looking for a sheriff and Patrick Gorham was offered the job. The work of a sheriff in Arizona in 1918 was improvisational. When Patrick Gorham became Superior’s sheriff, Arizona had been a state for just six years. There was no other elected official in town. Gorham made up the law and he enforced it.

[ Return to the review of “Oak Flat.” ]

PATRICIA BROWN: “There was no mayor, no police department. He ran the show here.”

MICHAEL MCKEE: “It was the rip-roaring days. If you didn’t say, ‘Yes sir, no sir’ to him, he’d knock the crap out of you.”

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