Senator John McCain came to the Navajo Reservation last week to honor the Code Talkers who helped the U.S. win World War II, but in the process he got a perhaps unanticipated show of Native solidarity of another sort.
Dozens of people, including 17-year-old Adriano Tsinigine, descended upon the venue in Window Rock, Arizona, to protest the U.S. senator’s support of corporate mining interests hundreds of miles away.
The senator, a speaker at the annual Navajo Code Talkers Day celebration, was targeted by a group of Native activists—many of them Apache—who gathered to voice concerns about water rights, mining operations and the controversial Oak Flat land swap. The swap, which McCain, R-Arizona, had long championed, was attached to the must-pass National Defense Authorization Act at the end of last year. It opened Apache holy land to a mining operation that, in the senator’s own words in the Arizona Republic, promises to “tap the largest copper deposit ever discovered in North America.”
Protestors waited until McCain left the Code Talkers ceremony before they confronted him, but Tsinigine, a Navajo teenager from Coppermine, Arizona, plunged in ahead of the crowd. During a pause in the ceremony, McCain stepped off the stage to pose for photos. A group of people quickly surrounded him, clutching cell phone cameras.
Tsinigine saw his chance. He approached the senator.
McCain grinned at the camera, and digital shutters snapped. Then he noticed the small card Tsinigine was holding. It read “Protect Oak Flat.”
McCain’s smile vanished. He took the card and thrust it back into Tsinigine’s chest.
“You have to leave,” he said sternly.
Tsinigine, unphased, turned and walked out, having achieved his goal. The moment was caught on camera—including video—and when Tsinigine posted it on Facebook, it grabbed immediate attention. Although few people at the celebration even noticed the incident, news outlets around the world picked up the photo and video.
“By the next morning, I had friend requests from 300 people I didn’t know,” Tsinigine told Indian Country Today Media Network. “I didn’t expect that.”
Tsinigine is a newcomer to the Oak Flat controversy. A student at Navajo Preparatory School in Farmington, N.M., he attended a youth leadership conference in Washington D.C. in July, where he encountered Apache activists protesting the land swap.
That got him thinking, he said. And when he learned McCain was attending the Code Talker celebration, he knew he had to act.
“I was there to honor my great-grandfather, Wilford Buck, who was a Code Talker,” Tsinigine told ICTMN. “I walked in the parade in remembrance of him, but then as I watched McCain speak, I decided to do something.”
Presenting the senator with the card was a last-minute decision, Tsinigine said, but it allowed him to see McCain’s true colors.
“He showed disrespect for a youth,” he said. “I didn’t yell at him. I didn’t chase him with signs. Mine was a peaceful protest.”
No so for the other protestors, who confronted McCain as he made his way to the Navajo Museum, where he planned to meet privately with tribal leaders. The protestors chanted, “Water is life,” waved banners that read “John McCain = Indian Killer” and shouted at him to leave the reservation.
News of the protests went viral, with some claiming McCain was run off the reservation. That elicited a response from McCain’s press team, saying the senator received a warm welcome from the Navajo community and that he was not chased away.
“This small group of young protesters had no practical impact on his productive meetings with top tribal leaders on a range of key issues,” his office said in the August 17 statement, quoted by the Phoenix New Times. “Senator McCain was also extremely proud to help honor the Navajo Code Talkers on behalf of all Arizonans—their heroic service saved countless American and allied lives during World War II.”