Graduate student Laura Medina attempts to engage Senator John McCain in dialogue about Oak Flat. Video still: Laura Medina
Graduate student Laura Medina questions Senator John McCain about Oak Flat.
Video still: Laura Medina

United States Senator John McCain is finding it increasingly difficult to avoid his critics these days. On Feb. 19, Arizona State University graduate student Laura Medina called out the senator on his environmental policies during a lecture at the university’s downtown Phoenix campus.

In a video released on YouTube, Medina confronted McCain as he was leaving the lecture, asking him for a few minutes to address his track record on issues that affect Arizona’s Indigenous peoples. This included a question about the proposed open pit mining at Oak Flat campground near Superior. McCain, however, did not respond to her request and exited the building flanked by campus police.

Medina, who is Ojibwe and a graduate student in ASU’s American Indian Studies program, stated that she felt it is important to openly question and critique politicians despite how others may view the action as disrespectful.

“It’s about letting them and the people know they are doing something wrong,” Medina said in an interview with the Navajo Post. “I know a lot of people see [criticism] as just anger and that we should just mind our own business. No one likes the angry Indian. But for me, I feel that if we continue to do nothing, politicians will continue to do these things without consequences.”

In recent months, McCain and, to a lesser extent, his colleague Senator Jeff Flake have both come under fire for potentially disastrous environmental actions in what detractors consider shady dealings. This included a land swap measure in 2014 added at the last minute to the National Defense Authorization Act. This authorized an exchange of 2,400 acres of protected land deemed sacred by the San Carlos Apache for 5,300 acres of private land.

Both McCain and Flake supported the measure, a move that Medina says is contrary to their duties as representatives of Arizonans, as well as to Indigenous perceptions of sacredness. In the case of the land exchange, it includes places where the Crown Dancers originated from and traditional harvesting areas. This land and the water flowing through it, Medina noted, would be irreversibly damaged.

Medina also noted these instances of land and water misuse are nothing new to the region.

“The Hohokam vanished because of how they were treating the water,” she said. “They were trying to control it. It’s sad that we’re not looking at water and the land as possessing their own lives; we’re looking at them as a commodity and a resource.”