AZ tribal leader decries border wall construction: ‘That area is home to our ancestors’




border wall construction
Critics say the 43-mile border barrier was begun without input from the Tohono O’Odham people or conservationists. To expedite construction, the Trump administration has waived several environmental protections, including the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act. Photo by Annabella Piunti | Cronkite News

WASHINGTON — The chairman of the Tohono O’Odham Nation of Arizona, a tribe whose ancestral homeland spans the U.S.-Mexican border, choked back tears Wednesday as he told members of Congress about the lasting damage that the federal government has caused to the tribe’s sacred sites during construction of a border wall in Arizona.

The question came minutes after members of the U.S. House subcommittee that oversees Native American affairs watched a video of explosions that were set off in the Monument Hill area of the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument to help with construction of the wall. 

The Tohono consider Monument Hill to be sacred. Several battles occurred there, including some between the Tohono and the Apache, and bone fragments found at the site suggest it was the final resting place for previous inhabitants. 

“That area is home to our ancestors,” said Tohono Chairman Ned Norris, Jr., haltingly and with his voice rising. “Blasting it… has totally disturbed, totally forever damaged our people.”

The Democrats who control the committee used Wednesday’s hearing to hammer the Trump administration for rushing to build border barriers and disregarding input of Native American tribes, particularly the Tohono O’Odham Nation, as it does so. 

Rep. Raúl Grijalva, an Arizona Democrat, visited Monument Hill and Quitobaquito Springs, another site the tribe considers sacred, with Norris in late January. Since then, half of the sacred sites identified by the tribe at those locations have been destroyed, Grijalva said.

“The fact that the federal government is continuing to blast this area (that contains) human bone fragments from several tribes in the 21st Century is, quite frankly, barbarous,” he said. “What would normally be considered a war crime for destroying cultural sites in another country is now the status quo for this president and the administration.”

Rep. Ruben Gallego, the Arizona Democrat who chairs the Subcommittee for Indigenous Peoples of the United States, said he was “appalled at the utter disregard that this administration has for upholding our legal trust responsibilities to Indian tribes to protect their sovereignty, their way of life and, yes, their sacred sites.” 

“This administration apparently has no shame for the damage it is causing to tribal burial grounds. To the Tohono O’Odham Nation, this is the equivalent of bulldozing through parts of Arlington National Cemetery,” he added.

The White House and the Department of Homeland Security, which is in charge of building the border wall, did not send witnesses to testify during the hearing, Gallego noted. Instead, the administration sent an official from the Interior Department. 

Meanwhile, the Border Patrol did hold a press briefing on Wednesday at Monument Hill that included another detonation. (Press officers from the Border Patrol did not immediately respond to a request for comment.) Earlier this month, CBP said that it had conducted pre-construction surveys of the area and found “no biological, cultural or historical sites… within the project area.”

Scott J. Cameron, an official with the U.S. Department of the Interior, said a border wall would protect federal lands, including Monument Hill, from further damage. At Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, he said, park rangers have arrested 71 people, apprehended 1,231 unauthorized immigrants and confiscated 7,563 pounds of marijuana in just the last three years. 

Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Prescott, also said drug smugglers and border crossers damaged the environment and Native American sacred sites more than the construction of a border wall would. He showed slides of abandoned vehicles, spray-painted rock formations and heaps of litter found along the border.

“Uncontrolled illegal immigration is an overwhelmingly destructive activity,” he told Democrats. “If the federal government were forced to consider the damage from this illegal activity (under environmental laws), there would certainly be a border wall… However, in pursuit of a political open-borders agenda, you’re happy to ignore and minimize the environmental impact.”

Rep. Debra Haaland, a New Mexico Democrat who is one of the first Native American women to serve in Congress, objected to that line of argument.

“Can trash be cleaned up?” she asked. “A sacred site that’s been blasted, it can never be made whole again. I want you to understand that. Ancestors put those things in the ground with care, love, tradition and prayers. You can’t equate sacred sites and burial grounds with trash.”

One of the biggest points of contention in the hearing was how much the Trump administration consults with Native American tribes as it builds or upgrades the border walls. Under normal circumstances, federal agencies have to work with tribes and other parties before undertaking major infrastructure projects. Federal laws, for example, mandate that agencies consider the effects on environmental, cultural and historic resources in the area.

But Congress provided an exception in 2005 for construction of border barriers. The U.S. homeland security secretary can waive almost all of those laws to build walls, fences or other barriers along the southern border. 

Previous administrations used that sparingly, said Sarah Krakoff, a professor at the University of Colorado Law School. The George W. Bush administration only used those waivers for four projects. The Obama administration never used it. In its first three years, though, the Trump administration has used that power 15 times.

One reason for the difference is that Congress initially agreed to provide funding for only 700 miles of fence along the 1,900-mile-long border. But the Trump administration has avoided that restriction by using money originally designated for the military to build the border barriers instead.