The Trump administration’s rush to complete sections of a wall along the US-Mexico border before the November election is threatening to damage and restrict access to sacred and historic Native American sites in the region.
The border wall was a key promise of President Donald Trump’s election campaign, and in his bid to keep that promise, dozens of environmental laws, from the Endangered Species Act to the Clean Air Act, were suspended to fast-track construction.
The Tohono O'odham Nation, which has been confined to a fraction of the lands it once held in the desert Southwest, says the suspension of these laws has allowed damage to sacred ancestral lands, including burial grounds. And they fear more damage is to come.
Rafael Carranza, a journalist for the Arizona Republic and USA Today who has reported on this issue, visited several of the sites in question, some of which are located in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge in southwestern Arizona.
“These are protected lands,” Carranza says. “It's desert wilderness, but they contain signs of the early tribal life that the O'odham people carried out for centuries and centuries.”
There are numerous archaeological, historical and cultural sites throughout the Arizona desert that are important to the Tohono O'odham Nation, Carranza explains, including a ceremonial site called Las Playas and an unnamed burial site located right next to the border wall.
Last October, as contractors were preparing to build a section of wall in Organ Pipe, they came across what they thought were bone fragments. After testing, they determined that they were, in fact, human remains. Work was stopped, the government recovered the fragments and it plans to give them to the Tohono O'odham Nation, but the tribe has been “very concerned that this is just one reported instance [and] that there could be many more instances where the contractors or the construction workers don't know what to look for…and their heritage will be irreparably damaged,” Carranza says.
The Tohono O'odham people have lived in these areas for centuries, many, many years before the United States or Mexico existed, Carranza explains.
“A big part of their culture involved traveling the desert…, following the water, following the resources of the land,” he says. “It's a very parched area, so it was a constant struggle, looking for food and water. They would travel vast territories, stretching from the Colorado River on the Arizona-California state line, all the way to the San Pedro river in the eastern part of Arizona, as far north as Phoenix [and] as far south as the state of Sonora [in Mexico].”
In 1917, the US government created the main reservation for the Tohono O'odham near the US-Mexico border. But once the borders were instituted, Carranza says, the Nation was split between the two countries.
Unlike the United States, Mexico did not create a reservation or designate protected lands exclusively for the tribe. For these members of the Tohono O’odham, accessing historical sites and pilgrimage routes was difficult. Now, similar difficulties are arising on the US side because of all the border security mechanisms the Trump administration has put in place, Carranza says.
The administration has pushed to erect a new type of barrier along the entire length of the US-Mexico border, but because the Tohono O'odham Nation enjoys tribal sovereignty and controls the reservation, they have been able to stop the government from building these 30-foot tall bollards within the reservation itself, Carranza says. Instead, the US government has focused its work on protected federal lands, where it’s relatively easy to issue waivers on laws that in the past provided some measure of protection from damage and destruction.
Because construction has proceeded so rapidly, Carranza says, the tribes say they are “just not being taken into account, that their voices are not being heard and their concerns are not being addressed when it comes to the erection of these new, taller barriers” in places along the border that already had protections in place.
“The Trump administration has been pushing [for these] 30-foot-tall bollards that tower above anything else that you would see in these parts of the border and in the desert,” Carranza says.
The US government has hired environmental and cultural monitors who work on site in case workers come across endangered species or cultural artifacts, but only one person monitors the entire swath of construction in the desert region where the project is now ongoing, Carranza says.
Despite all of this, Carranza sees little indication that the government will alter its plans in any significant way. They want to have all the barriers in the region, and throughout Arizona, finished close to the November election, “so they’re moving full speed ahead,” he says.
“Environmentalists and community groups are hoping the courts will be able to step in through one of the several lawsuits that they filed,” Carranza notes. “They're hoping that federal judges will either issue an injunction barring the government from any additional construction or any other type of measures that will stop the construction at the moment. But to date, we haven't seen any of that.”