TUCSON, Arizona — To stand at the edge Quitobaquito Springs — an oasis of cattails, dragonflies, turtles, and fish — is to behold the miracle of water in an otherwise dry expanse of desert. It is also to stand on a sacred stopping point along a special coming-of-age pilgrimage for young Tohono and Hia Ced O’odham men, who run from the dry lands of the Sonoran Desert to the Sea of Cortez to gather salt for food preservation, healing, and trade. Now, a new border wall threatens that ritual — along with dozens of other ceremonial or sacred desert sites for the O’odham people.
Construction of the 30-foot steel fence began in September in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, 516 acres of federally protected pristine Sonoran Desert landscape (including Quitobaquito Springs) and UNESCO International Biosphere Reserve. That construction destroyed swaths of desert plants, among them saguaro cacti, which the O’odham consider ancestors. On Monday, February 10, construction crews blasted Monument Hill, a significant burial ground along the southernmost edge of the monument.
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“It’s hurts. It hurts very much,” said Amy Juan, a member of the Tohono O’odham Nation and the Tohono O’odham Hemajkam Rights Network (TOHRN). “We’re O’odham. We’re named after this place. We are literally ‘desert people.’”
The Tohono O’odham Nation is a federally recognized tribe with land and members on both sides of the US-Mexico border. Though managed by the Department of the Interior, Organ Pipe occupies part of the tribe’s traditional land.
Ned Norris, Jr., chairman of the Tohono O’odham Nation, has denounced the border wall, and in January, visited the impacted area with Arizona Democratic Congressman Raul Grijalva, chair of the House Committee on Natural Resources. Both have requested information from the Department of Homeland Security and Department of Interior about how the project will respect cultural resources.
A July report by the National Park Service, originally released to the Washington Post, identified over 22 significant archaeological sites within Organ Pipe that the construction would threaten. According to the Arizona Daily Star, Customs and Border Protection said this week that an environmental monitor will be at site of the controlled blasting to safeguard “culturally sensitive artifacts.”
The new wall was a central promise of President Trump’s campaign for office, a measure he believes will halt illegal immigration into the United States. Prior to the new wall, the border within Organ Pipe was delineated by a pedestrian fence and vehicle barricades.
“Until the Trump administration, no one in that region was saying we need a bigger wall. They were saying we need boots on the ground or technology on the ground,” Kevin Dahl, Arizona program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association, told Hyperallergic. “It’s a false narrative that this wall will provide security. This is a fence that can be climbed over in seconds.”
To build the wall, the Trump administration has overruled at least 41 state and federal laws — including the Native American Graves Protection Act, Archeological Resources Protection Act, National Native American Religious Freedom Act, along with numerous environmental laws. “They’ve steamrolled the O’odham people and the National Park Service and failed to consult with tribes in their push to ram this through,” said Laiken Jordahl, borderlands campaigner for the Center for Biological Diversity.
In a series of dispatches from Organ Pipe and other public lands on the border, Jordahl has been documenting the impacts of wall construction. “We’re trying to convey to the world that the border region is not what we hear in the media — it’s not a barren or desolate place, it’s full of life,” Jordahl said. The destruction of the landscape in Organ Pipe, he says, is “an erasure of cultural and natural history.”
Juan agrees, but says she’s heartened by her community’s resilience and their recent mobilization. “Since I was 8 years old, I’ve seen a gradual militarization and occupation by the government on our land. At the heart of it, we are the truth of this land and there’s no denying this. We have this connection. We’ve always been here.”