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  • Human Rights Research Center

Blasted and Bulldozed without Tribal Consultation: The Trump Administration’s Construction of the Border Wall and its Disastrous Effects on the Tohono O’odham Nation

December 26, 2023

After a 2017 executive order calling for the emergency construction of a wall along the southwest border of the United States, over 50% of the sacred sites identified by the Tohono O’odham Nation were destroyed. As they built the wall “faster than ever before,” the United States Government failed to respect the sovereignty of the Tohono O’odham Nation by waiving their federal trust responsibilities requiring consultation with the Nation and their duty to act with the interests of federally recognized tribes in mind.

I. Impacted Sacred and Historical Sites

The Department of Homeland Security used explosives and bulldozers on multiple sacred and historical sites of the Tohono O’odham people without prior consultation. The Tohono O’odham Nation has documented the significance of Quitobaquito Springs and Monument Hill. The National Park Service, the federal agency with management authority at the monument, acknowledges the significance of Quitobaquito Springs to the Nation. Chairman of Tohono O’odham Nation, Ned Norris Jr., compares the destruction of their cemetery and religious grounds to building a wall through Arlington National Cemetery or the National Cathedral.

Monument Hill holds profound significance for the Hia-Ced O’odham, serving as both the burial ground of Apache warriors killed in skirmishes with the O’odham and as the final resting place of many of their ancestors. This sacred site held deep reverence for the Tohono O’odham people long before the establishment of the United States. However, the Department of Homeland Security has subjected this sacred ground to multiple instances of explosive blasting in its pursuit of constructing the border wall.

Quitobaquito Springs is an area hosting sacred spring water and the location of a village and burial grounds for the Hia-Ced O’odham. The spring is a rare desert aquifer used for the annual salt pilgrimage of the O’odham people. The site shows archaeological evidence of human use going back thousands of years. On January 27, 2020, the Department of Homeland Security bulldozed the artifacts area that held sacred seashells, bone fragments, and pottery fragments. Mentioned in historical papers as early as the 17th century, this site of thousands of years of history and cultural significance is gone. The only consultation the Tohono O’odham received was a notice via email to Chairman Ned Norris Jr. hours before they bulldozed the site. The construction crew returned two bone fragments to the Tohono O’odham tribe found on the construction site, pulled out of their original location.

II. Tohono O’odham History

Long before the notion of borders, Tohono O’odham citizens routinely crossed the border to honor their traditions, visit burial sites, and engage in cultural events. The Tohono O’odham people’s reservation includes 62 miles of the United States border and is a federally recognized tribe of 34,000 members. Over 2,000 of their members currently reside in Mexico. They possess 2.8 million acres of land. The Gadsden Purchase of 1853 divided their traditional lands and separated communities. On both sides of the border, “O’odham people share the same language, religion, and history,” Hon. Norris Jr. explains. “They participate in important religious and cultural pilgrimages and ceremonies at important religious and cultural sites across the border. They visit loved ones and cemeteries to pay respect to loved ones on either side.” Their history and culture transcend geo-political boundaries. The Nation stretches from the desert just south of Casa Grande in southern Arizona to the United States border and into the Mexican state of Sonora.

In 1994, the United States Government initiated Operation Gatekeeper in Arizona, forcing drug and human smuggling into remote areas, into the westernmost reaches of the Tohono O’odham Nation. For a long time, there was a four-strand barbed wire fence marking the border. After the United States Government made an agreement with the Tohono O’odham Nation in 2006, vehicle barriers were installed across most of the 62-mile border. After the vehicle barriers were in place, only three specific points where they could cross after Border Patrol agents checked their identification cards and backgrounds remained.

III. Tohono O’odham Nation’s Promotion of Border Security

Despite these challenges, the Tohono O’odham Nation has worked closely with the United States Government for decades to promote border security. Measures included the following: extensive vehicle barriers constructed 2007-2008, an on-reservation Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) office since 1974, two Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Law Enforcement Centers, CBP highway checkpoints, Native American Targeted Investigations of Violent Enterprises High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (NATIVE HIDTA) Task Force, infrastructure improvements to roads used by CBP, regular town hall meetings with CBP, support for full staffing of ICE’s Shadow Wolves, support for DHS-Nation Coordination Agreement, and seeking funding to fill on-reservation radio gaps. Due to their efforts, there has been an 84% decline in the number of undocumented migrant apprehensions on their land since 2003. There were 85,000 apprehensions in 2003 and 14,000 in 2016. Their local law enforcement spends about 60 to 70 percent of their time on border issues, and about $3 million annually. The Nation leads NATIVE in collaboration with ICE, FBI, and USBP, and is the only tribal-led high-intensity drug trafficking area unit in the United States.

IV. Laws Waived by the Department of Homeland Security

While federal laws exist to protect tribal rights on public lands, the Secretary of Homeland Security, invoking Section 102 of the Real ID Act of 2005, waived numerous laws, enabling the destruction of sacred sites. The American Indian Religious Freedom Act states that it is the policy of the United States to protect American Indians’ inherent right of freedom to exercise their traditional religions, including access to their sacred sites. The National Historic Preservation Act protects historic and cultural properties on federal public lands. The Archaeological Resources Protection Act requires permits for excavation or destruction of archaeological resources on public lands. The National Environmental Policy Act and Endangered Species Act would normally protect tribes and the public’s interest in public lands. Professor Sarah Krakoff, a nationally recognized expert in Native American Law, natural resources law, and environmental justice, explains how the Secretary of Homeland Security gained so much power in a Subcommittee for Indigenous Peoples of the United States hearing: “Why despite all these laws are these construction crews blasting national monuments and wildlife preserves? The answer is the Security of Homeland Security has waived the application of dozens of laws, including all the ones mentioned above. The secretary’s power comes from Section 102 of the Real ID Act of 2005, which authorized the waiver of all the laws that could impede the expeditious construction of barriers and fences.”

V. Conclusion

Amidst the destruction, there is a lack of an enforceable tribal consultation requirement. Federal agencies overlook existing consultation policies. A statutory tribal consultation requirement would force federal agencies to consult with American Indian communities before affecting them. Hon. Norris Jr. urges Congress to withdraw or at least limit the Department of Homeland Security’s Waiver Authority, as it disproportionately impacts American Indian tribes with unique ties to federal public lands along the border. The Nation showed its commitment to protecting its members and their United States homeland. All they ask for is a seat at the table when it comes to border policies that will have an impact on its land and its people.




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