In a case reminiscent of the mysterious death of Navajo activist Leroy Jackson, violence is suspected in the disappearance of an outspoken environmental activist on Arizona's Gila River Indian Reservation.
Badger, who had rallied opposition to pesticide use on the Gila
River Reservation, set out to run a brief errand May 21 near
Sacaton, Ariz., and never came back. The car he was last seen in
was found burned in the desert on June 10.
left without saying good-bye or leaving a note," says Walking
Badger's wife, Marilynn. "I know it's foul play or something (bad)
Walking Badger, 42, a plumber and
junior college student, had mounted a campaign against what he said
was reckless crop-dusting on the reservation - low-elevation desert
between Phoenix and Tucson that turns bright green where it is
watered and farmed.
Most Gila River Reservation
farmland is leased to non-Indian cotton growers; a tribal business
also grows cotton on the 4,500 acres it controls. Tribal members
say spraying of pesticides and defoliants is so widespread and
frequent that the downwind drift is
"Sometimes when the winds are
blowing toward homes, plants and garden vegetables are killed,"
says Marilynn Walking Badger. "And the people living here are
afraid now to eat the wildlife - quail, rabbit, duck."
Fred Walking Badger, of Pima and Zuni heritage,
conducted a petition drive last winter that forced the Gila River
tribal government to hold hearings involving landowners, farmers
and pesticide applicators. Worried that the spraying was also
contaminating drinking water, he had contacted environmental groups
to try to have water quality tested.
like just after he disappeared, the hearings went on without him,
and then the spraying went on (unchanged)," says Marilynn Walking
Badger. "I feel, and a lot of other people around here do too, that
it had something to do with his disappearance."
Also missing is Aaron Leland Rivers, a
26-year-old Pima who accompanied Fred Walking Badger on the errand.
Marilynn Walking Badger says the men were friends and if either
were targeted with violence, it was not Rivers. "I feel he (Rivers)
was in the wrong place at the wrong time," she
She suspects that the two men were killed
and buried in the desert, a suspicion shared by some tribal
medicine men who conducted a ceremony after they
Murder is likewise considered a
possibility by federal authorities, who, in the course of their
investigation, searched a desert area where murder victims from
surrounding cities are often dumped. "Usually when someone
disappears we find them within a reasonable amount of time," says
Robert Pease, a Bureau of Indian Affairs criminal investigator.
"This was why I'm so bewildered with this thing."
Adrian Hendricks, a tribal pesticide control
officer, agrees that Fred Walking Badger raised environmental
awareness on the reservation. "He knew what he was doing,"
Hendricks said. "His influence started spreading. In the past, many
people didn't know who to complain to or that they were even
allowed to speak out."
As complaints to tribal
government about pesticides surged last spring, an ordinance was
proposed that would ban spraying during the night and around school
buses and other sensitive areas (the tribal council is expected to
pass some form of the ordinance). The tribe also allocated money to
crack down on illegal disposal of left-over pesticides and
pesticide cans. Even the tribal farm has been cited. Hendricks
says, "Things are changing because of all the outcry."
Partly because there is so little evidence to go
on, the case has received far less publicity than the death of
Leroy Jackson, a Navajo who opposed logging on his tribe's
reservation. Last October, Jackson was found dead in his parked van
beside a rural New Mexico highway, a few days before he was to
present his concerns to federal officials in Washington, D.C. There
were suspicious circumstances (HCN, 11/1/93), but the cause of
death was ruled to be accidental meth-adone overdose, a finding
Jackson's kin and supporters do not accept.
Walking Badgers have four children and Marilynn is expecting a
fifth. She says her husband had some problems with alcohol in the
past that do not figure in his disappearance.
Rivers left behind two children and a
fiancée he was to marry in December.
members have formed the Walking Badger/Rivers Search Committee and
are collecting donations to hire a private investigator. Donations
can be sent to P.O. Box 1069, Sacaton, AZ 85247. Anyone with
information relating to the case should contact Bureau of Indian
Affairs criminal investigations at 602/562-3660 or
The author writes from Flagstaff,