Stop the destruction of Tohono O’odham lands

Tohono O’odham Chairman Ned Norris Jr. urges Congress to take action and stop Trump’s border wall.


This February, Ned Norris, Jr., chairman of the Tohono O’odham Nation, testifies at an oversight hearing on destruction at the U.S.-Mexico border. “For the past 160 years, the Tohono O’odham have been on the front lines of border issues, often bearing the brunt of failed federal border policies,” he said.

Where there should be outrage, the Tohono O’odham Nation has found only silence.

Our sacred sites and burial grounds — which hold the deepest significance to our people — have been run over and blown up with a seemingly proud indifference by federal contractors as they rush to build President Donald Trump’s border wall.

As these cultural sites have been desecrated, federal officials have hidden behind false motivations and political games. But we are not fooled, and we are not without a voice.

While the president’s border wall is appallingly shortsighted — a political stunt that has relied on the illegal use of federally authorized dollars — it is not the first attempt to divide our people and change the narrative of our history. 

The O’odham have lived in Arizona and northern Mexico since time immemorial. We experienced the impact of a border through our lands in 1854 — a border that was drawn without regard for our history, our original territory boundaries or our sovereign rights. More than 2,000 of the nation’s enrolled tribal citizens continue to live in Mexico today.

As a result, for the past 160 years, the Tohono O’odham have been on the front lines of border issues, often bearing the brunt of failed federal border policies. In the 1990s, federal policy designed to move undocumented migrants from ports of entry pushed people onto the nation’s lands, greatly increasing border traffic and causing environmental and cultural harm.

Today, President Trump’s border wall upholds another historic injustice against the O’odham. It threatens to further erase our history, our traditions and our culture.

Quitobaquito Springs and Monument Hill are sites sacred to the Tohono O’odham. Both include burial grounds, and both are located in what is now Organ Pipe National Monument. They sit close to the border and are within our ancestral territory. The National Park Service — the federal government’s own agency — recognizes that there are burial sites located in these areas.  Yet U.S. Customs and Border Protection contractors have dismissed these facts and plowed ahead with bulldozing and blasting large portions of this land.

This has led to the ruin of an O’odham burial site and a location historically used for religious ceremonies and as the final resting place for many of our tribal ancestors. The administration commenced this destruction with no advance consultation, no notice of the destruction after the fact and no effort to mitigate or avoid irreparable damage to the sacred sites. 

The Trump administration’s reckless disregard for our religious and constitutional rights is embodied in the dynamite and bulldozers now rumbling through our original homelands. Many of our tribal citizens feel they have no choice but to protest these destructive activities. They have been met with tear gas and rubber bullets from law enforcement.

The Trump administration’s reckless disregard for our religious and constitutional rights is embodied in the dynamite and bulldozers now rumbling through our original homelands.

All of this — the desecration, the erasure and the assaults — are the costs we pay for this administration’s campaign prop.

We fully recognize the need for border security. The Tohono O’odham Nation’s Reservation includes 62 miles of international border with Mexico. We spend an average of $3 million of our own money each year on border security and enforcement. Funding border security is a federal responsibility, but the federal government has never reimbursed us. Our police department spends more than a third of its time on border-related issues.

But President Trump’s wall will not stop undocumented immigrants, who will climb over it or smugglers who dig beneath it. It will, however, harm our desert environment, destroy our cultural resources and divide our people. 

The O’odham have always been compassionate and welcoming. We have a long history of helping travelers passing through our lands. These values are part of who we are. These values are so engrained in our worldview that it is reflected in our language, which has no word for “wall.”

Instead, I share amicudalig, our word for wisdom. It means knowing right from wrong, good from bad. Let us together focus the discussion of border security on amicudalig. Acting with wisdom. Acting for the good of people and for the good of our land.

I call on Congress to act with wisdom and abolish the dictatorial statutory waiver authority that has single-handedly allowed the Trump Administration to avoid implementation of scores of federal statutes to destroy our sacred and traditional lands. Legislate on behalf of what is right, not what is wrong, and pass comprehensive immigration reform. There are common sense solutions to border issues. None of them involve a wall. 

Ned Norris Jr. is the Chairman of the Tohono O’odham Nation. Dr. Norris, who has served in tribal governance for more than 20 years, is an enrolled member of the Tohono O’odham Nation from the village of Fresnal Canyon in the Baboquivari District. In May 2009, Dr. Norris was conferred an Honorary Doctorate Degree of Humane Letters from the University of Arizona. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

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