Indigenous Peoples and Human Rights

November 30, 2017

Akimel O'odham, Gila River -- Loop 202 Construction Disturbed Burial Places, Restricting Access to Sacred Mountain


By Christine Prat
Censored News

The Loop 202 is a freeway leading around Phoenix, Arizona. It is partly existing east of the city and is now being extended westward. The decision to include the South Mountain Freeway in Loop 202 was taken in 1986. The final approval to extend it was received on March 10, 2015. The construction is planned to be completed in 2019. The extension implies destruction of a huge part of Moadag Do'ag, or South Mountain, which is sacred for the Akimel O'odham. A lot of destruction has already happened, but it is rapidly going on.
The Loop 202 is also part of the "Sun Corridor", a 'recreation' project, meant to develop a megacity from Phoenix to Tucson, maybe even from Prescott to Nogales.
As a matter of fact, Loop 202 extension is part of a much bigger project, the CANAMEX project. It is a road project devised as part of NAFTA, a free trade agreement between the USA, Canada and Mexico, designed in 1993 and signed by Bill Clinton in 1994.
In September 2015, I had talked with Andrew Pedro, Akimel O'odham activist, about the consequences of the project for the Tribe, and their struggle against it. At the beginning of October 2017, we met again, to talk about the present situation, regarding the construction and the struggle against it.
"It's the fall of 2017, and the construction of the 202 is still continuing" said Andrew. He went on talking about the legal aspect of the issue, as a court case against construction is now in the Court of Appeal of the 9th Circuit in San Francisco. Arguments were supposed to be heard on October 28th. Andrew Pedro wrote then "People from the Tribal Council went and attended the oral arguments. Now it's in a state of limbo again. The Court could take as long as six months to make a ruling in the case. The other litigants, PARC, said this is probably the end for them. They don't believe that the Supreme Court will take the case". It is not sure that the ruling will give more hope of stopping the construction, as the 9th Circuit three judges already denied injunctions to stop construction. Andrew Pedro pointed out that, the project being in a Court case, construction should be held. However, ADOT has just stepped up construction speed, very likely hoping that when the Court will make a ruling, it will be too late to have a substantial effect on the project.
At the beginning of October, construction was mainly happening in what they call the Pecos segment, in the town of Ahwatukee, along the Pecos road. Many people in Ahwatukee, which is in 'white' territory, but where some O'odham live, are also against the Freeway.
The activists struggling against the project never expected much from the Court system, knowing that courts are not on their side. "… on one hand, they would protect Arizona's children and resources, which is predominantly a White group of people based out of Ahwatukee, and then you have the Gila River Indian Community with all their own legislation, but the lawsuits are joined, so that, if one case loses, the other case loses. So, we're kind of in a big mess with that as well." They don't trust their Tribal Council either, who "are not really fulfilling their purpose of protecting the community and protecting our sacred places and protecting our inherent right to be at these places".
There are other areas under construction. Among others, the Salt River segment, on the west side of the mountain, where bridge construction was about to start, pillars and concrete having been already brought. There is also construction on Interstate 10, 79th Avenue, to 43rd Avenue, in between, a major freeway interchange is being built.
"For us, as O'odham people, it is hard to really put a focus on which areas need to be handled properly and first. Because that freeway is one big project and is 22 miles long, and with all those constructions happening, it's hard to say what could really stop them in one area, as they'll continue in another area" Andrew stated. "Nonetheless, those of us who do this work have not lost hope that we can still save our mountain from being destroyed, from further destruction."
A lot of people are demoralized and feel defeated, but, says Andrew, "we just got to keep moving forward."
Although outsiders mainly see the actions and protests, and thus view the issue as mainly political, O'odham people, and other Indigenous peoples, see another side to it, the cultural side, meaning "who we are." …"that is more powerful than the political world, because that keeps us grounded, it keeps us back to our roots and where we really come from, and why these things are important to us and why these places and these mountains are important to us in the first place."
Then Andrew explains that there are some new people coming in to help, Indigenous people who understand the cultural side. And also, "because now, there are more people from all over taking interest in the struggle itself because it's gonna later on affect other areas too. Be it in Tohono O'odham Nation, even in Salt River, already affected by the 101 freeway, because that crosses their area. So, they know how we're feeling out here. It's the same thing because we are O'odham people, Salt River is O'odham people…"
The effects of the 'greater' projects, the Sun Corridor and the CANAMEX, are also felt by Indigenous people outside the Gila River Indian Community. The CANAMEX project is a super highway from Guaymas, in Mexico, to Edmonton, in Alberta, Canada. Road construction and repair has already started, in Tucson, Nogales, Phoenix and in Casa Grande. In Casa Grande, a 'free trade zone', an international trade hub, called Phoenix Mart, is supposed to open next year. "So, it will just keep them encroaching and encroaching on us. We are still stuck in the middle of where so-called progress is supposed to be made, and development is supposed to come from" Andrew stated. Of course, tribal politics go with it, as they only see the money that could be made. However, it is less than certain that development brings any progress to the people, as the example of Interstate 10 shows: when it was built through the Gila River, they were promised roads, housing, jobs… but none of it happened, "if you drive through the I10 now, it's completely bare." With the new developments – Phoenix Mart, development in Tucson – "…these cities are coming closer to us, and that's the example of what's going to happen to us in the long run, we'll possibly get run over. …With the 202, people who drive over the Pecos Road right now, looking one way, they see Ahwatukee, looking the other way, they see the Reservation."
However, the important part is the mountain. It is in the center, it is the central segment of the freeway. There is also a housing development, a subdivision of Ahwatukee, between the ridges of Moadag Do'ag. The project is independent from the freeway, it is not ADOT, but possibly in the way. The mountain has already been blasted for a road. "That construction is also not finished, but it's there, the land has been wiped and destroyed in the middle of those ridges, and we're left with a mountain that has already been desecrated enough. And it's not even half of what ADOT wants to do" says Andrew.
The present road is a two lanes road, the freeway is supposed to be four lanes on each side, "which is a massive cut in the mountain".
What has already been done is bad enough, but "there is still another fight coming, the war isn't over," adds Andrew Pedro, "because the scale of the project is much larger". The project is in fact the CANAMEX Corridor, which will encroach on many other Indigenous areas, down to Mexico: the O'odham territory is cut by the border. Tohono O'odham and Hia C-ed O'odham territory goes across the border. Villages on the other side will be affected too.
Andrew Pedro states "We are being attacked here, we are in the center of Arizona, the O'odham people are here being attacked by the 202, the Tohono O'odham Nation is being attacked with the border, and then, in the North, there are plenty of struggles, from uranium mines to Snowbowl. Arizona is pretty much known for its attacks against Indigenous People."
The reason for these attacks has a name: Capitalism. "That's what kind of connect it all. Because the development that is happening is to help facilitate trade. That is Capitalism in Arizona, if you really want to get down to the root of what is happening to us. It's always gonna be the money that is the driving force behind a lot of these projects." The 202 is a trade corridor, so is the Sun Corridor. Those projects are supposed to bring business and development to the region, but it hardly has any effect on the local economy. "It doesn't help anybody at all. But by doing so, they bypass Indigenous People. They don't think about what's going to happen to our ceremonial grounds and our sacred places."
In the Gila River Indian Community, ADOT illegally uses Reservation roads. As a non-tribal entity, they should have a permit to use those roads, specially as the freeway is just off the Reservation. But they use those roads because it is a little quicker to reach the construction sites.
Construction has drastically restricted O'odham people's accessibility to the sacred mountain. It has disturbed ancestors remains, human remains have been excavated and are still withheld by the state of Arizona. People fear the increased pollution which will affect their health.
Andrew Pedro concludes "We will continue to fight, as they have to know they're going to pay for this, somehow. We will do everything we can. Whether that means protests and direct actions… It is a risk and people do need to realize what this mountain means to us and why these risks are important."

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