Indigenous Peoples and Human Rights

February 28, 2020

Tohono O'odham Chairman testifies on dynamiting of O'odham burial place for the border wall

Blasting on Monument Hill at Organ Pipe National Monument on Wednesday. Photo Josh Galemore.

Tohono O'odham Nation Chairman Ned Norris, Jr.

Destruction of a sacred cultural site

 in international conflict is a war crime

By Brenda Norrell

WASHINGTON -- Tohono O'odham Nation Chairman Ned Norris, Jr., testified before a Congressional committee and described the agony of knowing that as he testified, the Trump administration was blowing up a burial place of his ancestors for the border wall.

"It's hard to see the blasting you showed on the video today because I know in my heart and what our elders have told us and what we have learned that that area was home to our ancestors," said Norris, choking up. "Blasting and doing what we saw today has totally disturbed, totally forever damaged our people."

"This disrespect for our sacred sites and their desecration at the hands of our federal government is deeply painful. These sites are not only sacred to the Nation; they are a part of our shared cultural heritage as United States citizens," Norris said.

Chairman Norris testified that there are 34,000 tribal members in the United States, and another 2,000 O'odham live south of the border in 17 communities, sharing the same religion, language, history and culture. Tohono O'odham shares a 62-mile border with Mexico and O'odham travel back and forth for family and ceremonial reasons.

Chairman Norris said the original homeland of the Tohono O'odham includes Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge and San Bernardino Wildlife Refuge (all in Arizona.)

The original Tohono O'odham homelands include Quitobaquito Springs and Monument Hill at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, where burial grounds have been destroyed for the construction of the border wall, he said.

Monument Hill is a final resting place of Tohono O'odham. Earlier, this month, this burial place was blasted. The Tohono O'odham Nation was not notified of the blasting of this burial place until the same day of the blasting, he told the committee.

Chairman Norris testified that just two hours earlier, there was a controlled detonation of the burial place at Monument Hill. He said there is no difference in this and building a 30-foot wall at Arlington Cemetery or the National Cathedral.

Due to reforms in immigration laws, the Department of Homeland Security now "is running roughshod" over the Tohono O'odham Nation. Because of this, DHS is waiving all laws to build the border wall. This must stop, he said.

Chairman Norris said the Tohono O'odham Nation deserves respect. He said there must be mandatory consultation requirements put in place between Native American Nations and the U.S. government that involves more than the current lip service.

In a bizarre development, Customs and Border Protection invited the media to view the detonation of Monument Hill at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument -- a burial place of O'odham on the Arizona border -- at the same time that Chairman Norris testified in Washington.

Chairman Norris said, “No one reveres our military veterans more than the O’odham, however, dynamiting these sacred sites and burial grounds is the same as bulldozing Arlington National Cemetery or any other cemetery."

"I want to be clear: When sacred cultural sites are destroyed in international conflict, it is considered a war crime," said the subcommittee's chairman, Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.).

U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland, a New Mexico Democrat and member of the Laguna Pueblo tribe, also spoke passionately, saying: “When tribal leaders don’t have a seat at the table, indigenous history is lost."

U.S. Reps. Ruben Gallego and Raul Grijalva, both Arizona Democrats, also spoke against the construction of the wall during the meeting of the House Natural Resources Committee’s Subcommittee for Indigenous Peoples. 

On Wednesday, the message was clear 'No Border Wall' at Monument Hill Photo Laiken Jordahl
Responding to the destruction and border wall, Simon Ortiz, Acoma Pueblo author and poet, said, "It is a direct attack of Tohono O'odham land, people, culture, life. What else is it but an attack on the Indigenous world in the Americas? That's what it is."

On the Arizona border, Tohono O'odham and others who make the Sonoran Desert their home were shocked and horrified as the explosions blew apart a burial place.

“Blowing up sacred land is horrifying enough, but now the Trump administration will hold a dog-and-pony show to brag about it,” said Laiken Jordahl, borderlands campaigner at the Center for Biological Diversity. “It’s heartbreaking to watch them butcher this spectacular national monument and desecrate sacred indigenous lands. We’ll continue to fight Trump’s despicable border wall every step of the way."

There are endangered species here found nowhere else in the world. On Wednesday, the Army Corps of Engineers detonated the O'odham burial place. Already, Trump's contractor, Southwest Valley Constructors of Albuquerque, have drained precious water here for concrete, destroyed the migration routes to the east and west of jaguars and pronghorns, and destroyed protected Saguaro Cactus.

The destruction comes at a heavy price for a border wall that has proven to be easy to scale in seconds, and easy to cut holes in that are large enough to drive a truck through. The reckless trucks laden with border wall construction supplies have crashed twice on the Tohono O'odham Nation on the route between Tucson and Lukeville, endangering the lives of O'odham, Arizona residents and travelers.

Trump claims to have waived all federal protection laws, including those protecting Native American sacred places, endangered species and the protection of land, water and air.

The Center for Biological Diversity said, "The Trump administration is blowing up Monument Hill in Organ Pipe National Monument, home to endangered species and Native American burial sites, to build the border wall. Contractors are extracting millions of gallons of groundwater to mix concrete for the wall, imperiling Quitobaquito Springs. This rare desert oasis is home to two endangered species, the Sonoyta mud turtle and Quitobaquito pupfish."

Quitobaquito pupfish

Sonoyta mud turtle

The Center said, "More than 100 miles of new border-wall construction are planned or underway across Arizona, paid for with funds Trump diverted from Defense Department budgets. To rush wall construction, Trump waived dozens of laws that protect public lands, cultural resources, sacred sites and endangered wildlife. The Center and allies have sued to challenge Trump’s emergency declaration, which is funding this construction."

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