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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

The Impact of the Border Wall to Southwest Indigenous Lands

It’s mid-October and I’m driving west along the border of the U.S. and Mexico near Yuma, Arizona on the way to San Diego. It’s the first time in my life I had ever seen the U.S.-Mexico border—the same place where the weight of everything I know about its environmental and social implications (particularly for Indigenous communities), sunk in.

The past year has lifted the veil and revealed to many people the numerous inequities that exist within this country. Growing up in Flint, Michigan, I have seen first-hand how marginalized communities of color can be ignored. This was remarkably apparent in 2015 when the Flint water crisis made international headlines as state and local governments neglected to listen to members of the Flint community—many desperate for help in the midst of a health crisis. 

Now as 2020 closes, we are left feeling both vulnerable and hopeful after a tumultuous, single-term Trump Presidency. The administration has slowly cut through sacred Indigenous land in the name of national security when constructing the border wall—one of the promises from the 2016 presidential campaign. The discourse surrounding the wall is often framed through the lens of immigration and reform, but not enough attention is given to Indigenous communities and how the rich biodiversity of the Southwest is affected in the process. It’s no secret that most of modern America is built on what was once Indigenous land. The historical and sacred value of this ancestral land is insurmountable.

Organ Pipe National Monument in Southern Arizona is a perfect example. Contract workers use dynamite to blow up mountains that are sacred burial grounds to the Tohono O’odham people, who condemn the destruction at the border. Animals use the border for crossing during migration and are now being threatened. Additionally, according to National Geographic, the Quitobaquito Springs, also sacred, are flowing at an all-time low. If you live in Arizona, you know it’s illegal to cut down Saguaro cacti, as they are protected under the Native Plant Protection Act. Since the border wall construction began, dozens of Saguaro have been cut down, chopped up, and often left behind, leaving yet another unearthly scene of human disruption. 

Over the last few months, Organ Pipe National Monument has been making local headlines, often overshadowed nationally by the coverage of COVID-19. In September, there were Indigenous prayers and ceremonies at the construction sites, protesting the continuation of the wall through this ancestral land home to the Tohono O’odham people. The peaceful prayers and ceremonies were met with aggression and force of the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol. These protests eerily mimic the protests at Standing Rock—which opposed the Dakota Access Pipeline—back in 2016, where protesters were met with tear gas after standing up for their health and their land. 

But there is hope for these beloved lands.

As Biden takes office, Trump’s border wall will be effectively halted. While this doesn’t erase what has already been done, it is expected to slow some of the Trump-eras immigration reform. 

We are already seeing this shift in action. Last month, Biden nominated Deb Haaland to be the Secretary of the Interior. This is a landmark decision, nominating the first-ever Indigenous woman to lead a federal department and offering a seat at the table in the White House. The Department of the Interior oversees public lands, including national parks, wildlife refuges, and trust responsibilities to Native American tribes. Haaland won a seat in the House in 2018 after campaigning against the Trump immigration narrative and called herself a “35th generation New Mexican.” 

In this role, Haaland would address other environmental issues, such as the push to open public lands up for mining and drilling, including in Arizonian’s own backyard near the Grand Canyon. This is on the Indigenous land of the Havasupai tribe and something big energy and other special interest groups have had their eye on for a long time.

I tell these stories and give this information because I see and value the importance of knowing what’s happening in our communities. It’s crucial to know how national decision-making affects the areas we live in, particularly for the people most vulnerable to special interest groups and disenfranchisement. 

While a lot of policy coming from the White House doesn’t affect our day to day lives, some of it does. As Arizonians, we live amongst rich history and the ancestral land of Indigenous tribes. It’s a critical moment in time to know what’s happening around us and what we can do to ensure equity and environmental protection for years to come.

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