NATIVE American tribes are up in arms against US president Donald Trump’s plan to build his wall against Mexican immigrants. Part of the wall would cut across lands they hold sacred.
The Tohono O’odham, whose reservation in southern Arizona straddles 120km of the US-Mexico border, along which the 1,600km wall is planned, have criticised the White House for not consulting them.
Tribal vice-chairman Verlon Jose earlier warned that the wall would be built “over my dead body”.
Tribes in California, Mexico, and Texas also oppose the wall. The Ysleta Del Sur, in Texas, and tribes in California, such as the Kumeyaay, also have relatives in Mexico.
“There’s significant tribal sovereignty at stake here,” said Robert Holden, deputy director of the National Congress of American Indians, an indigenous rights organisation.
The organisation, founded in 1944, recently passed a resolution opposing the construction of the border wall without tribal consent.
“Native American communities have had their sovereignty trampled, their rights ignored, and their resources taken for too long. Opposition to this wall unites our tribal brothers and sisters across the country,” said Arizona Democratic congressman, Raúl Grijalva, whose district includes part of the lands of the Tohono O’odham Nation.
The Tohono O’odham (the name means ‘people of the desert’) say their creator lives in the holiest of rocks, Baboquivari Peak. Mr Trump’s wall would cut across this mountain range and sacred burial ground, splitting the 28,000-strong tribe’s traditional lands in the US and Mexico. The reservation covers 2.8m acres.
In the past, the tribe reluctantly complied when the federal government replaced an old, barbed-wire fence with stronger barriers, but a large, permanent structure, such as Mr Trump’s proposed wall, is not acceptable to them.
“Not going to happen,” said Tohono O’odham Nation chairman Edward Manuel. “It is not feasible to put a wall on the Tohono O’odham Nation... It is going to cut off our people, our members that come [from Mexico] and use our services. Not only that, we have ceremonies in Mexico that many of our members attend. Members also make pilgrimages to Mexico and a border wall would cut that off, as well.”
Manuel and Verlon Jose, both of whom attended the National Congress of American Indians meeting in Washington, which passed the resolution against the wall, also met officials from the White House Office of Public Engagement and Intergovernmental Affairs and issued a formal invitation to Trump to visit the Tohono O’odham nation.
Mr Trump’s only option for building a wall on the land would be a stand-alone bill in Congress that would have to condemn the land and remove it from the trust for the Tohono O’odham nation.
Amy Juan, an O’odham tribe member and co-founder of the Tohono O’odham Hemajkam Rights Network, said a border wall would be “devastating” for the tribe and would make it harder to visit and care for burial sites in Mexico.
There are fears of protests, like those conducted by the Sioux tribe at the Standing Rock reservation over the Dakota Access pipeline. That culminated last week in a march on Washington.
The pipeline is not on tribal land, but tribal leaders say the final section of the pipeline, which will pass under Lake Oahe, a large Missouri River reservoir, will threaten their water supply, their sacred sites, and their religious rights.
The tribes also say this stretch of the $3.8bn (€3.6bn) pipeline violates treaties between Native Americans and the federal government.
The protest organisers, who also include the Indigenous Environmental Network and the Native Organisers Alliance, are demanding that the government require tribal consent when considering infrastructure projects crossing through their lands.
The 1886km-long pipeline, which crosses North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa, and Illinois, and which will transport 570,000 barrels of oil a day as early as next month, has been the scene of months of protests and clashes with police.
There have been 750 arrests since August. Authorities closed the protest camp in February and set up roadblocks to prevent protesters from returning. The protests delayed the project during Barack Obama’s administration and a review of environmental approvals was launched.
But after Mr Trump took office in January, a further environmental study of the disputed area was halted. A month later, the US Corps of Engineers, which manages the Missouri River, gave the pipeline developer, Texas-based Energy Transfer Partners, permission to finish the project.
Energy Transfer Partners says the underground pipeline is one of the safest in the world and CEO Kelcy Warren has called concerns over its impact on the tribe’s water supply “unfounded”. Mr Trump says it will spur economic growth and safely transport heavy crude from western North Dakota to the pipeline networks and refineries in Illinois.
But such arguments have failed to assuage the tribes’ fears.
“This fight, against the Dakota Access pipeline, has been the tip of the spear of a powerful global movement calling for the United States government, and Donald Trump, to respect indigenous nations and people in our right to water, land, sovereignty, and culture,” Dallas Goldtooth, an organiser with the Indigenous Environmental Network, told National Public Radio.
Support also came from a rural community in Ireland. The ‘Love Leitrim’ group stood in solidarity beside the iconic Eagle’s Rock, in Leitrim, holding up signs saying ‘From Eagle’s Rock to Standing Rock. Solidarity from Ireland to Dakota.’ An historical link between another indigenous US tribe and Ireland, since the time of the Famine, was not lost on the group. The Choctaw sent the equivalent of thousands of dollars to help the Irish during that period.
“They are going through hard times now,” said Michael Gallagher, one of the Leitrim farmers supporting the pipeline protests. “We want them to know that we haven’t forgotten and are there for them. We ask that their homeland be respected.”
Each of the 326 reservations is associated with a particular ‘nation’, but not all of the country’s 567 recognised tribes have a reservation — some tribes have more than one reservation, some share reservations, while others have none.
The reservations were set up in the 1800s, during the European colonisation of the Americas, when native tribes were forcibly removed from their lands and relocated, under the Indian Removal Act in 1830. During the relocation, which became known as ‘The Trail of Tears’, the indigenous people, including members of the Cherokee, Muscogee, Seminole, Chickasaw, and Choctaw nations, suffered from exposure, disease, and starvation and 4,000 died en route.
In 2012, there were 2.5m Native Americans, 1m of them living on reservations, the others in cities or elsewhere. While Mr Trump’s border wall, and the oil pipeline, are the focus of the current protests, relations between Washington and the indigenous tribes have been tense in the past.
During ceremonies on Thanksgiving Day, 1970, to commemorate the 350th anniversary of the Pilgrims’ landing at Plymouth Rock, the American Indian Movement seized the replica of the Mayflower in Boston. In 1971, members briefly occupied Mount Rushmore, which was created 90 years ago in the Black Hills of South Dakota, long sacred to the Lakota.
There was a rights march on Washington in 1972, during the Nixon administration. And on July 15, 1978, a march across the country, dubbed ‘The Longest Walk’, entered Washington with several thousand Native Americans and their supporters, among them Muhammad Ali and US senator Ted Kennedy.
Forty years later, Native Americans are again marching for their voices to be heard.