Native American leader denounces destruction of sacred sites for border wall construction

Native American leader denounces destruction of sacred sites for border wall construction
© Rafael Bernal/The Hill

The head of the Native American Tohono O'odham tribe from Arizona on Wednesday denounced the federal government for blasting and bulldozing through culturally important archeological sites in its rush to build the southwest border wall.

Tohono O'odham Chairman Ned Norris Jr. told the House Natural Resources Subcommittee for Indigenous Peoples of the United States that Customs and Border Protection (CBP) contractors tore through tribal sites listed by the National Park Service, despite complaints from the tribe.

"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 told the panel.

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Subcommittee Democrats also panned the administration for the destruction of sacred and archaeological sites during wall construction at Quitobaquito Springs and Monument Hill, two locations in Arizona's Sonoran Desert along the U.S.-Mexico border.

"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 GallegoRuben GallegoLawmakers highlight flights back to DC for huge coronavirus vote Hispanic Democrats demand funding for multilingual coronavirus messaging Five Latinas who could be Biden's running mate MORE (D-Ariz.).

"Earlier this year, we saw President TrumpDonald John TrumpCuomo grilled by brother about running for president: 'No. no' Maxine Waters unleashes over Trump COVID-19 response: 'Stop congratulating yourself! You're a failure' Meadows resigns from Congress, heads to White House MORE repeatedly threaten to destroy sacred sites in Iran, to the condemnation of many, including myself, in this country. Well, today, as we speak, this White House is doing just that on American soil," added Gallego.

Democrats also derided the administration because no CBP officials responded to the committee's call to testify.

CBP did not respond to a request for comment on this story.

A former environmental compliance contractor for CBP, Steve Hodapp, told the panel the agency exceeds its statutory requirements when working on areas of possible environmental or archaeological impact.

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"CBP is concerned about potential impacts of its activities on cultural resources of concern to the Tohono O’odham Nation and has taken and continues to take all possible steps to minimize the impact of its activities on tribal cultural resources consistent with its border security responsibilities," said Hodapp in his testimony. "In fact, according to the tribal historic preservation officer, CBP has conducted more extensive archeological surveys on the Tohono O’odham Nation lands than anyone else."

Adding to the complexity of the Quitobaquito Springs and Monument Hill locations is that they're not on the Tohono O'odham reservation, despite their importance to the tribe.

"We're on this reservation not because we wanted to be on this reservation, but our ancestral lands extended well beyond what they are today," said Norris. "They are still within the ancestral lands of the O'odham."

The border is under Department of Homeland Security jurisdiction, and the Trump administration has issued waivers on environmental and historical preservation laws, cutting red tape for CBP to move forward on construction.

"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. "Blasting and doing what we saw today has totally disturbed, totally forever damaged our people."

CBP has touted its damage mitigation efforts, both environmental and cultural, in border wall construction.

And Hodapp said the Tohono O'odham had failed to make the case that Monument Hill is significant to them until recently, complicating CBP's task of seeking tribal consultation.

"Only the Tohono O’odham Nation can provide an explanation regarding why there has been no comment on the cultural significance of Monument Hill prior to the most recent solicitation for comment in May of 2019," said Hodapp.

Norris scoffed at Hodapp's remarks, saying the border wall work began without a "nation-to-nation consultation."

"I didn't learn about the blasting until the day they started," said Norris.

Rep. Paul GosarPaul Anthony GosarThe Hill's 12:30 Report: House to vote on .2T stimulus after mad dash to Washington Conservative lawmakers tell Trump to 'back off' attacks on GOP colleague Lawmakers highlight flights back to DC for huge coronavirus vote MORE (Ariz.) — the only GOP member to participate in the hearing — said the wall would make the region, including the Tohono O'odham reservation, safer and cleaner.

Gosar said the committee's "reckless political hearing" was not about preservation of sacred sites but opposition to Trump's signature policy.

"I get it. You don't want the wall. You don't want to work with [the] Trump administration in building the wall. In fact, you offer no alternatives in securing the border," said Gosar.

"Despite your inaction, the wall is being built, President Trump is doing what he promised to do, and no one, no one should be shocked about that outcome," added Gosar.

The administration's witness at the hearing, Interior Department Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy, Management and Budget Scott Cameron, said the wall would also help avoid trash left behind by migrants crossing through the area as well as damage from vehicles used to run illegal drugs from Mexico into the United States.

Rep. Deb HaalandDebra HaalandWe must demand our government decrease emissions from federal public lands Asian Pacific American Caucus vice chair 'shocked and dismayed' GOP leader referred to 'Chinese coronavirus' Native American leader denounces destruction of sacred sites for border wall construction MORE (D-N.M.), one of the two first Native American women elected to Congress, said the hearing should focus only on the cultural heritage of the Tohono O'odham.

"That's all. That's what we're here to defend," she said.

"A sacred site that has been blasted, it can never be made whole again. I want you to understand that. You want to know why? Because ancestors put those things in the ground with care and love and tradition and prayers. Those can never be regained again," Haaland told Cameron.

"The damage that this administration is doing to this area is irreparable. It's irreparable. And you didn't even ask. Nobody asked permission of these people to do any of that, and it's shameful. It's immoral," added Haaland.