In early January, President Trump threatened on Twitter to destroy 52 sites “important to Iran and the Iranian culture” should that country retaliate for the assassination of its lead military figure, Qassem Soleimani. His statement – which, in the atmosphere of the moment, went beyond idle posturing – told the American people even more than its critics feared, because this same targeted destruction of identity is now happening on American soil.
I know because it’s happening in my district. Hellbent on completing his border wall – the wall he said Mexico would pay for, which has now cost taxpayers $11 billion and counting – the president is overseeing the demolition of sacred Native American sites in Southern Arizona and wiping the cultural heritage of the Tohono O’odham Nation off the map.
On January 20th, at the invitation of Tohono O’odham Chairman Ned Norris, I visited Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and toured four sites sacred to the O’odham people. Tribal leaders and archaeologists painted a vivid picture of the O’odham’s history in the region, dating to long before the U.S.-Mexico border bisected the tribe’s ancestral lands.
At a site called Monument Hill, they described to me how O’odham leaders respectfully buried the bodies of Apache raiders lost in battle and told me of human bone fragments unearthed at the site. They made clear how important it is to preserve these kinds of sites, to maintain cultural memory, and teach the O’odham about their history.
Last month, border wall construction teams working with U.S Border Patrol’s Tucson sector dynamited Monument Hill to build “a footer for the new border wall.”
Chairman Norris made it clear to me: The O’odham were not consulted about this planned demolition of a sacred site, which is located on public land managed by the National Park Service. The Border Patrol statement on Monument Hill, which the agency only released days after blasting started, makes no mention of the federal trust responsibility and consultation with the Tohono O’odham Nation, and there is no evidence that any has occurred. In our recent meeting, Chairman Norris told me the Department of Homeland Security only sent the tribe an email the day the explosions occurred to alert them that dynamiting would begin.
During my recent visit, we also toured an area called Las Playas, a ceremonial ground the size of a football field and a burial site that contains the remains of the Hohokam people, the ancestors of the modern-day O’odham. We visited Quitobaquito Springs, another sacred place for the O’odham that is home to multiple endangered species and is critical to sustaining wildlife in this dry desert region.
Since my visit, contractors bulldozed through a well-known area close to Quitobaquito Springs that held historic artifacts like bone fragments, pottery, and sacred sea shells that the O’odham do not wish disturbed. I fear that other locations—ceremonial and burial sites among them—are in the wall’s path and will soon suffer a similar fate.
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By law, Native American tribes are sovereign and have the right to government-to-government consultation before federal agencies make major decisions that impact tribal members. Consider the traumatic impact of a foreign country coming to Arlington National Cemetery, bulldozing it to build a monument to its own political agenda, and excusing itself by insisting you were informed via email a few hours in advance. Families would forever lose a tangible connection to their relatives, and we would all lose a connection to our nation’s shared history.
This is, in essence, what the Trump administration is doing to the tribes I respectfully represent. It’s how it treats anyone who gets in the way of the president’s desire to display his dominance. Refusing to see the human and moral costs of this kind of bullying, backed by the inaction of complacent federal officials, is what allows it to continue.
The damage of wall construction operations isn’t confined to Native American sacred sites. Mile after mile, federal contractors operating on the president’s orders have bulldozed once pristine desert habitats and left destruction in their wake. Saguaro cacti, sacred to the O’odham people and so important to the area that they have a national park named after them, are now being chopped up and left to rot in the sun.
This is only possible because of the Real ID Act, which gives the Department of Homeland Security broad authority to waive laws at the border to facilitate rapid construction. In Arizona alone, DHS has waived 41 laws, including the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, National Environmental Policy Act and—crucially in the O’odham’s case—the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. Use of these waivers needs to be reconsidered.
So far, the international outcry hasn’t changed the Trump administration’s intentions. In late March, Chairman Norris returned to Washington to testify in a hearing before the House Subcommittee on Indigenous Peoples of the United States to express his concern and anger with the administration’s refusal to protect sacred sites. The same day he testified, the U.S. Border Patrol hosted a media event to let reporters watch and record the live blasting of sacred sites—essentially mocking Chairman Norris’ request for consultation.
Native American history is often misrepresented as something alien to real American culture. In fact, it’s profoundly central to American culture, and to the history of the land we all now call home.
The federal government recognizes 574 Native American tribes around the country—whose ancestors trace their roots back, in many cases, centuries further than the first Europeans on the continent. Destroying their sacred sites, dismissing their cultural history, and seeking to erase their presence today is not just an attack on Native American communities. It’s an attack on America itself. It has to stop.