Donald Trump’s proposed border wall could face a major obstacle in Arizona, where an indigenous tribe has vowed to oppose construction on its land, paving the way for potential mass resistance following the model of Standing Rock.
The Tohono O’odham Nation, a federally recognized tribe with a reservation that spans 75 miles of the US-Mexico border, announced on Thursday that it does not support the wall and criticized the White House for signing an executive order without consulting the tribe.
The Tohono O’odham’s statement calls for a meeting with the president and comes after a tribal vice-chairman declared the government would build the wall “over my dead body”. Earlier in his first week in office, Trump also promised to push forward with the the Dakota Access pipeline, which last year attracted an unprecedented gathering of indigenous groups to back the Standing Rock Sioux tribe in its fight against the oil project.
The Tohono O’odham tribe, which has roughly 28,000 members and controls 2.8m acres of a reservation in south-western Arizona, has long struggled with the militarized international border that was drawn through the middle of its traditional lands.
The O’odham people historically inhabited lands that stretched south to Sonora, Mexico, and just north of Phoenix, Arizona, and there are tribe members who still live in Mexico. The tribe today has the second largest Native American land base in the country, and indigenous people say the US Border Patrol has for decades significantly disrupted tribal communities and their day-to-day life.
“It cuts through our ancestral land, and it divides families that have been able to go back and forth freely since before the border line was drawn,” said Bradley Moreno, a Tohono O’odham member who grew up miles from the border. “Border Patrol is a way of life for us.”
The tribe has said that Border Patrol agents in the past have detained and deported Tohono O’odham people who were “simply traveling through their own traditional lands, practicing migratory traditions essential to their religion, economy and culture”.
Moreno, 35, said law enforcement harassment is common for indigenous people and that he has been pulled over and questioned by Border Patrol more than a dozen times.
There is also already a steel barrier at the border along the reservation, and if a wall is built, the results would be disastrous, Moreno added.
“It’s going to affect our sacred lands. It’s going to affect our ceremonial sites. It’s going to affect the environment. We have wildlife, and they have their own patterns of migration,” he said. “There are just so many things that are wrong with this. The whole idea behind it is just racist.”
Trump launched his campaign with a pledge to build a wall, with a speech that labeled Mexican immigrants “criminals” and “rapists”. His executive order on Wednesday, part of a series of anti-immigration announcements, called for the building of a “contiguous, physical wall or other similarly secure, contiguous, and impassable physical barrier”.
It’s unclear how Congress could attempt to finance construction, and Trump has claimed that Mexico would ultimately be forced to pay the bill. On Thursday, Mexico’s president Enrique Peña Nieto canceled a scheduled visit to meet with Trump after repeatedly stating that his nation would not fund for a wall.
Although Trump campaigned on addressing a border “crisis”, experts have disputed the effectiveness of constructing a wall, noting research showing there is no link between immigration and crime.
Trump would face numerous legal hurdles if he attempted to build a wall on Tohono O’odham land, which functions under law as an autonomous government.
“He is going to have a very serious and prolonged battle with the O’odham people,” said Raul Grijalva, a Democratic congressman from Arizona. “They know what’s at stake is their sovereignty.”
The tribe, which did not respond to interview requests on Thursday, said in its statement it would oppose a “large scale fortified wall”.
Indigenous activists vowed to aggressively fight the wall if it reaches tribal land in Arizona, and Moreno said people were already discussing strategies for “direct action”.
Audra Antone, who lives in the state’s Gila River Indian Community and whose family is O’odham, said if the government moved to start construction, large protests like Standing Rock could emerge.
“It’s divide and conquer again. We need to stand our ground as Native American people,” said Antone, noting that her son’s father was deported to Mexico. “We’re going backward if we do not stand up and fight.”
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