ORGAN PIPE CACTUS NATIONAL MONUMENT, Arizona (Border Report) — In a remote desert wildlife refuge Saturday afternoon in southwestern Arizona, hundreds of people protested the construction of a border wall in what many say are “sacred” Native American lands.
Upwards of 500 people from throughout the Southwest turned out for the peaceful protest. Some brought their pets and children, while others wore costumes and carried signs showing opposition to the border wall that is being built at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument deep in the Sonoran Desert.
They chanted, “Sacred Lands, Sacred Life, Stop the Desecration,” and held signs and banners with messages like, “Protect Sacred Places,” “Migration is Natural,” “We all Belong,” “Build Bridges not Walls,” and “Walls are Wrong.”
Many of the protesters made references to Saturday being the 30th anniversary of the tearing down of the Berlin Wall, and they urged that the same be done for the new border wall that is going up, which President Trump says will deter illegal immigration.
“Walls don’t work. Walls never work,” said Gayle Weyers, 78, who lives in Ajo, Arizona, about 40 miles north of Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. Weyers is a member of the Ajo Samaritans, who leave water in the desert for migrants.
Her organization was among over a dozen represented by the protesters who came from throughout the Southwest including California, Nevada, New Mexico and Texas.
Protesters began arriving after 11 a.m. and rallied at the park’s visitor’s center after hearing several speakers describe the “destruction” of the park, which is considered sacred to the Tohono O’odham tribe.
David Garcia, who was a tribal leader for the Tohono O’odham nation from 1995 to 2003, took part in the demonstration. He spoke to the crowd and afterward told Border Report that the bones of his ancestors are buried throughout this national park and that his people believe the wall construction and its concrete base several feet into the ground is disturbing their resting places.
“It was important to be here,” said Garcia, who was carrying a sacred tribal fan made of feathers. “And to acknowledge all the other people who are here supporting Indian issues throughout the United States, and also people of color.
Most of the protesters then drove in a long snaking caravan several miles down a dirt road around a mountain to view where a new mile of metal border wall has already been built 30 feet tall.
A giant swath of saguaro cactus and other native species have been cut down and cleared to make way for the wall. And this normally quiet 500-square-mile wildlife refuge — which is known as “Valley of the Ajo” — was filled with the sounds of heavy construction equipment well into the weekend , as dozens of workers operated machinery to add on panels to the wall.
President Donald Trump has made the construction of the border wall a top priority of his administration. Garcia and others pointed out that the president has waived 41 laws, including environmental safeguards and the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, in order to expedite wall construction. The waivers have been given in the name of national security interests.
Laiken Jordahl, a borderlands campaigner for the Center for Biological Diversity who organized Saturday’s rally, said Congress needs to rescind the billions of dollars it approved for the border wall.
“People care about their public lands. People love Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. We have hundreds of people here today to demonstrate against Trump’s border wall, which is being built right now through the heart of the Sonoran Desert,” Jordahl told Border Report. “We did expect a massive public outpouring of support and that’s exactly what we’re seeing today.”
Jordahl said he fashioned Saturday’s event after those held in South Texas, which he said helped to “save the National Butterfly Center and La Lomita Historic Chapel” and other areas from border wall construction.
Congress has exempted those areas from border construction and has specifically said that no funds can be used to build in those areas.
Garcia credited many of his tribal youth with helping to bring this issue to the public’s attention. “I’m proud of the youth and I’m here to support them,” he said.
Nellie Jo David is one of the organizers who spoke to the crowd. A member of the Hia Ced O’odham tribe, she grew up in Ajo, Arizona, and has been an outspoken opponent of the wall and what she calls is the “desecration of her ancestor’s remains.”
David drove with Border Report on Saturday to the wall construction site and she was aghast as she saw how many more panels had been added in the week since she had been there last.
“It’s really ugly. It’s really gross,” David said. “It’s 30-feet of ugliness.”
“It’s been a long struggle and there were times I felt like we were screaming at the top of our lungs and no one was listening,” said David, adding she was grateful to so many coming from so far away to support her people. “It’s a desecration to Hia Ced O’odhom land, Tohomo O’odham land. But they should know we’re still here and we’re still protecting our ancestral lands.”
It’s a desecration to Hia Ced O’odhom land, Tohomo O’odham land. But they should know we’re still here and we’re still protecting our ancestral lands. “
Nellie Jo David, member of the Hia Ced O’odhom
David took particular offense with U.S. Border Patrol agents who told the crowd they were not allowed to approach the border wall, and had to stay “60 feet back.”
“To have them tell us what to do on O’odham land is just wrong,” she said shaking her head.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers plan to build 32 miles of the towering border wall in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, which will also include an all-weather road, floodlights, ground sensors and cameras.
The land is a recharge zone where U.S. Parks and Wildlife for years has been trying to stimulate the growth of native cacti and help to preserve four endangered species native to the area, including the Quitobaquito pupfish, the acuña cacti, the Sonoran pronghorn, and the lesser long-nosed bat.
- The park’s Quitobaquito Springs is where the endangered Quitobaquito pupfish live. Behind the park’s Kris Eggle Visitor Center there is a special pond where some of the fish are being grown, but the majority only live at the springs. They’re tiny. Adult males only grow to an inch and can be seen by their blue glow.
- The acuña cactus is being grown here and large metal barricades have been placed in the park to prevent off-roading vehicles that can damage this stocky, 16-inch-tall cacti. From 1991 to 2010, the monument lost 95 percent of this cacti.
- The Sonoran pronghorn, also called the “desert ghost,” looks like an antelope but is smaller and faster and can get to speeds of 60 mph, and it lives here on the park.
- The lesser long-nosed bat thrives on the cactus that grow in the park. Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is home to 31 types of different cactus.
Dan Millis, of the Sierra Club, particularly worries about the nocturnal species like the lesser long-nosed bat, whose nighttime feeding patterns could be disrupted by night-time lights.
David also said she is concerned because construction crews are pumping water from below these desert grounds to make the concrete for the base of the wall. She said over 32,000 gallons of water so far have been pumped from the earth.
She also is also worried about depleting Quitobaquito Springs, which is considered a sacred site for her people and is the only water hole for 20 miles.
Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument was established in 1937 as a recharge zone to save and help many endangered species.
“This is a national monument. This is a treasure. We should not be tearing it up to build an insane wall. Walls hurt people. Hitler built walls. Walls are not good. They are destroying the park and people,” said Geri Sanders, who drove five hours on Saturday with her dogs from Silver City, N.M., to participate in the protest.
Her dog, Domino, was wearing a sign on her back that read “Protect Organ Pipe.”
Carol Christ, of the Sierra Club’s Borderlands Campaign, was selling Sierra Club bumper stickers for $1. “I’m selling them to raise money to fight this border wall,” the 73-year-old from Green Valley, Arizona, said.
“A lot of the emphasis has been on South Texas but Arizona has a lot of border wall miles that are being built and people need to know about it to stop it,” Christ said.
Sandra Sanchez can be reached at SSanchez@BorderReport.com.
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