The Tohono O’odham Nation’s tribal leader delivered emotional testimony Wednesday likening construction of President Donald Trump’s border wall through Arizona’s Indigenous cultural and burial sites to the desecration of Arlington National Cemetery.
“These sites are not only sacred to the Nation; they are a part of our shared cultural heritage as United States citizens,” Tohono O’odham Chairman Ned Norris Jr. said before the House Natural Resources Subcommittee for Indigenous Peoples of the United States.
“For us, this is no different from [the Department of Homeland Security] building a 30-foot wall along Arlington Cemetery or through the grounds of the National Cathedral,” he said. “The federal government owes our government and the governments of local border communities more respect.”
Norris’ testimony came as the Trump administration continued to bulldoze and detonate areas of land along the U.S.-Mexico border to make way for a wall. Such targeted sites include the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, a UNESCO biosphere reserve that’s internationally protected. It’s the only place in the U.S. where the state-protected organ pipe cactus, which can live over 150 years, grows.
In addition to containing endangered species, the national monument features ancient Native American burial sites, including that of Monument Hill, which to tribal members’ horror underwent a controlled detonation ahead of Wednesday’s hearing.
Human bone fragments linked to the Tohono O’odham Tribe are still found on Monument Hill, archaeologist Rick Martynec, who has worked in the area for 30 years, told NPR in a recent interview.
“They killed Apache warriors. They would take ― bring the warriors up to the top of the hill and just leave them,” he said.
An aquifer beneath the national monument’s Quitobaquito spring, where ancient bone fragments were found last year, is also being used to pump water for mixing cement and watering down dirt roads. This pumping has ignited concerns about water levels and animals that inhabit the area.
Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) was among those expressing anger over the land’s destruction at the hearing, saying he toured areas facing demolition with the tribe in January and was shown several cultural sites that lay in its path.
“Thousands of years of history and cultural significance disappeared. Since my visit, 50% of the sacred sites identified by the nation have been destroyed. The fact that the federal government has continued to blast this area with human bone fragments ... is quite frankly barbarous,” he told the committee.
“What would normally be considered a war crime for destroying cultural sites in another country is now considered status quo of this president and the administration, and this needs to stop,” he added.
Grijalva said he looks forward to hearing “why the administration continues to treat tribes as second-class citizens. The lands they’ve owned, they’ve owned and lived on before the very development of this country.”
The White House and the Department of Homeland Security did not send representatives to the hearing.
Border Patrol Chief Roy D. Villareal, in statements shared Tuesday on Twitter, said that no burial sites or human remains have been found by archaeological monitors working with Customs and Border Protection. He added that construction and demolition along Monument Hill are taking place in areas where fencing had been previously erected.
Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.), the only Republican to speak at the hearing, emphasized the Trump administration’s mission to prevent illegal drugs, cartels, terrorists and illegal traffickers from entering the U.S. from Mexico. He said he’s “disappointed when illegal activities have caused cultural sites to be lost” but that to date only two bone fragments have been discovered and both are in the process of being returned to tribal leaders.
He went on to accuse Democrats and the Native American tribes of making the construction a political issue rather than one about cultural heritage or the environment, arguing that migrants crossing through the reserve from Mexico have led to an abundance of trash and have destroyed land from their vehicles.
“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.”