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28 Nov 2020 3:29
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  •   Home > News > International

    Donald Trump's border wall is 'desecrating' sacred Indigenous sites, tribal leaders say. Could the US election change this?

    For Indigenous communities separated by the US-Mexico border, Donald Trump's border wall means destruction for their traditional lands and burial grounds. Will a Biden presidency stop this?

    Depending on who you ask, the border that separates the US and Mexico is a symbol of defence or distress.

    The 3,219-kilometre boundary has become increasingly militarised, with swathes of desert being carved up to build American border infrastructure.

    Mexican-American writer Gloria Anzaldúa once referred to this region as "una herida abierta" — an open wound — where the "the third world grates against the first and bleeds".

    This vision has taken on a new resonance in recent decades as scores of migrants have died or been maimed while attempting to cross the harsh desert frontier.

    More than 1,200 people have died at the border since 2016, according to US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) figures.

    But these figures may be higher because the US Government Accountability Office found the CBP "does not have reliable information on deaths, serious injuries, and suicide attempts".

    Trump Administration officials have also separated migrant children from their parentsafter they have been apprehended at the border.

    About 545 children remain separated from their parents,two-thirds of whom are believed to be back in their countries of origin, according to court documents from the American Civil Liberties Union.

    In Donald Trump's United States, this border is sold as a sign of strength — and to some, its saviour — designed to prevent informal migration.

    But for Indigenous communities that straddle the border, the wall has meant destruction of their sacred lands and burial sites, some of which have been literally blown up in order to facilitate the wall's construction.

    "We have all of these sovereign tribal nations whose ancestral lands clearly are not defined by an arbitrary border that was imposed on them by US colonisers," Laiken Jordahl, a borderlands campaigner at the US Center for Biological Diversity, told the ABC.

    So will anything change if Joe Biden and his Democratic Party wins the November 3 election?

    What has happened on the US south-west border under Trump?

    Each year,hundreds of thousands of migrants — including individuals, families, and unaccompanied children — attempt to enter the US without going through official checkpoints.

    Between October 2019 and September 2020, an average of 1,098 people a day were apprehended between checkpoints, according to the CBP.

    Not all of the US border is fenced off. The Rio Grande, separating Mexico and Texas, is largely free from infrastructure, and there are some gaps in the rugged, mountainous terrain that stretches from west Texas to the Pacific.

    Ahead of his election, Mr Trump's presidential pitch was to fully seal the border, something he wanted Mexico to pay for.

    "I would build a great wall — and nobody builds walls better than me, believe me — and I'll build them very inexpensively. I will build a great, great wall on our southern border," Mr Trump said in a 2015 speech.

    In January 2017, Mr Trump, now the President, signed an executive order that directed the US Government to build the wall using existing federal funding.

    But to date, not one Mexican peso has gone towards the construction. Just 4.8 extra kilometres of border infrastructure — consisting of mostly tall, steel fencing — has gone up since Mr Trump has been in office, according to data compiled by Politifact, a US-based fact-checking non-profit organisation.

    Most construction work has been upgrades to existing barriers.

    How have Indigenous communities been impacted?

    The south-west border of the US is a relatively recent invention in North America's history.

    Mexico ceded an enormous swathe of its territory to Washington in 1848, following its defeat in the Mexican-American War. This is known as the Mexican Cession.

    Today, 36 US-recognised Indigenous nations remain split by the border. They include the Kumeyaay, Pai, Cocopah, O'odham, Yaqui, Apache and Kickapoo people.

    None of these nations were part of border negotiations between Mexico and the US, and the ramifications are still being felt today.

    Christina Andrews is a Hia-Ced O'odham woman and is chair of the Hia-Ced Hemajkam organisation, which advocates for US federal recognition of her tribe.

    "The Hia-Ced O'odham Aboriginal land title was never extinguished because the Hia-Ced O'odham never gave consent, nor had knowledge of the conveyance, nor were they compensated for the taking of their Aboriginal territory," Ms Andrews said.

    Hia-Ced O'odham are one of many Indigenous nations that have relatives spread across northern Mexico and the south-west US.

    But for those born south of the border, accessing shared lands across the border remains difficult,because Mexico and the US do not have a treaty that sets out cross-border migration for Indigenous communities.

    Presently, US Indigenous communities have had to issue their Mexican counterparts with a "letter of invitation" to get them over.

    Christina Leza, a linguistic anthropologist and Yoeme-Chicana activist scholar at Colorado College, said this process was not fail-safe, and it sometimes subjected people to humiliating experiences.

    "[Indigenous peoples] are often challenged on their Indigenous identity, even when they have the appropriate paperwork to cross the border for cultural events in in the United States," Dr Leza said.

    She said Border Patrol agents had asked "inappropriate" questions of Indigenous people, including requests "to speak their language or sing or dance traditional songs" to verify their identity.

    The ABC approached the Department of Homeland Security for comment, but it did not respond by the time of publication.

    What has been the response to the destruction of Indigenous sites?

    In February, border wall construction crews carried out controlled explosions that damaged sacred sites of the O'odham peoples in southern Arizona.

    Peter Steere, Tohono O'odham's tribal historic preservation officer, told local newspaper, the Arizona Republic, the blasts had damaged Monument Hill, the site of Apache remains and where religious ceremonies were held.

    Tohono O'odham Nation chair Ned Norris Jnr told a congressional hearing the Federal Government's "disrespect" and "desecration" of sacred sites was "deeply painful".

    "As Americans, we all should be horrified that the Federal Government has so little respect for our religious and cultural values, and does not appear to have any intention of slowing down enough to understand or avoid the harm it is causing," Mr Norris said.

    Ms Andrews said construction has also "destroyed" a children's shrine at Quitobaquito Springs, also known as Ar'vai'pia.

    "Ar'va'pia is where there is a natural spring, surrounded by our cemetery, children's shrine, and equally important, our memories and sacredness of who we are as a people," she said.

    Both Quitobaquito Springs and Monument Hill sit in the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, which was designated a UNESCO international biosphere reserve in 1976.

    Mr Jordhal says the wall construction also threatens the region's "incredible biological diversity", where "one cactus can take 10 years to reach the size of a fist".

    "Together, the National Park Service in the US and Mexico encompass the single-biggest protected Sonoran Desert ecosystem anywhere on the planet. This border wall's ripping right through the heart of that ecosystem," he told the ABC.

    Mr Jordahl, who previously used to work for the park service, added the wall would interrupt the migration of "hundreds of species".

    "It will stop the migration of every single species of wildlife larger than a pocket mouse," he said.

    "And once you destabilise this, its lasting damage is on a scale that humans just can't comprehend."

    How has this been allowed to happen?

    US governments have been able to build border infrastructure easily along the south-west corridor between California and New Mexico because the Federal Government is the region's primary land owner.

    From 2005, this became easier, as US governments could waive all local, state and federal legislation that protected the environmental and civil rights of border communities.

    This was due to the passage of the Real ID Act, which set minimum identification standards nationwide, as recommended by a commission into the September 11 terror attacks.

    A subsection of the law also granted the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) sweeping powers to override existing laws to allow for border construction.

    So far, the Trump Administration has invalidated 48 laws, including ones designed to protect clean water, endangered species and Native American graves.

    It has shared few explanations about the rationale for these overrides outside of national security arguments, and has repeatedly refused to respond to accusations that it is responsible for the desecration of Indigenous sites.

    DHS acting secretary Chad Wolf said in testimony to the US Senate in February this year his department erred "on the side of caution on what we waive".

    And when asked at a Senate hearing in September about the threats the border wall posed to heritage, Mr Wolf said the DHS continued to minimise its impact and referred to Mr Trump's declaration of a national emergency to build the wall.

    "It's been very clear [the wall] is a national security issue, and we're going to continue to build that," he said.

    John Echohawk, executive director at the Native American Rights Fund, disagreed with Mr Wolf's statements.

    "The Trump Administration just ignored tribes and did whatever they had to do to build that wall," Mr Echohawk said.

    Will a change in government change border policy?

    Yes, but not exactly the kind of change border communities might be hoping for.

    Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden has pledged to reverse many of Mr Trump's policies, including the construction of the border wall.

    But Mr Biden has not promised to tear down sections of the border wall already built, despite havingpledged to Native Americans to "restore lands and protect the natural and cultural resources within them".

    Mr Biden's campaign website also lists a pledge to honour US "trust and treaty obligations" to Native Americans, but it does not mention a treaty-based solution to make it easier for northern Mexico's Indigenous communities to access their traditional lands across the border.

    Regardless of what happens after the election, Indigenous border communities will continue to fight to protect their land.

    "Where others may view the land and animals as independent from existence, a Native American will view land and animals as sustenance for strength and survival," Ms Andrews said.

    "The land is who we are as people. There is no separating the it from us."

    © 2020 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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