CHUKUT KUK, Arizona, April 12 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) -
E ver since he can remember, Richard Saunders has seen families
cross the fence on his Native American reservation in southern
Arizona, where the U.S.-Mexican border splits his tribe's land
in two, to seek work, see a doctor or go to school.
Laborers from Mexico would stop by his grandfather's house
on the U.S. side of the reservation, the ancestral home of the
Tohono O'odham nation, which today is marked off by a barrier of
loosely spaced metal bars designed to block vehicles between the
"He'd stand out there and converse with them, take a shot
of tequila. Grandma would make them some burritos, and they'd be
on their way," recalled Saunders, a senior figure in the
nation's administration, heading its public safety department.
But Saunders and other nation members fear U.S. President
Donald Trump's plan to sever their land with a border wall will
be no different to slicing through their culture and their
"If I was to walk into your home and build a wall right in
the middle of your house, how would you like that?" said Verlon
Jose, vice chairman of the Tohono O'odham, whose name means
"Over my dead body will this happen," Jose told the Thomson
For more than a century, the Tohono O'odham - like other
Native Americans - have seen their ancestral lands shrink as a
result of hundreds of broken land deals with the U.S. government
in its westward expansion in the 1800s.
Of the 2,200-mile (3,500-km) border wall that Trump says
will stop drugs, crime and rapists from Mexico, 62 miles (100
km) would run through Tohono O'odham land, putting most of the
reservation, which is slightly larger than Lebanon, in the
United States and a smaller piece in Mexico's Sonora state.
For now, the border barrier, with three gates for the
American Indians to use, zig-zags around cactus, river beds and
ancient burial sites, letting through the desert's jaguar, deer,
pig-like javelinas, venomous Gila monster lizards and poisonous
Francine Jose, 50, a cousin to the tribe's vice chairman,
lives about four miles from the border. About 10,000 people live
north of the border, where the schools, commerce and services
are located, and another 2,000 live on the Mexican side.
"I think about the Berlin Wall," she told the Thomson
Reuters Foundation. "Why do we have to hate or be mad at the
country next to us?"
The Tohono O'odham's government has not ruled out a
high-profile protest similar to one which began last August in
the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, where activists camped for
months in opposition to a proposed oil pipeline in North Dakota.
At its height, thousands of protesters gathered at Standing
Rock, and more than 700 were arrested. The protest ended after
efforts to stop the pipeline lost in court.
"It could turn into that," said Jose, 50. "If we're to see
bulldozers start to come in, we will not be standing alone."
However, he is encouraged by Department of Homeland Security
Secretary John Kelly, who recently said it was "unlikely that we
will build a wall or physical barrier from sea to shining sea."
A suggestion by Department of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke
that electronic monitors may be used in some sections has also
helped to allay concerns.
Tribal leaders say the border could be best protected with
high-powered surveillance cameras, better access roads and more
The harsh desert itself, with no year-round sources of
running water, is an effective deterrent. Once across the
border, the nearest main roads lie 20 miles north.
Last year, the bodies of 85 migrants were found on the
reservation compared with 16 so far this year, significantly
down from years when more than 100 were found, Saunders said.
Even though barbed wire along the border was replaced by the
sturdier vehicle barrier in 2006 - in response to the rise of
Mexican drug-smuggling cartels and security fears following the
9/11 attacks - evidence of stealthy crossings is easy to spot.
Drug traffickers leave behind cloth slippers with carpeted
soles, used to obliterate their footprints.
Abandoned black plastic water jugs are strewn amid the
towering Saguaro cactus, poignant signs of thirst that can kill
in the desert where summer temperatures are typically well above
100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 Celsius).
Crisscrossed with dry stream beds, or washes, that flood
during the violent summer monsoon season, the landscape burns
under a relentless sun. Turkey vultures circle, and a few
longhorn cattle huddle under the mesquite trees.
Tohono O'odham was under Mexican jurisdiction before its
modern borders around 2.8 million acres (1.13 million hectares)
of territory were laid out in a 19th century land deal between
the neighboring nations.
Under U.S. law, Native American reservations are sovereign
nations that govern themselves, and building a border wall
through Tohono O'odham land would amount to a treaty being
broken by the U.S. government, said Carlos Veléz-Ibáñez,
Regents' Professor and Founding Director Emeritus of the School
of Transborder Studies at Arizona State University.
"Indigenous populations on their land have treaty rights,
and they're treated as nations, and they're recognized as
nations," he said. "Trump and Co. would in fact be violating the
treaty rights of indigenous nations."
Asked about Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain's position
on the reservation wall, McCain's office did not respond. He
told CNN the wall was not a "viable" option" and that border
security needs technology and drones.
The state's other U.S. Senator, Republican Jeff Flake, said
in an email that the most effective border security "might mean
a wall in some places or a fence in others, as well as the right
combination of manpower and surveillance".
"Arizona communities along the border should be a part of
the discussion and planning as they are of the most affected,"
Tohono O'odham Tribal Police, with nearly 100 officers, work
with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which has more than
1,000 agents at the reservation, said Saunders.
It's only fitting that the Tohono O'odham, who have hunted,
gathered food and grown crops for thousands of years in the
region, are caught up in issues of border protection, Jose said.
"It is embedded in our culture to protect. Not to own, but
to protect," said Jose. "That is what we are doing."
(Reporting by Ellen Wulfhorst, editing by Katie Nguyen; Please
credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of
Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights,
trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience.