Tohono O’odham Group: Border Wall Would Block Sacred Pilgrimage

Published: Saturday, July 20, 2019 - 8:05pm
Updated: Sunday, July 21, 2019 - 11:46am
Murphy Woodhouse/KJZZ
Vehicle barriers form the border west of Sonoyta, Sonora, south of Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument.

A proposed section of U.S.-Mexico border fence in southern Arizona would pose a threat to a sacred tradition of the Tohono O’odham people.

The U.S. government hopes to build roughly 43 miles of bollard-style fencing in Pima County. It would run along the edge of Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, according to a U.S. Customs and Border Protection document.

But it would also cut through the route used by the Tohono O’odham people for their Salt Pilgrimage.

“It would cause a sacred journey to cease on its traditional route that has been for many, many years,” said Verlon Jose, the recently appointed governor of the Traditional O’odham Leaders, which represents members south of the border. Jose was previously the vice chairman of the Tohono O’odham Nation in Arizona.

The traditional leaders approved a resolution last week opposing the wall construction out of concern for both environmental and cultural impacts.

The pilgrimage is a key rite of passage for young men, and salt harvested from the Sea of Cortez coast is used in ceremonies, according to Jose. Currently there are only low-slung vehicle barriers near Quitobaquito Springs, a desert oasis in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument along the salt pilgrimage route.

On May 15, the Department of Defense awarded a $646 million contract to New Mexico-based Southwest Valley Contractors for a “Tucson Sector barrier wall replacement project,” according to a DOD release.

The same day, acting Secretary of Homeland Security Kevin McAleenan published in the Federal Register waivers of numerous federal laws for a border wall construction project in Southern Arizona.

Construction of the border project is currently held up in court.

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