Above photo: O’odham standing together at Quitobaquito before the wall was built. Conor Varela Handley.
Border wall construction is destroying the Sonoran Desert’s most sacred spring.
Growing up as a Tohono O’odham woman on my ancestral homelands taught me one thing above all: Take care of the land and the land will take care of you.
When the federal government ramped up border-wall construction in Arizona, I knew I had to fight for my homelands, which are split in half by the U.S-Mexico border. I knew that meant activating my community, facing construction workers and opposing the U.S. Border Patrol and its long history of brutalizing O’odham tribal members.
Border-wall construction has brought devastation to the land, the wildlife, the water and the people. It’s wiping out entire species of animals, taking millions of gallons of water from fragile desert aquifers, butchering protected ceremonial plants like the saguaro and organ pipe cactus, and blasting and bulldozing our ancestors’ graves.
Wall construction rips away our freedom as O’odham. It erases our traditions, culture, language, songs, ceremonies and stories. Border wall construction continues 500 years of violent colonialism.
It means we lose everything that makes us O’odham. Colonial borders have always and will always violate indigenous rights and sovereignty.
In February O’odham organizers from both sides of the “border” gathered at Quitobaquito Springs in what’s now considered Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument to hold a peaceful ceremony resisting border-wall construction. The Department of Homeland Security was already blasting ancestral graves with dynamite and depleting the sacred spring.
The night before the ceremony O’odham in the United States camped out at Quitobaquito, while O’odham in Mexico camped 100 yards away on the other side of the arbitrary line. As we settled into our camps, a group of us at Quitobaquito ran to the border to visit our sister camp. I leapt over the waist-high barrier to be welcomed by our relatives on the other side.
I felt our history coursing through the land our ancestors had cared for. I knew my ancestors once had this same feeling as they gathered in the dark at our sacred spring to honor and defend the land. There’s no English word for that feeling.
The next morning I woke to O’odham singers outside our tent by the fire. I met O’odham from Los Angeles, from the Salt River Pima Maricopa Indian Community near Phoenix and across the Southwest. People came from places far and wide to protect their homelands.
O’odham women have always been the water carriers for our families as child bearers and water runners. That morning the women went to the springs and gathered water to cleanse everyone at both camps. All 26 of us women walked to the border.
We passed water from our sacred springs to our relatives in Mexico, right where the 30-foot steel wall is now being built. We talked about the beauty of our people coming together. We shared the water with the women across the border so they could be part of the ceremony. We cried.
More than 60 O’odham made it to Quitobaquito Springs for the ceremony. We camped, sang, prayed and danced in the desert. There are few photographs, but there is one I’ll remember forever. We’re all standing hand in hand, in Mexico and in the United States. We:m Keke:koi, which in O’odham means “standing together.”
Wall construction is now happening at the very place we held this ceremony. Groundwater aquifers are being drained and bulldozers are ripping into the earth at the sacred spring.
Our visits to the border have always been peaceful, but federal officials are meeting us with violence.
National Park Service rangers have been filmed assaulting and pointing weapons at peaceful Indigenous land and water protectors. They threw two Hia-Ced O’odham women in jail for defending the sacred spring from destruction. Following the September arrests, the National Park Service closed all access to Quitobaquito, stopping me and other O’odham tribal members from visiting our sacred spring to protest or to pray.
The National Park Service is supposed to be protecting sacred sites like Quitobaquito. Instead they’re kicking us off our ancestral lands and throwing us in jail for trying to stop the destruction.
Colonial borders, barricades and police violence will not shake our obligation to these sacred places. We’ll continue to take care of this land. And the land will take care of us.