Tohono O’Odham tribe helps to protect land, animals at border
Nevada Appeal News Service
Editor’s note: This is the third story of a five-part series about the National Guard’s involvement with Operation Jump Start. Nevada Appeal News Service reporter Steve Ranson, who is a member of the Nevada Army National Guard and managing editor of its quarterly newspaper, recently returned from a five-day trip to the U.S.-Mexico border.
NOGALES, Arizona – Thunder rolled across the Tohono O’Odham Indian Nation one August afternoon like a percussionist pounding on the kettle drums for the Tucson Symphony Orchestra.
Clouds moving in from northern Mexico began to envelop most of the reservation that straddles the Arizona-Mexico border 25 miles south of Sells, the administrative hub for more than 22,000 people.
In a small, red, import car, tribal monitor Linda Preston and two archaeologists followed a Nevada Air National Guard engineering squadron for almost two weeks as airmen used graders to improve a dirt road that parallels the border.
The guardsmen from the 152nd Civil Engineering Squadron in Reno recently returned from southern Arizona as part of Operation Jump Start, a two-year mission directed by President Bush to send more than 6,000 guardsmen to help the U.S. Border Patrol improve its day-to-day operations and to increase the agency’s number of agents along the border.
With three graders smoothing the road, a backhoe operator filled in a wash formed by the runoff from the torrential monsoon rains that have drenched southern Arizona, New Mexico and western Texas for more than a month.
Other airmen used their shovels to smooth the edges of the road and to knock down piles of dirt left by the graders.
Changes at the nation
Preston considers herself a fortunate person who live on this reservation, the second largest in the United States and roughly the size of Connecticut.
Except for four years when she attended the Stewart Indian School in Carson City, the 1970 graduate has spent most of her life on the reservation, and she wants to see the land restored to its pristine beauty, something her ancestors enjoyed for generations.
“Our tribe has never moved from here,” she said from the passenger seat.
But Preston and her people have seen many changes during the past 10 years, especially with the increased number of illegal immigrants crossing the border and heading north across tribal lands.
The Tohono O’Odham people have fought environmental problems for years with the increased amount of trash left by illegal immigrants.
Preston and other tribal members also lament the explosion of thousands of illegal immigrants crossing a 75-mile stretch of border on Indian land.
Adam Andrews, executive assistant to the Tohono-O’Odham nation’s Chairwoman Vivian Juan-Saunders, said the tribe picked up 75 tons of trash left by the illegal immigrants from September 2004 to June 2006.
The border is littered with piles of plastic bottles and cans.
“We’ve been able to get money from the federal government through our solid-waste program to pick up the trash,” Andrews said.
Now, with more U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agents and National Guardsman deployed to the area, Preston doesn’t want to see her ancestral land damaged any more.
John Lindemuth, an archeologist with Gulf South Research Corps in Baton Rouge, La., is also assisting with the monitor work.
“We are making sure nothing else is disturbed,” he said.
John Burge, a Border Patrol agent assigned to the Casa Grande office, a two-hour drive from the reservation, said the tribe has asked his agency to mark off several areas east of the San Miguel gate, an informal port of entry into the United States. He said shards or broken pieces of pottery are scattered in some areas along the border’s red clay road.
“This is very predominant art that has been out here for a long time. I also found an ax head near here last week,” Burge said.
with the feds
Both Preston and Andrews are seeing better cooperation between the tribe and federal government. Andrews said working relationships with the Border Patrol have slightly improved during the past year.
“We have seen some improvements,” Andrews said.
However, he said it’s too early to assess the National Guard’s work and how effective the units will be in their support of Operation Jump Start.
But a spokesman for the Border Patrol has seen better cooperation with the nation.
“Any construction project impacts the nation,” said Gustavo Soto, a Border Patrol agent serving as public-information officer for the Tucson sector. “We want the nation’s OK.”
Soto said the Border Patrol and the National Guard are working together with the Tohono O’Odham nation to keep the land intact, but they have miles and miles of land to cover.
The tribe has approved the construction of vehicle barriers to slow down the illegal aliens from crossing into the United States.
“This barrier is designed to stop vehicles, but it still allows animal migration,” Soto said.
Preston said the reservation has many animals native to the region like rabbits, snakes, gila monsters, coyotes, bobcats and tarantulas.
The nation, which has population of 22,000, shares a 75-mile border with Mexico. Approximately, 2,000 of the reservation’s residents live in Mexico. Relatives and friends who possess a tribal identity card are able to enter each other’s country at the San Miguel gate.
Lt. Col. Craig Wesner, commander of the 152nd Civil Engineering Squadron and a Virginia City High School graduate, said he likes having the monitor and archaeologists in the area.
“If we dig up archeological sites, then they can immediately assess the situation,” he said.
Soto added the U.S. government respects the rights of a sovereign nation, and the monitors want to keep the land as sacred as possible.
The 150th Maintenance Co. assists the Border Patrol with vehicle repair at their Nogales station and surrounding armories.
Reporter’s ride-along with Border Patrol agents gives a front-row perspective on border problems.