Member of Hia Ced O’odham tribe says border wall is ‘desecrating’ ancestral remains in Arizona

Border Report
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ORGAN PIPE CACTUS NATIONAL MONUMENT, Ariz. (Border Report) — Nellie Jo David broke into tears on Tuesday afternoon when she tried to describe the “devastation” that she feels because of a 30-foot-tall border wall that is soon to be built through what she considers her tribe’s sacred and “spiritual lands” in southwestern Arizona.

David is part of the Hia Ced O’odham tribe. She grew up in Ajo, Arizona, the nearest town to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument — a 515-mile wildlife refuge that she says is the backyard for her people. More importantly, these desert acres filled with striking 200-year-old saguaro cacti bear the ancestral remains of her tribe, she says.

“Since they are waiving all the laws to build the wall, our ancestors’ bones are not being respected,” said David, who has a law degree from Michigan State University and has been active in organizing against the wall being built on these lands.

Because the area is on federal land, operated under the National Park Service, the Trump Administration has waived environmental and other restrictions to begin building a portion of the wall here where the refuge meets the Mexican border.

This dusty desert is void of anything commercial or industrial. One paved road runs through it and the rest are unmarked dirt trails that David said she ran barefoot as a child.

It is here where the elders told them stories about their tribe, she said.

It is here where they celebrate their New Year, after the harvest of the succulent fruit that the saguaro bear.

And it is here, she said, where undoubtedly thousands of her tribe have had their bones laid over the centuries.

“It’s a big hurt and it’s not just the recent encroachment of the border wall. That’s a big deal, but we’ve had an ongoing militarization presence here for a very long time,” said David, who now lives in Tucson and still comes frequently to the park.

On Tuesday, she rallied some other “activists” to join her. She thought nothing of the two-hour drive to give Border Report a tour of what she says are “their lands” regardless of the U.S. government’s claim.

“It hurts. It hurts to have these outside forces occupying our own lands and treating us as if we don’t belong when we have a very strong history here,” she said.

David said that many of the tribespeople are buried in marked graves, others have rock formations or other decorative commemorations marking their resting spot, but not everyone. “There are also more where we don’t know where they are because we’ve had such a long history and that’s what I’m talking about with the wall.”

The 9-mile 30-foot-tall border wall is to be built on a mountainous rise parallel to a current shorter metal fence, which was built about 10 years ago. When it was built, David said that the tribal elders were notified that artifacts and bones of the Hia Ced O’odham tribe were found there.

Now, David worries how many other artifacts and bones will be disturbed by this bigger border wall, which is to have a concrete base that goes deep into the earth to prevent tunneling.

“They’re taking a part of our history,” David said. “There is a process and procedure to rebury these bones into the ground and do it in a ceremonial way. However, it is still a desecration because we believe these people were left where they were for a reason and that their bodies should not be disturbed.”

Sandra Sanchez can be reached at She is part of a 10-day crew who are reporting from San Diego to Brownsville, Texas, covering the Southwest border on the Border Tour.

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