As my recent cover story "Blood's Thicker Than Water" dealt, in part, with activist Mike Wilson's efforts to leave water on the Tohono O'odham Nation for migrants crossing over, I attempted mightily to ask some questions of nation Chairman Ned Norris, Jr. concerning the humanitarian crisis there.
I even buttonholed Norris at a big rodeo in Sells, the nation's capital. He told me, "I'm not going to answer your questions here," then referred me to his lieutenant, who in turn referred me to a PR firm that works for the nation, Strategic Issues Management Group.
Matt Smith, a rep for SIMG got back to me with a statement from the chairman, which you can read in its entirety, here. Unfortunately, I got it as it my story was going to press, so I was not able to include it in the feature.
The statement vaguely addresses my questions concerning Wilson being forbidden to put out water on tribal lands by one of the tribal districts, though Wilson continues to do so anyway. The tribe has a federal system of government, made up of 11 districts.
"The Tohono O'odham Nation's Executive Office," reads the statement, "is committed to upholding the constitution and respecting the rights of each district. As such, it does not and will not encroach upon District's decision to prohibit water stations within its boundaries. This is a local issue for the local government. It is also a policy that has been in place for several years and one that is known by Nation members."
Wilson, who will be in Scottsdale Tuesday and Thursday for a Q & A session after a screening of the border documentary Crossing Arizona (see details below), took issue with Chairman Norris' statement, calling the statement an abrogation of the nation's moral responsibility to act.
"The nation has refused to acknowledge, even in its vocabulary, that human beings are dying on tribal lands," said Wilson if the Norris statement, which refers to "illegal immigration" and to "migrants" crossing, but not to the deaths. "It has repeatedly refused to accept any kind of moral responsibility for migrants dying in the desert."
On the issue of the districts acting independently, Wilson had this to say:
"We've heard this argument before...It's a legal fig leaf to hide behind that notion that it's up to the districts to determine their own policies. That's true to an extent, but the nation should not resort to legalism. This is a human rights issue."
In his statement, Norris also talks of the nation agreeing to the placement of "eight highly visible beacon towers" on the nation by Border Patrol, which a migrant could use to signal for help if needed. Wilson stated that the beacons are "not sufficient to prevent migrant deaths," and asserted that these beacons are not often used.
"I find it very hypocritical," replied Wilson, "for the Tohono O'odham Nation to say that tribal members cannot provide humanitarian aid, but that the Border Patrol can provide humanitarian aid in the form of these rescue beacons, because these beacons are there to prevent migrants from dying in the desert.
"I think that also clearly demonstrates that the Tohono O'Odham Nation has surrendered its will to the U.S. Border Patrol."
U.S. border policy has closed off urban areas of migration, creating a "funnel effect" that channels migrants into remote, desolate terrain, and the Tohono O'odham Nation has borne the brunt of the ill effects of this. The tribe estimates that it costs its police force $3 million annually to deal with various border-related problem such as drug-running, trash, and so on.
However, scores of migrant corpses are found each year. Last fiscal year, the tribes own numbers say 55 remains were discovered, and in past years, it's been as high as 83, according to other sources. An organized humanitarian response seems called for on the nation, but groups such as Humane Borders and No More Deaths are not allowed onto the reservation to put out water. So it's left to Wilson, as a tribal member, to do so.
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As mentioned Wilson will be in Scottsdale on March 2 and March 4 for Q & A sessions following screenings of the documentary Crossing Arizona, which features Wilson's work, in part.
The first showing will be Tuesday, March 2, at the Scottsdale Civic Center Library Auditorium, from 6 to 8 p.m., 3839 N. Drinkwater Blvd., Scottsdale. Call 480-312-7323 for more info.
The second will be Thursday March 4 at Scottsdale's Mustang Library, from Noon to 2 p.m. 10101 N. 90th Street. Also call 480-312-7323 for more info.
In both cases, admission is free.