Construction of President Trump's border wall already has damaged cultural sites that are sacred to the Tohono O'odham Nation, including burial grounds, the tribe's chairman said during a Congressional hearing on Wednesday.
The Tohono O'odham Nation in southern Arizona shares a 62-mile border with Mexico which splits the tribe's ancestral territory in two, and which has become increasingly militarized in recent decades.
Chairman Ned Norris Jr. told a Congressional subcommittee that his tribe was not formally consulted prior to blasting and bulldozing activity that damaged cultural sites.
Among the affected areas were Monument Hill, a ceremonial and historic battle site, and Quitobaquito Springs, an important water source that tribal members visit annually as part of a salt pilgrimage. Archaeologists have found human bone fragments in both areas.
"For us, this is no different from [the Department of Homeland Security] building a 30-foot wall along Arlington Cemetery," Norris told the the Natural Resources Committee Subcommittee for Indigenous Peoples of the United States.
Arizona Congressman Raúl Grijalva, a member of the subcommittee, said he toured both of the affected areas with the tribe in January, where tribal members identified several cultural sites in the line of construction projects related to Trump's border wall.
"Since my visit, 50 percent of the sacred sites identified by the nation have been destroyed," Grijalva said. "The fact that the federal government continues to blast this area with human bone fragments of several tribes in the 21st century is quite frankly barbarous."
Federal authorities have disputed the tribe's accusations. Though the Department of Homeland Security did not send a representative to Wednesday's hearing, the agency has previously issued a statement that "no biological, cultural, or historical sites were identified within the project area."
The Tohono O'odham has countered that agency's finding does not comport with the human bone fragments found in the areas.
Although federal law requires governments to consult with tribes when constructing around or on cultural sites, the Trump administration has invoked a special waiver that allows authorities to bypass regulations like the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Air Act, and the Antiquities Act when constructing border barriers.
Trump's Department of Homeland Security has used the barrier construction waiver 15 times since taking office, noted Sarah Krakoff, a University of Colorado law professor who testified during the hearing. That's more than any other president. For instance, the George W. Bush administration used the waiver four times during his presidency, while Barack Obama's administration did not use it at all.
Republican Arizona Congressman Paul Gosar, another member of the subcommittee, claimed that Democrats raising concerns about Tohono O'odham cultural sites were simply using them as a "prop" to undermine Trump's border wall.
In one particularly contentious exchange, Gosar asked Professor Krakoff whether "illegal border-crossers bathing, drinking, and defecating” in Quitobaquito Springs has any impact on the site without offering evidence that such activities are happening.
Krakoff began answering by saying one could do an assessment of the relative impact on migrant crossings compared with wall construction when Gosar interrupted her. "Yes or no. It's my time. It is my time. It is my time. It is my time. It is my time. It is my time," he said.
As the hearing was underway in Washington, the Department of Homeland continued blasting at Monument Hill.
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