“Over my dead body,”* said Verlon Jose, vice chairman of the Tohono O’odham Nation. He was categorical—if Donald Trump wants to extend the wall along the Mexican border, the indigenous people of this Arizona reserve want nothing of it. The future president will probably not listen to them. During the 1990s, he notoriously waged a fierce trade war against American Indian casinos because they were encroaching on his empire. In front of a 1993 Congressional committee, he questioned whether the Mashantucket Pequots were really American Indians. He even mocked the ancestors of Elizabeth Warren, calling her Pocahontas in July 2016.
Despite this, Verlon Jose, who was a representative for the border district of Chukut Kuk in Arizona, is a man who vehemently hammers his dissent home. Some people think he’s reckless. Some worry that in an open-carry state with highly active border militias, his previous statement could be taken literally. Nevertheless, the 33,000 members of the reservation, who voted overwhelmingly for Clinton, are worried that the 120 kilometers of border that separate them from sacred lands and community members in Mexico will be walled up. They constantly remind people that it’s a border for whites, not for them, and that crossing that border is one of the Tohono O’odham Nation’s rights.
This ecologically fragile desert zone is under surveillance by a network of Elbit Systems cameras, which can detect an adult from 12 kilometers away, day or night. More substantial infrastructure (like a wall) would just displace illegal immigration, not reduce it. Drones, access ramps, sophisticated tunnels: traffickers innovated as the border became more rigid. For now, the promise of another wall is only increasing the flow of migrants trying to cross before it’s too late.
But President Trump wants to show that he’s a man of action— no matter the cost. It doesn’t matter that the cost of this gargantuan infrastructure can range from $1.5 million to $8 million per kilometer. It doesn’t matter that his ally, Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, a true torturer convicted for his migrant hunt and detention methods, was rejected by voters on Nov. 8. It doesn’t matter if the sovereignty of the Tohono O’odham Nation is violated. Because the new president thinks little of indigenous people. Consider this: In 2000, he donated $1 million to a campaign linking New York state’s Catskill Mountains Mohawks to drug trafficking and violence.
The protesters in Standing Rock must take this situation into account. Since last April, the Sioux of Standing Rock have denounced the lack of consultation, the destruction of sacred and archaeological sites and the possible contamination of the Missouri River from the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline—a $5 million project whose goal is to transport 470,000 barrels of crude oil a day from North Dakota’s oil fields to Illinois.
On this territory established by the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie, the Sioux do not have full sovereignty. In 1992, however, they acquired the right to be consulted. But protesters needed to increase their pressure tactics for the Army Corps of Engineers to temporarily halt construction on the part that passes under the Missouri River, and even then, they had to ask a judge for an injunction.
But the company decided not to wait and continued construction. The disproportionate amount of repression has only increased, some of which has been outsourced to private security contractors. Their headline-making attack dogs were criticized by Democracy Now! journalist Amy Goodman (who was accused of rioting, a charge thrown out by a judge). These measures were in part implemented by the sheriff of Morton County, whose militarized police force is equipped with heavy-duty equipment (tanks, tasers).
This situation could continue since the president-elect, who will take office on Jan. 20, very clearly stated his support for fossil fuels. He owns stock in the company that is building the pipeline, and the company’s president and CEO gave $100,000 to Trump’s campaign.
The Obama Administration is racing against time to save public lands before Jan. 20. Though it has banned gold mining within a large area near Yellowstone, blocked drilling in the Arctic Ocean off the coast of Alaska and cancelled mining and oil and natural gas extraction permits in Montana and Colorado, the government has prudently stated that it wants to let the process run its course in the upcoming weeks. But Standing Rock has become a rallying cry for indigenous people and environmentalists. Before even taking office, the new government may have hit its first wall.
*Editor’s note: This quote, though accurately translated, could not be verified.