The tragic story of the Native Americans is well known if seldom reflected upon. There is little argument that their entire existence as they knew it was destroyed by the coming of the white man and that in the subsequent centuries they were reduced to a form of imprisoned penury that in some cases persists to this day.
News that Native American burial sites are being decimated in order to allow the construction of sections of Donald Trump’s border wall should come as little surprise. That they are being destroyed violently – blasted by dynamite along with centuries-old cacti that line the route of the proposed wall – is just another insult in an endless stream of determined government action to bring the Native American nations to their knees.
Those affected by this latest travesty are the Tohono O’odham, traditionally inhabitants of the Sonoran Desert that straddles the US-Mexico border. Unlike the stereotypical view of marauding ‘Indians’ across the Great Plains, the Tohono O’odham were a fairly settled people on first contact with Europeans, cultivating beans and peas in addition to hunting. It was the Spanish that first encountered them, Catholic missionaries having limited success in their proselytizing endeavours, whilst military efforts were equally fruitless, the Tohono O’odham using the advantage of an inhospitable terrain to drive the Europeans back.
Even during the colonial period it was the nomadic Apache tribes that caused the Tohono O’odham most grief, particularly during times of hardship when they would swoop down on their bean and pea crops, slaughtering anyone in their way.
It is slightly ironic that a number of the graves being razed host Apache remains, the Tohono O’odham affording their rival warriors an honourable burial as was custom amongst many Native American peoples.
There was no prescribed ceremony of burial, though the body was carried out with more or less solemnity by selected young men, and sometimes noted warriors were the pall-bearers of a man of distinction. It was usual to choose a prominent position with a commanding outlook for the last resting-place of our dead. If a man were slain in battle, it was an old custom to place his body against a tree or rock in a sitting position, always facing the enemy, to indicate his undaunted defiance and bravery, even in death (Lewis (ed.), 2004, p.411)
Sadly defiance and bravery can do little in the face of modern blasting explosives. Yet these are sacred areas for multiple groups of people, with archaeological artefacts dating back thousands of years. It should also be noted that the wall is ploughing through an important biosphere reserves, the mutilated saguaro cacti unique examples of their type.
How can they get away with this? People ask the question with the assumption that this construction simply must be an illegal act. However, as we have seen time and again in recent years, ‘national security’ trumps all. It has been used to justify drone strikes in civilian-crowded areas, to ban certain foreign nationals from entering the United States, to withdraw from important trade and climate agreements. It is an unstoppable force, with legal loopholes abounding, limited impact assessment and zero accountability.
The Tohono O’odham survived the Spanish incursion and Apache raids in the 16th and 17th centuries, maintaining their arable lifestyle and cultural traditions. By the late 19th century, however, the onslaught of Anglo-European expansion from the north ensured a swift end to resistance, even forcing the Tohono O’odham to align with their bitter Apache rivals in a desperate attempt to stave off their annihilation.
Even in death there is no escape from discrimination and cultural genocide. Will the wall pass through a centuries-old Christian cemetery should the occasion arise? I think not.
Lewis, J E (ed.), The Mammoth Book of Native Americans (2004)