O’odham, supporters reaffirm religious practices in border ceremony

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QUITOBAQUITO SPRINGS — Eleanor Ortega filled a clear plastic water bottle from the small current of a sacred spring that has sprouted lifefor centuries in the heart of the Sonoran desert.

It sustained generations of Tohono and Hia-Ced O’odham — the Desert and Sand Dune People, respectively — including her great-great-grandfather, who is buried a short distance away.

As the sun began its ascent into the clear Sunday sky, she poured the water into a pumpkin gourd lying in the hardened white sand next to her. 

When she finished, she picked the gourd up with both hands, stepped over the concrete-lined ditch carrying the water downstream, and began walking back along a clearly-marked trail. 

“When I was young, my grandfather used to bring me up here all the time,” Ortega said as she walked, the sand crunching loudly beneath her black sandals, and the water swishing rhythmically inside the gourd between her hands.

“At that time there was six springs,” she added. “Now, we’re down to one because there’s no more water coming out like it used to.” 

Eleanor Ortega, gets a water from Quitobaquito Springs during a ritual ceremony by Tohono and Hia-Ced O’odham organized a cross-border prayer run and ceremony to reaffirm religious and cultural practices along the Arizona-Mexico border. For tribal nations along the U.S.-Mexico border, such as the Hia-Ced and Tohono O’odham, the construction of these border barriers threatens to further sever their members living on the Mexican side from the tribal communities, rituals and services in the United States. And along the way, they argue, the construction is imperiling sacred sites, like Quitobaquito Springs, that have been a part of the lives of tribal members on either side of the border, before there even was a border. (Photo: Nick Oza/The Republic)

Located within the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, hundreds of yards north of the U.S.-Mexico border, Quitobaquito Springs is a literal oasis in the desert, one of few natural sources of water for many miles around.

Ortega walked along the trail until it ended at a dirt lot adjacent to the border. More than a dozen cars parked next to each other. Their occupants, a mix of Hia-Ced, Tohono and Akimel O’odham, non-indigenous supporters from southern Arizona, and members of other tribal nations from around the state and the Southwest.

“We came up from Salt River to offer support from our people in that direction, and offer support for the grieving that (O’odham) are going through at this time with the desecration of some of our sacred sites in the land,” Anthony Collins said as he arrived.

He’s one of several members of the On’k Akimel O’odham, the “Salt River People” of the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community east of Phoenix, that drove down to pay their respects.

“We come here over the years for ceremonial gatherings and so we have that sort of cultural tie” to the Tohono and Hia-Ced O’odham, he said.

The group of about 50 people, gathered in prayer Sunday morning on the Arizona side of the border. Another 30 O’odham gathered south, in Sonora. The two groups stood divided by the international boundary between the United States and Mexico.

The purpose of Sunday’s binational prayer run was to heal, Ortega said. 

The O’odham considers Quitobaquito Springs as sacred, in large part because of its life-giving water. But water levels at a spring-fed retention pond a brief walk from the border have fluctuated drastically, at times exposing the bed. There are concerns it will dry up altogether.

“I’ve come up here and all I did was sit here and cry because you know we’re supposed to be taking care of this place, because it is our homeland,” Ortega said. “And I don’t want my great-great grandfather to think that we just abandoned him.”

Many participants blame the decrease in water levels to the ongoing pumping of at least 84,000 gallonsof groundwater each day for the construction of 43 miles of taller, more imposing bollard fencing at Organ Pipe.

The construction work is now underway immediately south of Quitobaquito, where workers have started to put up 30-foot bollard panels at the international boundary. The U.S. National Park Service also issued a temporary closure on Monday, restricting access to the site. 

For tribal nations along the U.S.-Mexico border, such as the Hia-Ced and Tohono O’odham, the construction of these border barriers threatens to further sever their members living on the Mexican side from the tribal communities, rituals and services in the United States. 

The Tohono O’odham Nation, which includes enrolled members from the non-federally recognized Hia-Ced O’odham band, claims an enrollment of 35,000 tribal members throughout the region, including approximately 2,000 south of the border in Sonora.

Along the way, they argue, the construction of border barriers through their ancestral lands is imperiling sacred sites, like Quitobaquito Springs, that have been a part of the lives of tribal members on either side of the border, before there even was a border.

“They’re not taking into account our sacred sites,” Stan Rodriguez said. He’s a member of the Ipai Kumeyaay, who like the O’odham, have members on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border, and have been actively fighting wall construction along their ancestral lands in California and Baja California, Mexico.

Rodriguez, his wife, children and other members of the Kumeyaay drove from San Diego to be at Quitobaquito Springs for the prayer run, in solidarity with the Tohono and Hia-Ced O’odham.

“In San Diego they’re blowing up one of our sacred mountains, Kuuchamaa Mountain. Even though they know that is a sacred mountain to us, they’re not stopping,” he added. “And I would venture to say they’re doing the same thing over here. They’re not consulting the people, they’re not taking into account our beliefs.”

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A gap in the fence

The construction of border barriers underway at Quitobaquito Springs shaped the binational prayer run ceremony. Thirty-foot bollard panels, stacked on their side, lined the patrol road next to the international boundary line, waiting to be put up in the coming days.

Already, construction workers had built 30-foot bollards on either side of the springs. This section, immediately to the south, is one of the few shrinking gaps left to fill as crews race to finish wall construction by November.

Crews removed four-foot metal barriers that had been in place at the border for over a decade, dug trenches about six feet deep and lined them. In their place, workers placed concrete slabs just north of the trenches, which acted as temporary markers and barriers delineating the border between Arizona and Sonora. 

Most notably, construction crews also put up a chain-link fence between the dirt parking lot to Quitobaquito Springs and the border wall construction area.

This is likely as a result of a series of confrontations in recent weeks between park rangers and U.S. Border Patrol and O’odham activists protesting against border wall construction at the springs. One of the protests, on Sept. 9, resulted in the arrests of two women who used their bodies to block construction vehicles.

Vanessa Lacayo, the spokesperson for with the National Park Service, confirmed in an email that “since that area is closed for construction, the fence is used to help keep members of the public safe and away from the construction site.” 

Organizers of the prayer run negotiated with the National Park Service and Border Patrol over the planning for the event. They agreed to stay out of the construction area, in exchange for allowing several O’odham elders to walk up to the border to welcome and address the group of the Mexican side. 

As the ceremony was set to begin early Sunday morning, two unmarked patrol vehicles kept watch, perched on a hill overlooking the springs, about a quarter-mile away.

30-mile runs

The ceremony began on Friday, with starting points on opposing sides of the border. The U.S. group, approximately 15 O’odham runners, set out from the Tohono O’odham Nation, adjacent to Organ Pipe. They camped on Friday, were up by dawn and ran again all day Saturday until they reached their camp near Quitobaquito, running about 30 miles in all.

In Sonora, a group of approximately 30 runners took off on Friday from Quitovac, an O’odham community in Sonora about 30 miles south of the Arizona-Mexico border. The community is next to another spring that the O’odham also consider sacred.

The runners in Sonora carried water from the Quitovac spring in a vessel, camping out on Friday and Saturday nights, before running to the area across the border from Quitobaquito Springs. 

At 8:08 a.m. on Sunday, the runners in Sonora arrived, walking along Mexican Federal Highway 2, which runs parallel to the international border. They wore orange vests, and were escorted by two municipal police vehicles. 

Organizers said they had met with local officials in the border city of Sonoyta, located 12 miles east of Quitobaquito, in the lead up to the prayer run to arrange for the police escort for the runners. 

Twenty-three minutes later, the O’odham runners from the Arizona side appeared on the horizon, running along South Puerto Blanco Drive, a public access road that the National Park Service has since closed off to pedestrian and vehicular traffic due to construction activity at the springs. 

The runners each carried a wooden staff adorned with brightly colored ribbons and feathers. They sang in unison, deep in prayer.

As they approached, Collins and two other On’k Akimel O’odham men took out their ṣavĭkuḍ —  a gourd rattle made from a bottleneck gourd  and began to sing a running song, to honor of the O’odham runners for their long trek to Quitobaquito.

The Arizona group of runners stopped at the start of the construction zone adjacent to the border. The group on the Sonora sidelined up immediately south of the trench where the bollard fencing will go up.

A group of 10 O’odham elders walked up to meet them from the Arizona side, including Ortega, who carried the pumpkin gourd with water from Quitobaquito Springs. They side-stepped the concrete slabs and stood facing the O’odham runners in Sonora, divided by the trench in the ground. 

One by one, the elders addressed the runners in Mexico in O’odham, English and Spanish, thanking them and talking about their connection as one people, despite the construction of a border wall that will keep them apart.

“This is really nothing to our culture,” said Verlon Jose, the past chairman for the Tohono O’odham Nation and the current governor of the Traditional O’odham Leaders, who looks after the O’odham in Mexico.

Jose frequently points out there is no word for a “wall” in the O’odham language.

“It’ll fall away just like everything that has tried to stop us,” he told the runners in Mexico. 

As the ceremony at the border continued, participants on both sides exchanged the water from the two sacred springs.

An O’odham woman in Mexico carrying a vessel with the spring water from Quitovac hunched over the trench and handed it off to an elder on the U.S. side of the border. Another O’odham elder used ceremonial feathers to dip them into the Quitobaquito water inside the pumpkin gourd, and bless the runners on the Mexican side.

When finished, the elders walked back, across the construction site, to the O’odham runners in Arizona, and led them a few hundred feet away to Quitobaquito Springs, where the ceremony continued.

Under the stifling morning heat, the runners circled the retention pond at Quitobaquito four times, a sacred number to the O’odham. Other O’odham attendees, as well as the members from other tribal nations, followed them and also circled the pond four times.

After several remarks, prayers and songs describing other significant O’odham sites in the tribes’ ancestral lands, Lorraine Marquez Eiler — one of the ceremony’s organizers and the president of the Hia-Ced O’odham Alliance, which works to preserve that tribe’s history — emptied the vessel carrying water from Quitovac into the pond at Quitobaquito.

The group prayed that the water from one holy site to another would replenish the spirit of the springs. 

Tribal member Austin Nunez at Quitobaquito Springs, pray with elders from the Tohono and Hia-Ced O’odham organized a cross-border prayer run and ceremony to reaffirm religious and cultural practices along the Arizona-Mexico border. (Photo: Nick Oza/The Republic)

A divided home

Once the ceremony concluded, Jose lamented that the prayer run’s participants in Mexico were not allowed to join the rest of the group at Quitobaquito Springs. He spoke about the strength of prayer and unity, as evidenced by Sunday’s ceremony.

He also highlighted the irony of the situation: U.S. Customs and Border Protection waived nearly 40 environmental and cultural laws — including several laws protecting Native American sites and artifacts — to speed up construction at Organ Pipe and Quitobaquito, citing the need for stronger border barriers to better guard and protect the country from external threats. 

But now, O’odham members find themselves battling the U.S. federal government to guard and to protect their sacred sites from the destruction caused by border wall construction, he said.

“Let me divide your home and see how you like that,” Jose said, referring to the international border that severed the O’odham in two more than 160 years ago without consulting the tribe. “Let me go and raid all the water that feeds your home, tell me how you like that.”

Quitobaquito Springs has been the focus of attention over border wall construction in Arizona. And not just because of its vast cultural and archaeological history, which dates back to some 16,000 years of constant human habitation, according to the National Park Service.

It is also the home to numerous endangered species, like the Sonoyta mud turtle and Quitobaquito pupfish. During Sunday’s ceremony at the pond, birds of all sizes and colors maneuvered their way around the water, eliciting enthusiastic responses from tribal members gathered around.

The National Park Service has maintained that groundwater pumping for border wall construction has not impacted water levels at Quitobaquito, arguing that the spring is fed by an aquifer separate from the wells that construction workers have been pumping to build the wall.

The federal agency attributed fluctuations in water levels at the pond to high summer temperatures, which have consistently remained above 100 degrees Fahrenheit since March, as well as to leaks in the pond’s clay lining.  

Lacayo, the spokesperson for the park service, said “the water level at the Quitobaquito pond raised roughly 2 inches thanks to cooler temperatures” in the past two months, as well as from “continuous upkeep” to the man-made pond.

But even wildlife officials at Organ Pipe have taken measures to protect some of the endangered species found nowhere else in the United States, as the threat of reduced water levels threatens the future of the spring.

“In early August, NPS employees created a small pond at the mouth of the stream. This area has since filled and is designed to provide habitat for wildlife there without moving them to other remote locations,” Lacayo said.

Many O’odham members remain skeptical about the cause behind the drop in water levels.

“Then why in the last few months since they’ve started (construction), been getting near the pond, and the closer they got, the worse it got,” Marquez Eiler said. “So I’m not convinced that it’s just a drop, that it’s just a torn lining. I’m not convinced.”

With construction ramping up at the border near Quitobaquito Springs, access has also become an issue.

On Monday, the day after O’odham from both sides of the border gathered to pray at the springs, the National Park Service issued a temporary closure order, limiting access to the site.

The order sealed off pedestrian and vehicle access to all the roads within Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument that lead to Quitobaquito Springs for an undetermined amount of time.

“This closure is in response to considerable public safety concerns associated with border infrastructure construction activities. Implementing the closure protects the public from exposure to heavy machinery and construction traffic, activities, and conditions along narrow roadways and active construction zones,” Monday’s order read.

Lacayo said the closure came at the request for Customs and Border Protection for the duration of construction but provided no expiration date for the order. 

Marquez Eiler said that while she understood some of the safety concerns, she was worried about the language in the order. More specifically, about tribal access to the springs.

She said she received a call from the park service after they announced the closures on Monday, telling her that if the O’odham wanted to visit the site, to plan ahead and let the park know in order to receive access.

The National Park Service said they are coordinating closely with the Tohono O’odham Nation to discuss tribal access to the site. But the closure order did not include any of that information, Marquez Eiler noted.

“We can go in there and harvest, and do our ceremonies and take care of our grave sites and stuff. We do have that right,” she said. “And just to blatantly say that it’s closed period, and then to say that no, it’s not closed to us, it’s open, it can be opened. It’s giving out misinformation that upsets people.” 

On Wednesday, a small group of O’odham activists defied the closure order, breached the chain-link fencing, and entered the border wall construction site near Quitobaquito, disrupting construction crews building the bollard fencing, according to videos posted to social media.

Members of the O’odham Anti Border Collective and Defend O’odham Jewed, two grassroots groups in opposition to wall construction, gathered at the base of newly-built barriers, chanting to construction workers to “quit your job, save the land.”

Other protesters climbed stacked fencing panels and discarded metal liners along the construction site to stop vehicles from driving through. Some members signaled they would set up camp at the site to halt construction. 

“We’re restricted from going into areas that says authorized personnel only. But we’ve been authorized by the creator. We have a higher executive order,” Jose said Sunday, after the prayer run ended.

“Our executive order, and you can quote this, trumps any other executive order out there. And that is the executive order from the creator,” he added.

Ortega also lamented the state of border wall construction near Quitobaquito Springs, and what she perceived to be the negative impacts on the land her great-great-grandfather once called home. 

What made her even more sad, she said, was thinking about what the springs will look like in the future, for generations of other Hia-Ced and Tohono O’odham to come.

“I don’t want to say this, but I don’t know if it will ever get back to normal, you know,” she said. “It’s gonna take years and years and years to get to what it was like before. Probably not even in my lifetime will it go back to normal.”

Have any news tips or story ideas about the U.S.-Mexico border? Reach the reporter at [email protected], or follow him on Twitter at @RafaelCarranza.

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