ALI JEGK, Arizona (Reuters) - Members of a traditional Indian nation spanning the Arizona-Mexico border are complaining that work to put up a new barrier to secure the border has desecrated an ancient burial ground.
The U.S. Border Patrol is building a 75-mile (120-km) vehicle barrier across the Tohono O’odham nation lands next to Mexico’s Sonora state, in a bid to stop drug and human traffickers driving across from Mexico in trucks and cars.
The barrier is made of closely set steel posts sunk in concrete, and is being built in close consultation with tribal authorities. It replaces a rusted, barbed wire fence that stretched across the vast, cactus-strewn tract of desert where the tribe has lived for generations.
The tribal government said on Friday that “human burials” dating from the 12th century were found at two sites during preparatory work on the footings for the fence, and say the discovery was handled correctly according to protocols developed with the U.S. government.
But members of five traditional families who say they are directly descended from the dead, complained that their removal is a desecration of a site they hold sacred.
“It is a place where our ancestors have slept for many, many years, and someone just dug them out of their graves and put them in little bags in storage,” said Ofelia Rivas, a traditionalist who lives in the tiny, cactus-ringed village of Ali Jegk, Arizona, just yards (meters) from the Mexican border.
The Tohono O’odham nation, whose name means “Desert People,” reaches up to Casa Grande in the north, a few miles (kilometers) south of the state capital, Phoenix, and stretches across the international line into Mexico, where some members live in nine scattered communities.
The tribal government said in a news release that the areas in which the human remains were found were among 11 archeological sites identified by the tribe that lie in the path of the barrier. The tribe gave no date for the discovery, although Rivas said it was in May.
Rivas told Reuters she expected further discoveries of hallowed remains in coming months: “This is just the beginning. There will be many more sites.”
The Tohono O’odham are one of only a few American Indian tribes that have never been relocated from their ancestral lands. Members share traditional beliefs centered on the natural world and many speak the tribal language.
Tribal authorities support the vehicle barrier, which they say is needed to stop smugglers from Mexico, who frequently duel with the Border Patrol in high-speed chases on back roads and dump tonnes of trash including clothing and water bottles.
The tribal government said the excavation at the burial sites had been carried out in full compliance with arrangements set out in a memorandum of understanding with federal authorities.
“A detailed investigation into the handling of the remains has been completed and it has been determined that the U.S. Border Patrol, tribal monitors, and the archeological team all followed set procedures.”
It said that Tohono O’odham monitors are present at all sites where digging for the fence is underway, and added that tribal religious leaders are called in to conduct ceremonies whenever remains are located.
The remains have been placed in safe storage on the Tohono O’odham nation, and will be reburied at a ceremony later this year, the statement said. It gave no date for the reburial.
But some tribal elders, whose families have lived for generations in the parched area where the remains were discovered southwest of Tucson, are calling for their immediate release for reburial.
“They didn’t ask us when they took them away, and they are our people,” elder Julia Acunia said, speaking through an interpreter, as she wept softly.
“Now they want to come home.”