Kumeyaay Land Defenders

A Sacred War at the Border



The border wall is threatening the sovereignty of tribal nations along the border. They won’t stand for it. Welcome to The Frontline, where we’re diving into this Indigenous-led resistance.

Standing among the cacti and shrubs of the Arizona desert, Rose felt the sun rising; as was the day’s temperature, which hit 100 degrees Fahrenheit that late September day. The 25-year-old was visiting the Quitobaquito Springs from California to gather in ceremony with members and allies of the Tohono O’odham Nation.


On the southern side of the U.S.-Mexico border, about 25 youth with the Tohono O’odham Nation, which has members across the border, arrived with water to feed and honor the spring. The elders received this holy gift of life and poured the water into the springs, surrounded by the smell of burnt tobacco and the chorale of prayer.


The Quitobaquito Springs are sacred. That hasn’t stopped the Trump administration from trying to erect the president’s beloved wall some 200 yards away. A day after that ceremony, the National Park Service closed off access to the springs.


Welcome to The Frontline, where we’re diving into this Indigenous-led resistance. I’m Yessenia Funes, climate editor at Atmos. For this week’s final installment on the border wall, you’ll be hearing from Indigenous leaders along the border, many of whom are remaining anonymous to protect their identity from federal agents and white supremacists. These individuals have seen firsthand the lengths to which border wall supporters—including sometimes violent law enforcement officers that the House Natural Resources Committee is looking to investigate—will go to disrupt Indigenous prayer and occupation.



Ana Gloria Rodriguez, known to her friends as Martha, has been opposing the border wall for almost 15 years now. As a member of the Kumeyaay Nation’s San Jose de la Zorra community in Mexico, Rodriguez finds the border wall deeply insulting. The Kumeyaay are a cross-border nation with members who share the Kumeyaay language in San Diego and in Baja, Mexico. The crux of Rodriguez’s work is connecting her people across the border and across bands to keep their culture and language alive. The border wall makes that a lot trickier.

Sacred Border Land
Mexico Across the Border

Historically, tribal members could secure border crossing permits to spend time with their relations on the other side, but that’s become more difficult and unlikely under the Trump administration, said Rodriguez. Plus, only a fence used to stand between members on either side of the border, so tribal members had “free access,” Rodriguez said. With a new wall section spanning 14 miles across this area, hopping over for a ceremony isn’t exactly an option anymore.


As a response, the Kumeyaay spent much of the summer in protest to stop further construction. In July and August, Rodriguez was there almost every day. So was Rose. Rose helped to found Camp Landback, a nonviolent resistance prayer camp, in the heart of the summer to occupy their ancestral lands the border wall was threatening. Anywhere from nine to 45 people reside at the camp at any given time. The camp’s goal, Rose tells me, is in its name: to take back the land.


“To inspire other border nations to seize their sovereignty,” Rose goes on. “To let future generations know that we didn’t simply let this wall be built without a fight. To say to our ancestors that we tried and that we tried to make them proud. To have the land know that we listened to the call to defend it. To be able to sleep at night knowing that we did the best we could with the tools at our disposal.”


We’ve already explored how deadly the border wall is to wildlife and migrants. However, this death extends beyond any individual or animal. It’s genocide.


“We need to have this discussion more on a national level about what Indigenous communities and people along the border are fighting for,” says Juñ, a 24-year-old member of the Tohono O’odham Nation who is using a pseudonym to protect her identity. “It’s not just to protect this one piece of land that’s O’odham, that’s ours. No, it’s to fight the U.S. imperialism that is prevalent in Indigenous communities all along the border and all around the world that have brought devastation and genocide to our peoples for generations. It’s the ICE detention centers. We need to dismantle all of these things that aren’t sustainable, that are harmful to the people and the environment.”


The O’odham have witnessed incredible carelessness on their ancestral lands. The Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument has been ground zero for border wall construction. Because these are federal lands, the administration has fewer hurdles constructing the wall here. Its greatest obstacle, in fact, is the federally protected saguaro cacti in the Sonoran Desert. However, with a bulldozer and some dynamite, those obstacles are quickly neutralized.

“It’s to fight the U.S. imperialism that is prevalent in Indigenous communities all along the border and all around the world that have brought devastation and genocide to our peoples for generations.”

Tohono O’odham Nation

“It’s a felony to destroy saguaro cactus in Arizona, and yet we’re seeing the government come in and slaughter hundreds of them with total impunity,” Laiken Jordahl, a borderlands campaigner with the Center for Biological Diversity, tells me.“There’s a destruction of the natural history that’s occurring here on a massive scale.”


Most disturbing is the destruction of literal burial grounds. The Arizona Republic reported that in October 2019, construction workers found human remains near Quitobaquito Springs—believed to be of O’odham ancestry. Archaeologists have been ringing the alarm about this for months, too.


“During the planning process, [Customs and Border Protection] conducts biological, natural resource, and cultural surveys to identify culturally sensitive areas or historical sites within the project area,” Matthew Dyman, public affairs specialist with CBP, wrote in an email. “Additionally, CBP conducts a robust outreach effort with federal, state, and local agencies to include tribal nations, as well as other interested stakeholders, to obtain information about the known or possible presence of sensitive environmental resources such as biological, cultural, and historical sites.”


Tribal members on the ground would disagree as they’ve experienced little compassion from a number of federal agencies involved in protecting the border wall and its construction. Rep. Raúl Grijalva and the House Natural Resources Committee is looking into avenues to investigate the response from law enforcement, which has used tear gas and rubber bullets. He told me in an email that he sees a direct link between the militarization at the border—and the violence unraveling in Amerian cities. He blames the president.


“The militarization of law enforcement agencies and the borderlands has accelerated under the Trump Administration,” said Rep. Grijalva. “From the Southern border to the streets of America’s cities, urgent action is needed to address the excessive force used by law enforcement on those peacefully exercising their first amendment rights. What’s happening to Indigenous communities along the border should be part of this broader national conversation, and we’re working in Congress to ensure that their voices are heard. We must remember whose land this is–Indigenous Peoples—and the erasure of their stories, experiences, and voices is unpatriotic and wrong.”


Across the borderlands—from California to Arizona—Indigenous people are rising up to demand the recognition of their ancestral lands, their human rights, and their relations that exist across the border. If that means they’ve gotta put their bodies on the line and break the law to occupy space, many will.


“We’re talking about human beings,” says Stan Rodriguez, a 62-year-old member of the Santa Ysabel Band of the Kumeyaay Nation. “I’ll tell you this: Sometimes, the legal thing is not ethical, and sometimes, doing the ethical thing is not legal.”


This sacred war, this ecological war, this international war is about freedom. The freedom of wildlife to safely migrate and move. The freedom of which migrants seek as they attempt to cross our borders. The freedom of sovereign tribal nations that have long suffered under the rule of the colonialist U.S. The border wall is perhaps the greatest symbol of the United States’ hunger for power and domination. For those on the frontline, it’s too great a risk.


Correction 10.29.2020 10:10 pm ET: This story previously misidentified Rose. The story has been updated to protect their identity. Atmos regrets the error.

Kumeyaay Land Defenders

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