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‘You don’t control the border’: Indigenous groups protesting wall construction clash with federal agents

In Arizona, Laiken Jordahl, a campaigner with the Center for Biological Diversity, says border wall construction is threatening the environment. (Video: The Washington Post)

The Indigenous O’odham protesters had pushed past security to a construction site on the Arizona-Mexico border, temporarily halting machines from erecting steel panels through their ancestral homeland.

For five hours Monday in the blistering heat of the Sonoran Desert, they prayed, chanted and burned sage to protest the Trump administration’s efforts to put up a 30-foot wall through the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument — an area they consider sacred.

Officials with U.S. Border Patrol and the National Park Service repeatedly ordered the group to move, warning them the site was closed to the public. But when the protesters refused, armed federal agents knocked them to the ground, yanked them apart and drew stun guns in a confrontation caught on camera.

“You don’t control the border, you terrorize everyone here from Texas to California and everywhere in between,” one protester told the agents during the standoff, according to the Arizona Republic.

In a statement to The Washington Post early Wednesday, the Park Service said the national monument had been closed “in response to public safety concerns associated with border infrastructure construction activities.”

“We welcome our visitors’ right to demonstrate, while also taking their safety seriously,” the agency said. “Implementing the closure protects the public from potential exposure to heavy machinery and construction activities.”

As the Trump administration blazes forward with efforts to build and expand border fencing at the U.S.-Mexico border, this week’s clash at Organ Pipe points to escalating efforts by Indigenous groups to protect their ancestral lands — and, with it, the increasingly aggressive response from the federal officials tasked with ensuring the wall gets built.

“I would call it an uprising,” Laiken Jordahl, an organizer who works on border issues for the Center for Biological Diversity, told The Post on Tuesday. “This administration has given Indigenous people no choice but to take direct action to make their voices heard because they’ve been silenced in every other way.”

Near San Diego on Monday, agents with the Bureau of Land Management took two people into custody and threatened dozens of others with the activist group Kumeyaay Defense Against the Wall, which had been staging a prayer occupation camp at a border wall construction site in California for weeks.

And earlier this month, two Indigenous women were arrested when they sat inside construction equipment near Quitobaquito Springs, Ariz., a sacred ancestral site for the O’odham and a rare natural source of freshwater in the Sonoran Desert.

But none of those situations appears to have gotten as ugly as the confrontation between Indigenous groups and federal officials near Quitobaquito on Monday.

The demonstration led by O’odham women went ahead with little opposition for most of Monday morning, with protesters singing and giving speeches as private security, Park Service officers and Mexican federal police across the border looked on, Arizona Public Media reported. A large banner they held read, “Borders = Genocide, No Wall on O’odham Land."

Some construction workers filmed the action, and two Park Service officials asked the Indigenous group to move away, according to the radio station. But by early afternoon, about 25 Border Patrol agents arrived at the scene, the Republic reported, including some armed with paintball guns and rifles.

Two Park Service officers charged through a human chain of protesters before pulling back.

“We cannot move without you all over us, we cannot walk through our desert without these cameras filming everything we do, you don’t have that in your community,” a Tohono O’odham speaker told them. “But then you come here, thinking you can take whatever you want."

Moments later, another violent interaction broke out as two Park Service officers and a group of Border Patrol agents pushed in toward the protest line, shoving demonstrators and yanking them apart. As some officials moved protesters off the construction site, others pointed paintball guns at the remaining demonstrators.

In a statement to The Post, a spokesperson for U.S. Customs and Border Protection confirmed the presence of Border Patrol agents at the protest, adding that the agency fully supports “the right to voice concerns and express opinions under the first amendment.”

“CBP strives to ensure that impacts to biological, natural, cultural, and historical resources are identified and minimized to the greatest extent possible in all infrastructure projects," the statement read.

Advocates and lawmakers said construction within Arizona’s Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is damaging the biosphere reserve. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post)

The O’odham consider Quitobaquito Springs a key part of their ancestral homeland, which extends from Phoenix and Tucson into the Mexican state of Sonora. Generations of the Hia C-ed O’odham band, which is not federally recognized, lived and conducted ceremonial rites at the desert oasis before it was added in the 1950s to Organ Pipe, a congressionally designated wilderness.

Under federal laws governing Indian lands, Indigenous groups insist they must be consulted for any type of construction through Organ Pipe, where Apache fighters were buried and bone fragments have been unearthed recently.

“We’ve historically lived in this area from time immemorial,” Tohono O’odham Nation Chairman Ned Norris Jr. told The Post in 2019. “We feel very strongly that this particular wall will desecrate this area forever. I would compare it to building a wall over your parents’ graveyards. It would have the same effect.”

Yet facing pressure from the Trump administration to construct 450 miles of new barriers by the end of this year, the Department of Homeland Security has waived several federal requirements that could have slowed or even stopped construction through this stretch of southwestern Arizona.

Border fence construction could destroy archaeological sites, National Park Service finds

Jordahl said that as construction crews have begun erecting steel bollards about 200 feet from Quitobaquito, their digging has already diminished the spring’s flow. Soon, he said, planned floodlights on the wall could further disrupt the sacred site.

The $891 million project at Organ Pipe is officially considered a replacement effort to expand on the porous, roughly four-foot-high vehicle barriers that already cut across the region. But Jordahl said the 30-foot bollards being erected by DHS will have an irrevocable effect on the land and wildlife.

“By any means, it’s going to be destroyed. It’s already being destroyed,” he said. “There’s such a sense of urgency watching the wall get closer and closer to the sacred springs. There’s a feeling of desperation and obligation to the land.”

Since construction began, O’odham protesters have held rallies full of hundreds of people and staged a blockade at a fabrication site where steel bollards and panels are loaded onto trucks.

Near San Diego, meanwhile, similar concerns have led a band of the Kumeyaay Nation to unsuccessfully sue for an injunction on border-wall construction through their own ancestral land.

“When any human bones or particles of human remains are discovered, it’s considered to have a human soul,” Tom Holm, executive director of the Kumeyaay Heritage Preservation Council, told the San Diego Union-Tribune. “In other words, they are not looking at material, they’re looking at their ancestors.”

While the Kumeyaay and allied groups have said preconstruction blasting efforts have desecrated sacred burial sites and blocked their children from cultural locations, Border Patrol has said that “no significant ancestral artifacts or burial sites” have been found in the process, according to the Union-Tribune.

Since the group’s suit was denied, a full-time occupation called Camp Landback has sought to block ongoing construction, leading to clashes with counterprotesters and Border Patrol agents until the effort was disbanded Monday. Holm said that the activist group behind the occupation is unaffiliated with official tribal leadership.