Tohono O'odham: Caretakers protecting sacred mountain


PHOENIX - Tohono O'odham caretakers of the land warned other American Indians to be vigilant against the onslaught of Homeland Security and the U.S. military on sacred lands.

Tohono O'odham Ernest Moristo said the U.S. Border Patrol under the command of Homeland Security occupied the Tohono O'odham's sacred Baboquivari Mountain, which is home of the Creator I'itoi, and today border patrol agents are out of control on Tohono O'odham land.

While there has been much media hype about protecting the U.S. border, Moristo said the sacred Baboquivari Mountain, 22 miles north of the border of Mexico, is not a trail for persons entering the United States without documentation.

"There are no Mexicans coming through the sacred area."

Speaking during Indigenous Peoples Day, Moristo said his family has lived on the land for generations and is among Tohono O'odham fighting a tribal tourism project planned for the sacred mountain.

"All of the grassroots people are behind us. It is important for people to protect the mountain," Moristo said. Pointing out that now gas lines are planned for the area, he said, "What they are doing is looking at the minerals. Once they put in the gas lines, next comes the powerlines."

Dennis Manuel accompanied Moristo to Indigenous Peoples Day at the Nahuacalli Indigenous Embassy in downtown Phoenix on March 11. Manuel said the tribe's Baboquivari District is proceeding with plans to bring in horseback rides and tourism.

Manuel, spiritual caretaker of the mountain and medicines, said the consequences would be grave if the sacred mountain were turned into a tourism project.

"It is not for money-making. It is sacred, it is for prayers," Manuel said. If the project proceeds, he said, "It is going to bring sickness, uncertainty and bad luck. It is going to split our people. We see a lot of it already. We see people who are sick; we see the money making them sick. They refuse to see what these things mean to us, our survival.

"This was told from our forefathers, this is our responsibility. Many of our people perished protecting it in the early wars."

Manuel said the sacred home of I'itoi, a cave, had been sealed up in the early 20th century. It was desecrated and sacred bundles and medicines taken in the 1920s or 1930s.

Now there are new intruders on the sacred mountain, the U.S. Border Patrol under the command of Homeland Security.

Moristo and Manuel said the agents invaded the sacred mountain when the Tohono O'odham men carried their struggle for the Baboquivari Mountain to the United Nations in New York in May 2003.

When they returned, they found the U.S. Border Patrol camped on the sacred mountain. "We asked them who gave them permission to be here," Manuel said. "While we were gone to the United Nations, they did all this."

He said there were between 80 and 100 border agents camped in tents on the sacred mountain with jeeps and vans. They identified themselves as working under the direction of Homeland Security.

"They set up camp on sacred ground right below I'itoi's home, the Creator's home."

Manuel said the U.S. Border Patrol under direction of Homeland Security created more problems than the routine border patrol agents. "They were more aggressive, they wanted to argue the point."

Moristo and Manuel demanded they leave and gave them a statement from the United Nations on respect for Baboquivari Mountain and sacred places.

Although the agents did leave the sacred mountain, today the U.S. Border Patrol is out of control on Tohono O'odham land.

Manuel said, "They're breaking into houses, doing random drug stops, cutting fences and making their own roads. They chase people down. They are not on the border - they are on the reservation," he said, referring to the Tohono O'odham communities north of the border.

Tohono O'odham regret that their own trackers, the Shadow Wolves, are no longer tracking along the border.

"The U.S. Border Patrol ran them out and took over their job," Manuel said.

Recently, Tohono O'odham tribal members were told that all their movements would be recorded by aerial photography from an intelligence-gathering aircraft of the United States.

The United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues released a statement following the presentation of Moristo and Manuel in New York. It states that sustainable development must be carried out in respect for cul-

tural considerations.

During his presentation, Moristo called for an assessment of the status of sacred sites of indigenous nations.

"That assessment should focus on the destructive effects of economic development plans upon the Himdag (way of life of the people), as violations of the indigenous rights of future generations," the Permanent Forum said in its report.

Baboquivari Mountain is the most important sacred site in a family of mountains, springs and traditional altars of the indigenous peoples of the Sonoran Desert. The desert had been home since time immemorial to the Tohono O'odham, earlier known as Papago, whose traditional territories and sacred sites extended from Arizona into northern Mexico.

"Economic and social development plans currently proposed by the local Baboquivari District Council of the tribal council system are endangering the sacred nature of the mountain and the unique desert environment surrounding the shrine," the Permanent Forum said.