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Jessica Myers

Cronkite News

WASHINGTON – An emotional Tohono O’odham Nation chairman told lawmakers Wednesday that blasting on sacred sites in national monuments to build a border wall near his reservation has “forever damaged our people.”

“I know in my heart and what our elders have told us and what we have learned that that area is home to our ancestors,” said Chairman Ned Norris Jr., pausing to compose himself as he tried to hold back tears. “And by blasting, and doing what we saw today, has totally disturbed, totally forever damaged our people.”

His testimony came hours after the government carried out a new round of explosions near the southern border as a group of invited journalists watched. Construction crews this month began blasting and bulldozing through hills to build a 30-foot (9-meter) steel wall 60 feet wide (18 meters wide) in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument.

Environmental groups also are decrying the work at the national parks system site that's named for its cactuses resembling organ pipes and is a largely untouched example of Sonoran Desert habitat.

“It's hard to see the blasting that you showed on the video today because I know in my heart what our elders have told us: that it is home to our ancestors,” Norris said, choking up.

Norris was one of six witnesses testifying at a House Natural Resources subcommittee looking into damage caused by contractors as they build a stretch of border wall through Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, which stretches along the border and abuts the Tohono O’odham Nation.

Recent controlled blasting has included Monument Hill, which officials say is the final resting place of Apache warriors defeated by the Tohono O’odham, and which environmentalists say is home to two endangered species.

Democrats made their opinion clear with the title of the hearing, to investigate “destroying sacred sites and erasing tribal culture” to build the wall.

Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Phoenix, called the government’s actions “reckless” and “harmful,” and said the demolition has been done “without any kind of meaningful tribal consultation … without advanced notice.”

“This administration apparently has no shame for the damages it has caused to tribal burial grounds,” Gallego said at the hearing. “This is the Tohono O’odham Nation equivalent to bulldozing through parts of Arlington National Cemetery.”

But Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Prescott, said that a wall would stop illegal border crossings that he said pose an “overwhelming destructive activity” to areas around the border.

“Trash, feces, water pollution … illegal vehicle transit,” Gosar said. “All this damage, all this destruction as a result of illegal trafficking has left deep scars” on the environment.

“I get it, you don’t want the wall. You don’t want to work with the Trump administration,” he said. “But you offer no alternatives.”

That theme was echoed by Scott Cameron, principal deputy assistant Interior secretary for policy, management and budget, who testified that the situation at the border “threatens core national security interests and constitutes a national emergency.”

“Along this border, cultural resources, wilderness areas, wildlife refuges, plants and animals are adversely impacted by land degradation and destruction from trails, trash, fires and other activities related to unlawful border crossings,” he said in his prepared testimony.

Cameron said that in the last three years at Organ Pipe alone, National Park Service rangers have arrested 71 people, stopped 1,231 border crossers and found 7,563 pounds of marijuana. Since 2010, he said, Park Service staff have found the remains of 184 people.

“Construction of border barriers will reduce or eliminate impacts from illegal entry and will help us maintain the character of these lands and resources under the department’s management that may otherwise be lost,” Cameron said.

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He said that if there aren’t “illegal vehicles driving willy-nilly over an area,” they won’t be disturbing protected sites or “running over endangered desert tortoises.”

But critics said that comes at a cost of disruption of sacred burial and ceremonial sites. And that destruction often comes “without any consultation, without any respect and without following the constitutional mandate that you need to talk nation to nation” to affected tribes, said Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Tucson.

His district includes much of the southern border as well as the Tohono O’odham Nation. which is in Mexico and the U.S., divided by 62 miles of border.

Tribe members “share the same language, culture, religion and history,” Norris said, often crossing the border for religious and cultural ceremonies, as well as regular visits.

Norris said his tribe is sensitive to border issues, having spent “an annual average of $3 million of our own tribal funds on border security and enforcement to help meet the United States’ border security responsibilities. The Nation’s police force typically spends more than a third of its time on border issues.”

But the nation strongly opposes border wall construction, he said, not only because it’s costly, but also because it is “highly destructive to the religious, cultural and environmental resources on which our members rely and which make our ancestral lands sacred to our people.”

Norris said the tribe is rarely given advance notice of work on potentially sensitive sites, citing one time when he was notified by email the same day that blasting was set to occur on land that is the final resting place for many of his tribe’s ancestors.

“We have an obligation, we have a responsibility, we have a vested interest in protecting and securing the safety of our ancestors, and the remains of our ancestors and protecting these sacred sites regardless of whether or not they are on our current ancestral lands,” Norris said.˜

Last year, archaeologists found bone fragments during an archaeological survey near Quitobaquito Springs, two of which were later determined to be human. Cameron said the Park Service is working to “repatriate the bone fragments to the Tohono O’odham Nation.”

Those answers, and the insistence by Gosar and Cameron that a wall would help protect sites in the area, did little to placate Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M. As one of two Native American women in Congress, she said it is her duty to stand up against “shameful” and “immoral” actions against indigenous people.

Trash can be cleaned up, Haaland said, but “a sacred site that’s been blasted cannot be whole again.”

“I don’t know how any of you sleep at night,” she said.

Border Patrol Chief Roy D. Villareal, of the agency's Tucson Sector, said on Twitter in recent days that over 90 percent of the cactuses near the construction area were carefully transplanted, saving more than 2,000 individual plants. He also said archaeological monitors had not found burial sites or human remains in the detonation zone at a place called Monument Hill.

Laiken Jordahl of the Tucson-based environmental nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity challenges those assertions, saying on Twitter that he has seen chopped up cactus on the ground and water being wasted for concrete during recent visits.

Jordahl posted a video on social media earlier this month of one of the blasts that are carving a pathway for the wall through Monument Hill. It showed a long line of puffs of smoke and dust rising up from the dry desert landscape dotted with scrub and cactus.

The U.N. has designated the monument an International Biosphere Reserve.

The Army Corps of Engineers has said the Department of Defense awarded $891 million in contracts to Southwest Valley Constructors in May to build the border wall on Organ Pipe and Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge.

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The Associated Press contributed to this report.