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Carina Dominguez
Indian Country Today

A Hia-Ced O’odham woman was found not guilty Wednesday on federal misdemeanor charges stemming from an incident that occurred along the border wall construction on her tribe’s ancestral land.

In September 2020 Amber Ortega and Nellie Jo David rushed to Quitobaquito Springs, “without hesitation” to protect the sacred area from border wall construction in southern Arizona.

Hia-Ced O'odham woman Amber Ortega, left, was acquitted of federal charges. Her and Nellie Jo David, right, were arrested in September 2020 after holding ceremony at Quitobaquito Springs while border wall construction attempted to tear through the area.  (Photo by Carina Dominguez, Indian Country Today)

“They called it a protest but what we were doing was far beyond that we were answering a call that came through from our ancestors. The timing wasn't calculated. We were there. We had been there and it was without hesitation,” Ortega said.

Both women faced what they said were trumped-up federal charges for praying at the site which they had been doing long before construction reached the spring.

David said the legal system purposefully wanted her to “have such a traumatic experience that it's going to scare other people that even think of doing the same thing we did.”

For that reason, David took a plea deal last year while Ortega was waiting on the acquittal that was announced on Wednesday.

Ortega’s acquittal came after a magistrate judge reversed her previous ruling that Ortega couldn’t use the Religious Freedom Restoration Act as her defense.

Ortega’s lawyer asked the court to reconsider the ruling last month, the judge ultimately decided the prosecution imposed a substantial burden on her exercise of religion.

SEE: MOTION FOR RECONSIDERATION

The Arizona Daily Star reported that Ortega spoke to supporters outside the federal courthouse in Tucson after the verdict was read.

“This is our land, and our ways are not wrong,” Ortega said. “We, today, again defended our culture, our ways, our songs, our locations, our mountains, our sacred sites. Today was a victory for our people.”

Ortega was charged with misdemeanors interfering with an agency function and violating a closure order after she refused to leave a construction site in September 2020 in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, about 150 miles southwest of Tucson, where contractors were building more than 40 miles of 30-foot-tall steel border wall.

The Hia-Ced O’odham are a part of the Tohono O’odham Nation, the second largest tribe by geographic area in the U.S. with 2.8 million acres, 75 miles of it along the southern border.

Ortega says the border has negatively impacted O’odham people, who used to traverse across the villages throughout the Sonoran desert before the border crossed them.

“The border wall did effectively stop traditions that have been happening for thousands and thousands of years,” Ortega said.

She was compelled to act because she didn’t want to see the history of destruction continue.

“There's an underlying generational hurt that we are dealing with because we are well aware that our sites exist and our culture exists, our language, our songs, our prayers, our ceremonies, what locations mean something to us,” Ortega said. “That border severed ties with traditional traveling routes…sacred connections to our history, it's our history that exists in those lands and along that border.”

Tohono O’odham Nation Chairman Ned Norris Jr. issued a statement on Wednesday’s ruling in the case.

“Construction of the border wall inflicted permanent damage to Quitobaquito Springs and other sacred sites for the O’odham. We appreciate that the court corrected its earlier error and recognized that protesting this great harm met the requirements for defense under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. This desecration should not have happened and can never be allowed to happen again. The Nation will continue to advocate for stronger legal protections of sacred places for the O'odham and all tribes.”

House Natural Resources Committee Chair Rep. Raul Grijalva, a Democrat from Arizona, said he supports Ortega’s actions against the “construction of an illegal, wasteful border wall and the Trump administration’s abuse of power in order to protect a sacred site integral to the Tohono O’odham Nation.

Ortega said there's a history of abuses in that area “done specifically to O’odham.”

“It’s in our history, we are abused by law enforcement. It's a known fact, and there's no justice for that,” Ortega said.

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The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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