Protestors holding signs

Photo by Alejandro Higuera

Tucson, Arizona (AZ) — On the morning of November 23, 2021, Hia Ced, Tohono, and Akimel O’odham peoples and local community members held a press conference in front of the AZ State Office Building in support of Hia Ced and Tohono O’odham land and water protector, Amber Lee Ortega. The community denounced the recent ruling by Judge Leslie A. Bowman to not allow the federal Religious Freedom and Restoration Act (RFRA) as a defense for Amber Ortega.

Ms. Ortega is currently facing federal misdemeanor charges for the action she took on September 9, 2020 to stop border wall construction near the O’odham sacred site of A’al Vappia- Quitobaquito Springs. Last Thursday’s ruling will not permit the testimony of Ms. Ortega and the expert testimony of O’odham elder, Lorraine Eiler to be used in the case. They both testified on the immense religious significance of Hia Ced O’odham sacred sites and burial grounds destroyed by border wall construction, which also threatens the springs.

Ms. Ortega testified that she was called by her religious beliefs under O’odham Himdag (religion) to protect their sacred sites and way of culture. “What we did was not planned. What we did was a calling that we heard and answered to- that came from our land, that came from our ancestors, that came from our elders; and for generations we’ve been fighting for access to our sacred sites…” Ms. Ortega shared with the crowd. 

As Ms. Ortega awaits her trial verdict, which is expected to come by December 15, 2021, the community stood in full support of her and asserted that the first peoples of this land should not be criminalized for protecting sacred sites they have prayed on and revered since time immemorial. O’odham and other community leaders also demanded the border wall be removed from all O’odham sacred sites and that the land be restored, starting with their sacred Quitobaquito Springs.


The Action and Arrest

On September 9th, 2020 Amber Lee Ortega was arrested and charged with “violating a closure order due to construction of the border wall” on her ancestral Hia Ced O’odham land, near A’al Vappia- Quitobaquito Springs. This is a sacred area of the O’odham since time immemorial and a location where Ms. Ortega and other Hia Ced O’odham community members have nearby burial grounds and direct family connections. Ms. Ortega was called by her religious beliefs under O’odham Himdag (religion) to protect their sacred sites and way of culture. That morning while praying at the spring waters, Ms. Ortega and another O’odham water protector, Nellie Jo David, heard the excavators begin digging the trenches for the new border wall within the immediate vicinity of the area. The two women placed their bodies in front of the vehicles to stop the construction that would desecrate and alter the area irreversibly. The two were arrested and charged with a misdemeanor.

Ms. Ortega and Ms.David were subjected to extremely unusual treatment by the Parks Service and federal government in retaliation for their ceremonial land protection efforts. They were both detained for two days at the Core Civic Detention Center in Florence, Arizona, a for-profit migrant prison. They were subjected to cruel, degrading, and inhumane treatment including denial of access to attorneys and personal hygiene, sleep deprivation, extreme cold, and harassment. The government also failed to notify the Tohono O’odham Nation of the arrest and incarceration of Tohono O’odham Nation citizens in a migrant detention facility, which is a nation-to-nation treaty requirement. The Parks Service and the federal government do not send U.S. citizens to migrant prisons for days without contact to attorneys for misdemeanor charges, unless they are O’odham[1]. The O’odham community denounces the treatment of Ms. Ortega and Ms. David as racist, and assert that the first peoples of this land should not be criminalized for praying at sacred sites they have protected since time immemorial.

Racial Bias in Denial of Rfra for Defense

O’odham religion, like all Native American religions, requires that sacred sites remain in their historical conditions in order for the religion to be able to be practiced. Native American religions are place-based, not belief-based, as described in the ground-breaking book, God Is Red: A Native View of Religion, by Vine Deloria. In Native American religions, if the places of worship are destroyed, the entire religious practice associated with that sacred site can no longer be maintained. Destroying sacred sites in Native American religions is like destroying a church that can never be rebuilt or burning a bible that can never be recited or reprinted ever again. It will be gone forever.

The Religious Freedom and Restoration Act (RFRA) has a case history of being granted for European religions but failing to equally protect Native American religions. On November 4, 2021 Hia Ced and Tohono O’odham elder ad cultural expert Lorraine Eiler testified at Amber’s one-day federal court trial, affirming the complex spiritual and religious significance of Quitobaquito Springs, including describing direct family connections and nearby burial grounds. Eiler spoke at length about the devastating impacts to the sacred site that Ms. Ortega was trying to mitigate through prayer, ceremony, and water protection. However, last Thursday, Judge Bowman tossed out Ms. Eiler’s testimonies and ruled that RFRA cannot be considered for determination of Ms. Ortega’s case. Yet, this same federal court found humanitarian Scott Warren not guilty using the same RFRA defense. This point illustrates the racist double standard of the court’s interpretation of the RFRA, as a protection that appears in practice to only benefit European religions that are belief-based and to discriminate against the place-based and ancestral nature of Native American religions. O’odham and other community leaders denounce the racist interpretation of the law and the court’s failure to recognize RFRA as a defense by Ms. Ortega.

Tear Down The Border Wall- Restore Quitobaquito Springs

O’odham community and environmentalists demand that the border wall impacting Monument Hill and Quitobaquito Springs be removed and the land be restored to its original condition and native habitat. The springs, one of the few water sources in the Sonoran Desert, are located in what settlers call, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, on the so-called US/Mexico border. Quitobaquito has provided water to the O’odham people and all forms of life since time immemorial. Water levels in Quitobaquito have dropped 30 percent since 2020 as contractors withdrew large amounts of groundwater to mix concrete for the wall and flatten dirt roads. 84,000 gallons of groundwater per day was used to construct the border wall segments. For every mile of wall 411,840 gallons of extracted water was utilized. The wall construction is a continuation of irreversible cultural and environmental damage seen in the destruction of sacred sites, dividing O’odham in both the so-called US and Mexico, and violently disrupting the desert ecosystem.

Who We Are

O’odham Anti Border Collective is a grassroots collective of Akimel O’odham, Tohono O’odham, and Hia Ced O’odham tribal members and descendants committed to the unification of all O’odham peoples, regeneration of O’odham himdag (traditions, spirituality, language, and culture), and the protection of O’odham jewed (homelands) through the dismantling of colonial borders.; @OodhamAntiBorder

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[1]There is a disturbing track record of the U.S. border patrol and federal government racially profiling and criminalizing Tohono O’odham and Hia Ced O’odham people, who hold dual citizenship with the U.S. and Mexico through nation-to-nation Indigenous treaty rights. This includes unlawful detention of Native Americans in for-profit migrant prisons.