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The impact of the funneled immigration also includes a growing problem of corruption among the Tohonos. Smugglers are paying off tribe members who offer safe houses to stash immigrants and drugs. “I just found out that one of my nieces got her vehicle seized by the Border Patrol,” says Norris. “She was hauling immigrants up to the highway. Cash influence is big on the nation. You flash two, three thousand dollars here among the people and you can get a lot.”
The response of the Tohono to their predicament has surprised a number of observers. The Indians, in short, are taking the hard line against illegal immigration through their territory and are demanding a more effective crackdown by the Border Patrol. Recent tribal elections brought to power the group that vowed to work closest with federal law enforcement.Shadow Wolf Curtis Heim with one day’s catch of marijuana (Photo by Marc Cooper)
During the tribe’s presentations to the reporters, two middle-aged women were brought forward to offer personal testimonies of home break-ins and carjackings by the illegal aliens they freely term I.A.s, just like the Border Patrol. “They have trashed everything,” says Gloria Chavez, who one day came home to find an intruding border crosser in her home. “I feel like they’re a danger.”
“Historically, our people have been compassionate,” says vice chair Norris. “We have offered border crossers water, food, shelter, as well as a place in our pickup trucks.
“But now,” he says, “we have to revisit just how compassionate we should be.”
That sagging quotient of Indian compassion is a point of great concern and consternation among Arizona’s border and immigration activists. Over the last few years, small humanitarian groups based in Tucson and Bisbee started placing thousands of jugs of drinking water along some of the most dangerous and dry crossing corridors.
To date, the Tohono tribe has steadfastly refused to allow the placing of water on its land.
The more politically correct among the border activists consider it unspeakable heresy to criticize the Indians. But that’s hardly the case at the weekly meeting of the Tucson-based activist group Humane Borders.
On the second floor of his First Christian Church, the group’s leader, pastor Robin Hoover, has convened the usual crew of a dozen or so. A tough-talking Texan, Hoover has secured almost 50 permitted sites from the federal government, where he and his volunteers lay down as many as 2,500 gallons of water per day in the hot summer months. Hoover stirred a pot of political controversy when he published an op-ed piece earlier this year in a Tucson daily, flatly stating that “no political status, no legal posture, no moral tradition and no social ethic can absolve the Tohono O’odham Nation for not proactively providing water or allowing others to help.”
Six months after he wrote those words, Hoover and his group are still persistent on the issue. “It’s immoral to use the desert as part of the deterrent system,” he says. “We put up our hand and point here and say death in the desert is unacceptable.” He’s gesturing toward a map of Arizona on the wall in the church meeting room. Bright red dots mark immigrant deaths. There’s a hemorrhage on the Tohono lands.
Group member Mike Wilson offers up his weekly report. The previous Saturday he placed a total of 134 gallons of bottled water on two sites on Tohono land. When he went back a few days later, the entire lot was slashed or intentionally spilled, as has happened repeatedly. “All of it, everything was destroyed,” he says glumly.
For the 54-year-old, ponytailed and bespectacled Wilson, this is a double disappointment. He is also a Tohono. And until a year ago, the former Green Beret, who once served as a U.S. military adviser in El Salvador, worked on the reservation as a Presbyterian minister. He had no real option, he says, other than to quit the post (and eventually the church) as the tribal leadership pressured him to stop providing water.
“I was going to be banished. And they passed resolutions banning me from putting out the water,” he says. “But fuck ’em. I’m going to continue whether they like it or not.”
Many are the theories as to why the Tohonos are refusing to cooperate in providing humanitarian assistance. Some say they are just so plain angry over their predicament they want to cooperate with no outside forces. Others claim that too many of the tribe’s members have been compromised by the burgeoning border trafficking and they don’t want any extraneous watchful eyes roaming the reservation.
Mike Wilson says it is fear. “They’re afraid the water will encourage more crossers, but people don’t cross the border looking for water,” he says. “We are a desert people, and we know what water means. I am going to continue no matter what they say. This whole thing is a public-relations nightmare for the Nation. I plan to make it worse for them until they come around.”
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