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O'odham students rise up against border wall construction on Indigenous land

Lourdes Pereira said the Voices of O'odham Students at ASU has brought her closer to her Hia-Ced O'odham identity


“Voices of O'odham Students at ASU is a new club of students from the Hia-Ced O'odham tribe that is being affected by border wall construction at the Organ Pipe National Monument.” Illustration published on Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2020.

When Lourdes Pereira attended a healing ceremony with the Hia-Ced O'odham at their sacred land located by the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, she marveled at the light tan sand, tall green trees and cerulean sky reflecting in the A'al Vappia, a spring sacred to her tribe. 

A'al Vappia — also known as Quitobaquito Springs — is a small pond at the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument the Hia-Ced O'odham and the Tohono O'odham have been tied to for centuries. Pereira, a sophomore studying American Indian studies and justice studies, said A'al Vappia is a place she had picnics at with the elders of her tribe when she was a child. 

In 2019, the Trump administration began construction of a border wall at the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and at the doorstep of the oasis that brings the Hia-Ced O'odham so close to its ancestors.

"It's very hurtful," Pereira said, regarding the impact the disruption of the borderlands had on her elders and the other people within her community. "Right now it seems like nothing is going to get better." 

The construction of a towering 30-foot metal wall across the U.S.-Mexican border is becoming an unexpected addition to the Hia-Ced O'odham land, disrupting ancestral burial grounds and leaving the sacred cultural oasis inaccessible to the O'odham people.

Under the Real ID Act of 2005, the Department of Homeland Security has the authority to waive any law it "determines necessary to ensure expeditious construction" of barriers and roads in the U.S.

In February, the DHS demolished Monument Hill at the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, leaving Indigenous ancestral remains exposed. According to O'odham elders, Apache warriors were buried in the historic site and the area is a place for Hia-Ced O'odham ceremonies. 

Pereira said she is disheartened by the destruction imposing on the Hia-Ced O'odham, but has found a sense of community among the Voices of O'odham Students at ASU that proved to her she does not face these challenges alone. 

VOSA, a new organization that started during the fall 2020 semester, was formed with the purpose of providing students from O'odham communities an opportunity to share their traditions and teach each other their cultures. 

"It helps bring me closer to like my identity as an O'odham," Pereira said. "It pushes me further within higher education, and it makes me more comfortable to be in those spaces that most people of color don't really get to be in." 

Gabriel Garcia, VOSA communication and documentation coordinator, said members shared the idea to create VOSA due to ASU's placement on Akimel O’odham and Piipaash lands and the need for groups on campus that represent these communities. 

"We want to bring change to acknowledge that ASU does sit on Akimel O'odham land," said Garcia, a graduate student studying global technology and development. "We need to start giving back to these communities."

The land ASU resides on is immemorial to the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, akin to the Hia-Ced O'odham's oasis at the borderland now littered with skyscraping metal beams.

The O'odham tribes remain firm about their opposition to the border wall, and VOSA has shown its solidarity with the ongoing protests at the Organ Pipe construction site in multiple Instagram posts. 

"There's all kinds of struggle that we're seeing going on with our relatives right now," said Napoleon Marrietta, a VOSA member and graduate student studying American Indian studies and public administration. "It's really crucial that we that we continue (this club) for the future people who are going to come."

For Pereira, the trespassing border wall on Hia-Ced O'odham grounds goes beyond the impact on her tribal elders. 

Pereira's mother, Christina Andrews, is at the center of communications with the National Park and the federal government as the chairwoman of the Hia-Ced Hemajkam, LLC

The Hia-Ced Hemajkam is handling ongoing governmental affairs concerning the Hia-Ced O'odham. Not only are the disturbances on Hia-Ced O'odham land a priority for the Hemajkam, but Andrews and the organization are currently fighting to gain federal recognition for her people.

Currently absorbed into the Tohono O'odham Nation, the Hia-Ced O'odham were given land within the Tohono O'odham Nation in 2003 and were claimed as a district in 2012. In 2015, the district dissolved. 

For its first event last Friday, VOSA invited Andrews to share the perspective of the Hia-Ced O'odham and explain the ongoing battle the tribe is fighting to become its own nation and protect its ancestral remains at the border. 

Andrews, like Pereira, remembers visiting the cherished A'al Vappia as a child and is heartbroken to see how much it has been disrupted. 

"It does not look at all like it did when I was a little girl going there now," Andrews said during the meeting. "It's just black and white."

Andrews also said the National Park informs the Hemajkam when artifacts are found and when construction begins on sacred areas, but feels the government is not scrupulous of the harm it's causing. 

"The land is almost the same as who we are as a people," Andrews said in the meeting. "There was a legal way, a moral way, a cultural way that could have been a better job of doing this as opposed to just putting the wall up there."

As Andrews continues her service for her people, Pereira said being a member of VOSA pushes her to continue a higher education with the goal of walking in her mother's footsteps.

"I'd love to be right next to my mom fighting this," Pereira said. "I would love to step into that position as the chairwoman for the Hia-Ced O'odham and lead my people."

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