President Donald J. Trump’s border wall will do more than just keep out asylum seekers. Its construction will also damage the ecosystem, destroy ancient Native village and burial sites, and tear out fields where sacred Native medicine is grown, according to Juan Mancias, chairman of the Carrizo/Comecrudo Tribe of Texas.
In the town of Mission, Texas, bulldozers and construction workers are preparing to tear up potentially sacred sights in the quest to build portions of Trump’s border wall. Approximately 50 Native people have rushed to protect the area, fearing construction will destroy artifacts, graves and sacred peyote fields.
A group of Native people came together at the National Butterfly Center in Mission, Texas, on Monday (a reserve also under threat of having a 36-foot concrete wall through its property) as construction equipment was being offloaded in Mission, Texas.
The Carrizo/Comecrudo Tribe of Texas, because they are not recognized as a formal tribe by the state of Texas or the federal government, they have no legal standing to enforce laws such as the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, but Mancias says the Carrizo/Comecrudo, known as the Esto’k Gna in their Native language, have lived on both sides of the Rio Grande for thousands of years.
In October, 2018 several environmental, and historical-based laws were waived in order for construction to begin by the federal governmental agency U.S. Customs and border protection. According to a report issued by the agency, construction of the border wall will be cutting through the butterfly reserve, a state park, and a 100-year-old chapel. The construction will also cross along the land that runs along the Rio Grande River, where the graves of the Carrizo/Comecrudo are today.
The connection to the land along the river adds depth to the tribe’s voice because the Trump administration’s rush to build the wall runs roughshod over important aspects of their history. As a result, the tribe isn’t protesting the wall as much as it is protecting its heritage.
From a camp in South Texas near the Eli Jackson-Brewster Cemetery, which lies right in the path of the wall’s construction, Mancias spoke with Indian Country Today. “There’s a lot of history that people don’t know of what’s happening here. We were here since first contact and we never really lost our identity. Our language was recorded in 1886. But Texas has always wanted to get rid of us because we have inherent rights to the land.”
The tribe has been speaking out against the wall since 2017, but on Monday it took to the streets.
A march by one of the oldest Indigenous tribes in Texas
Heavy equipment intended for the construction of a 25-mile section of the wall through South Texas arrived on Sunday and was being offloaded Monday along a levee bordering the Rio Grande River. In response, the tribe and its allies staged a march Monday from a location near the town of Mission to the National Butterfly Center, a 100-acre wildlife refuge that’s also being threatened by the immanent construction of the wall.
Supporters from all over the country including members of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and several environmental groups participated. The group held banners, sang Native songs, and chanted, “No wall on stolen land!” as they walked the 2.8-mile route. At one point construction workers performing survey work on the levee heckled the marchers. The tribe and its supporters chanted their “No wall” slogan back at them.
On a national level, there has been support for Indigenous peoples. On Thursday, representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez called on Congressional leaders to stop funding to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, or ICE, and efforts of President Trump to secure the 5 billion needed to construct a border wall. She said the country was on "Native land."
The wall throws federal protections out the window
“There’s no due diligence being done on this,” Mancias said. “There’s no environmental impact studies done on this. And so it’s affecting the way things have been done for a long time. And the administration doesn’t care. Neither does Homeland Security. They just want to come in and put up a wall.”
On October 10, 2018, the Department of Homeland Security published a determination in the federal register stating it is waiving 28 federal statutes with regard to the construction of the border wall. The summary of the determination reads:
“The Secretary of Homeland Security has determined, pursuant to law, that it is necessary to waive certain laws, regulations, and other legal requirements in order to ensure the expeditious construction of barriers and roads in the vicinity of the international land border of the United States in Cameron County in the State of Texas.”
The tribe is concerned the Trump Administration is setting aside laws meant to protect Native rights and the environment, which is allowed according to section 102 of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996.
The 28 federal laws they are allowed to break include such environmental statutes as the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act and the Endangered Species Act. But of most concerns to the Carrizo/Camecrudo are the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) and the American Indian Religious Freedom Act.
Of graves and peyote
“There was first contact with Europeans here with the Spanish back in the 1500s, right after they forded the river,” Mancias explained. “They chronicled that at least every eight to ten miles there was a village along the river. And with our nomadic lifestyle, we know that those villages weren’t consistent at one place all the time. So there were villages all along the Rio Grande for the last ten thousand years.”
Because of this, it’s impossible to know how many ancient Native gravesites and villages lie buried along the river. The border wall is being built at the foot of a levee running alongside it and a 150-foot-wide “enforcement zone” and road will be built on either side. The waiver of federal laws will allow construction workers to dig up or pave over any artifacts or graves they come across.
Although federal officials say they will return these items to the tribe if they are found, they are under no legal obligation to do so. Mancias fears workers will be tempted to sell any artifacts they find.
In addition, South Texas has large areas where the sacred cactus peyote grows naturally. The Carrizo/Comecrudo have used it in ceremonies since time immemorial and are credited with introducing it to the Creek Confederacy in Oklahoma where its use developed into what is now the Native American Church. Mancias believes the wall will destroy locations where this sacred Native medicine grows.
The fight continues
After the march on Monday, Mancias and other “Wall Warriors” gathered around a 900-year-old Montezuma Bald Cypress near the levee where they prayed and sang songs to the grandfather tree. Within minutes, a county constable and members of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department drove up and threatened to cite them for criminal trespass. Mancias asked them why, since they had come there thousands of times without anyone ever saying anything.
They were told the area around the levee is now protected under a policy by the International Boundary of Waters Commission. The officers detained the group for about 35 minutes while they checked their ID and then released them with a warning. Mancias believes the officers were sending a message and trying to scare them.
Mancias and the other Wall Warriors have set up two camps along the levee and plan several more, similar to the camps established at Standing Rock. They intend to monitor the construction of the wall that’s ripping a wound through their ancestral land.
Some say they are willing to lie down in front of bulldozers if necessary to protect sacred locations. With the full weight of the county, state and federal governments bent on ensuring completion of the wall, the stage is set for a standoff similar to the one at Standing Rock.
Construction is scheduled to begin in March.
Frank Hopper is a Tlingit, Kagwaantaan freelance writer, born in Juneau, Alaska, and raised in Seattle.