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Border tribes face threats from migrants, drug trade

Undocumented immigrants and drug trafficking pose major threats to sacred areas and cultural sites along the U.S.-Mexico border, according to a new report from a federal environmental board.

In its ninth annual report, the Good Neighbor Environmental Board, a panel that includes one tribal leader, focused on cultural and natural resources along the border. Protecting sacred areas and archaeological sites requires more funding, adequate consultation and stronger government-to-government relationships, the report stated.

"The increased number of undocumented migrants crossing border tribal lands, coupled with the increased border security efforts by the federal government, has resulted in greater violation of tribal sacred sites, burial grounds, and changes in traditional lifestyles," the board wrote this month.

The Tohono O'odham Nation in Arizona, for example, deals with at least 1,500 undocumented migrants every day. The increased traffic has destroyed sacred areas, burial grounds and other sites, the report said, and has made it harder for tribal members to carry on their traditions.

Out of fear for their safety, some tribal members won't go into the wild to gather traditional plants used for food, medicine and cultural items, the report said. "The combined effect has sobering implications for efforts to maintain tribal cultural traditions," the board wrote.

The tribes of the Kumeyaay Nation in California also face threats from increased border crossings. Foot traffic, off-road vehicles and trash are causing damage to tribal areas and preventing the use of sacred sites, the report said.

Federal policies aimed at controlling undocumented migrant and drug trafficking can hurt tribal culture as well, according to the board. For example, a Congressional rider in a defense appropriations bill exempted a border fence project in Kumeyaay territory from federal environmental laws.

The fence, the report said, "will destroy or cover an ancient La Jolla period archeological site, and will affect several endangered plant species" that are used by the Kumeyaay people for clothing, basketry, food, shelter and medicine.

With 26 tribes along the U.S.-Mexico border, tribes have become increasingly vocal about the issues they face. Some are pouring their own money into border protection due to lack of adequate resources from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Indian Health Service and, more recently, the Department of Homeland Security.

Under federal law, tribes are not eligible to receive direct funding from DHS. Instead, they must seek a share of funds distributed to state and local governments, a situation tribal leaders say is unfair.

Despite lobbying for the past three years on the issue, tribes haven't been able to secure a change in law. But the epidemic of methamphetamine -- federal and tribal officials say most of the drug supply is imported from Mexico -- may finally force action. The Senate Indian Affairs Committee will hold a hearing on April 5 to examine meth in Indian Country.

Prior reports issued by the Good Neighbor Environmental Board have commented on the lack of tribal inclusion in border management issues. The ninth report is no different, and it recommends more consultation and partnerships with tribes and Indian organizations in order to protect sacred areas and cultural sites.

The board includes one tribal leader -- Ned Norris, the vice president of the Tohono O'odham Nation. The tribe says its health care, law enforcement and social service systems are stressed by undocumented migrants and drug trafficking. Tribal agents seize 300 pounds of drugs every day.

The board was created by Congress in 1994. It holds three meetings a year -- two in border communities like Eagle Pass, Texas, home to the Kickapoo Tribe, and one in Washington, D.C. The Tohono O�odham Nation hosted a recent meeting that drew the most participants of any meeting in 2005.

Good Neighbor Environmental Board Report:
Air Quality and Transportation & Cultural and Natural Resources on the U.S.�Mexico Border (March 2006)

Relevant Links:
Good Neighbor Environmental Board -