Interior Secretary Ryan
Zinke is standing firmly with President Donald Trump as the new administration pursues a wall along the U.S. border with Mexico.
"The president has directed that we build a wall," Zinke told reporters on a conference call on Wednesday.
Trump has tasked Secretary John Kelly of the Department of Homeland Security as the lead official on the costly project. But Zinke plans to help his fellow Cabinet member reach out to Indian Country as the controversial proposal moves forward.
"I am a supporting commander in that role," Zinke said. "My job is to help Secretary Kelly, for instance, with consultations with the tribes that are along the border."
Consultation is at the heart of Zinke's efforts to promote sovereignty and self-determination. During his confirmation hearing in January and in his first appearance on Capitol Hill earlier this month, he vowed to work closely with tribes on issues that affect their homelands.
"The tribes are not monolithic," Zinke said on Wednesday as he discussed ways to encourage energy development on reservations.
Tohono O'odham Nation Chairman Edward D Manuel, right, and Vice Chairman Verlon Jose are seen near the San Miguel Gate, a border crossing location on the reservation in southern Arizona. Photo: Tohono O'odham Nation
But most tribes along the border have already taken a strong stance on the wall. They don't want it to cross their lands, harm their sacred sites or disrupt their way of life.
"We don't support any wall," Tohono O'odham Nation Chairman Edward D. Manuel asserted after Trump issued a series of executive orders that failed to include tribes.
The reservation in Arizona runs 75 miles along the border and tribe has long called for greater security there. Drug smuggling, human trafficking and other problems have affected their communities but Tohono O'odham leaders believe a wall isn't the way to address those issues.
"We do not own the land but we care for the land," Vice Chairman Verlon Jose said in a video released by the tribe last month. "Every stick and stone is sacred . Every creature is sacred."
The tribe's citizens live on both sides of the border, which was imposed on their territory without their consent. Many travel back and forth to conduct business, practice their religion and see family and friends. For them, a wall is unacceptable and incompatible with their very essence.
"There's no O'odham word for wall," said rancher Jacob Serapo, who relies on a water source that is located across the border in Mexico.
The Tohono O'odham aren't the only ones affected by the proposed wall. The Cocopah Tribe, also in
Arizona, saw their lands divided in half with the arrival of the border in 1848.
The tribes of the Kumeyaay Nation in
southern California similarly share territories that span the border.
For the Ysleta
del Sur Pueblo, also known as the Tigua Tribe, a wall directly affects their sovereignty. The tribe's governing structure depends on regular access to sacred sites on and near the Rio Grande.
A physical fence is seen along the U.S.-Mexico border. On the right is the U.S. side near San Diego, California. On the left is Tijuana, Mexico. Photo: U.S. Army