Secretary Zinke confirms role in talking to tribes about unwanted border wall

Tohono Oodham Nation on YouTube: "There's No O'odham Word for Wall"

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

Zinke alluded to some of the challenges facing the project during his call on Wednesday. "The border is actually in the middle of the river, so what side do you put the wall?" he said.

"I think a wall is complex in some areas but, at the end of the day, what's really important is the security and to make sure we have a border," Zinke said. "Without a border, a nation can't exist."

Other uncertainties include cost. There's no official estimate of the total price tag but Trump is already asking Congress to provide $3 billion to start carrying out his border security plans.

"The request would fund efforts to plan, design, and construct a physical wall along the southern border, and make other critical investments in tactical border infrastructure and technology," the president wrote in a March 16 letter as he unveiled his inaugural budget blueprint.

According to a White House document included with the letter, Homeland Security needs $999 million for the "first installment of the border wall." The department is soliciting proposals for prototypes, with responses due by close of business on Wednesday.

“President Trump lied about making Mexico pay for his wall,” Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Arizona), the top Democrat on the House Committee on Natural Resources Committee, said on Wednesday. He noted that Trump is proposing reductions in tribal services, along with other federal programs, to offset the cost of the wall.

“These cuts mean American communities are going to pay for it with their money and their quality of life," Grijalva said. “Trump is trying to build his wall by destroying air quality, water quality and health care, especially in rural and Native communities, and lying about it with a straight face.”

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