Where life expectancy is the second-lowest in the western hemisphere and 80 percent of people are unemployed.
Native American tribes in Arizona have banded together in filing legal documents to protest the construction of a highway they feel is threatening their sacred mountain and indigenous sovereignty.
Planning for Loop 202, also known as the South Mountain Highway upon which it will be built, began in 1983, according to the Arizona Department of Transportation’s (ADOT) website.
The controversy over the construction comes at a time when indigenous people in the US feel increasing pressure from the Trump administration.
After what seemed victory when the Dakota Pipeline was shut down by former President Barack Obama, current President Donald Trump has renewed pipelines on Native lands.
The impending highway was designed to give commuters in Phoenix, the sixth-largest city in the United States, an easier way of navigating the city.
However, the construction is a direct threat to the identity of the O’odham people, including the Gila River Indian Community, all of whom come from the Hohokam people, a common ancestor.
“Our elders told us that if the freeway is built, we will no longer be O’odham. The physical integrity of [the South Mountain] has to be preserved and protected. Our creator will not recognise us if it’s not protected,” Linda Paloma Allen, a Gila River community member, told Al Jazeera.
“There’s a feeling of pressure from the current [Trump] administration,” Allen said. “This theft of lands and resources, this colonialism is a continuation of disrespect of Native peoples,” she concluded.
According the amicus curiae brief, or “friend of the court” documents in support of GRIC filed by the Tohono O’odham and Inter Tribal Alliance of Arizona (ITAA) which were delivered to Al Jazeera, “Muhadagi Doag, more commonly known as South Mountain, as both a hunting and gathering ground, and a spiritual center” for the O’odham people.
Allen said that her child’s future, who she is raising to be an O’odham man, is her motivation for fighting the highway: “If this freeway is built, my son, when he goes home at the end of his life to meet his creator, he won’t be recognised as O’odham.”
Over the past four months, construction crews have found the remains of an estimated 20 O’odham ancestors, Allen explained. The graves show the long history of sacred respect for the area, and disturbing their resting places is an affront to her people.
GRIC filed a federal lawsuit last June to fight the project, but courts ruled construction could continue. In December, pavement was laid on Loop 202, and the GRIC filed an injunction to have it stopped.
“We wanted to seek out help from the sister tribes, because we are historically one united people. We’re all the same linguistically, culturally, spiritually,” Allen continued.
As such, the Tohono O’odham, a sister tribe whose ancestral lands are near the US-Mexico border, along with the ITAA which represents 21 Native American tribes, filed the documents saying that Highway Loop 202 would degrade their sovereignty.
The South Mountain is a “traditional cultural property”, (TCP) the legal brief claims, meaning that it is a site “rooted in a traditional community’s history and are important in maintaining the continuing cultural identity of the community”, according to the US Department of the Interior.
Mik Jordhal, an Arizona-based lawyer that works on indigenous issues, argued that any challenge to TCPS “directly impacts the sovereignty of tribes”.
Speaking to Al Jazeera, Jordhal explained that federal courts siding with the federal government in destroying sacred sites “can have a devastating impact on other tribes as well. Of course, federal courts have been no friend to Native American sovereignty.”
ADOT and the Arizona Attorney General, who filed the amicus curiae brief on behalf of the Tohono O’odham, were not immediately available for comment.
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