Young Kumeyaay Women Lead Protests Against Border Wall
The quickly-rising border wall is planned to stretch for 14 miles along rugged terrain in the Laguna Mountains. But it now cuts through areas that the Kumeyaay nation, a collection of native tribes based on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border, consider a major thoroughfare for their people.
That thoroughfare was used for generations before white settlers arrived. Burial sites, former villages, and other culturally sensitive sites dot the landscape.
Members of the Kumeyaay say Customs and Border Protection, which is helping manage construction on the site, has ignored evidence of the cultural heritage sites they’re now building over.
“They’re using 10-year-old surveys to try to say that there aren’t sites in certain areas. And when we’ve gone out there to protest, we’ve seen mittensoil, which is signs of cremations, flakes, grinding stones, and we’ve seen everything out there. And that’s in places where they say there aren’t artifacts, “ said 28-year-old Cynthia Parada, a tribal councilmember for the La Posta Band of Mission Indians.
She and other young Kumeyaay women have been leading the protest movement in the searing heat of summer in the Laguna mountains. They’ve been standing in front of construction equipment and blocking access roads.
Parada says the government is breaking the law by disregarding the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). Congress enacted it in 1990 to protect and safely relocate native burial sites.
“We just want them to do it right,” she told KPBS. “Right now their waiving the laws that protect our remains, which is through NAGPRA, and a lot of other laws as well, which we’re just not OK with, because we fought so hard to get those laws to begin with and now they’re waiving them and just blowing through the work.”
Last week, members of the Kumeyaay nation were accompanied by a forensic anthropologist who says she identified what was most likely a cremated human bone.
In the past, Customs and Border Protection has reached out to native groups to determine what to do with remains, and engage in a government-to-government consultation about the best way to move forward with construction while preserving cultural heritage sites. It usually does this months before the beginning of construction.
But this time, Parada says the government began construction before doing any of that.
“We just heard about it and went to see if it was true. And we see the construction work being done, and that’s when we decided to take action. We didn’t know about it, we didn’t receive any notification about it,” she said.
The Kumeyaay say a representative from the Army Corps of Engineers told them the Department of Defense is allowed to waive laws regarding heritage sites because the wall construction is a matter of national defense.
The money used for the wall construction is being redirected from the Pentagon’s counter-narcotic budget, a transfer of money that’s currently being challenged in court.
Now the Kumeyaay are preparing a lawsuit of their own to try to stop the wall construction.
“They’re creating new access roads, they’re creating new storage areas for their equipment and none of those areas were monitored,” Parada said, explaining how the scope of the construction extends well beyond just the wall itself.
CBP says it had several discussions with Kumeyaay leadership and members of various tribes since June to address their specific concerns.
In a statement, CBP told KPBS that it is “is currently utilizing a Tribal monitor at this project and is working closely with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and its environmental monitor to accommodate the Nation’s request for additional tribal monitors.”
But Kumeyaay protesters, and especially younger tribe members, say meetings with CBP have gone nowhere, and they’ve seen multiple instances of construction proceeding without any monitors present.
“We’re protecting the land, protecting the history,” said 19-year-old Brooke Baines, who grew up on the Manzanita reservation. She’s been juggling her first cashier job with helping organize the protests.
“Kumeyaay women are a strong group of women,” Baines told KPBS. “It’s really important that young women are leading it because a lot of things in this world are run by men, and older men at that.”
Baines says that’s why they plan to continue direct action, to keep going to the wall to try to stop construction, and buy time for a lawsuit.
“I stay in prayer while I’m out there,” she said. “I’m praying for the safety of my people, for the desecration to stop. I’m not thinking about me, myself, or my body, I’m praying.”