“This is a spiritual attack. This is the government, this is the battle that has been ongoing since colonization and all we could do was pray and visit the Spring. We could sing, we could be with the land, it felt important to be there. There was a pull, this constant pull a lot of us were feeling. It was this need to be there, to be with the land.”
On September 9th, 2020, Amber Ortega was arrested for refusing to leave a border wall construction site on Hia-Ced O’odham land, stolen and renamed as the Organ Pipe National Monument. The border wall construction site is being built on top of Quitobaquito Springs which is a source of life and a sacred space of spiritual practice for the O’odham people. Friends of L&F sat down with Amber Ortega to talk with them about their charges, resistance and occupation on O’odham land, and the significance of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) concerning their case. Amber has a court date coming up on Wednesday, January 19th, where oral arguments will be heard regarding RFRA. As though of some extension of pure colonialist malevolence, the United States government still does not legally acknowledge the Hia-Ced O’odham people as a federally recognized tribe. In spite of this, Amber and other Hia-Ced O’odham are reclaiming what was taken from them through shared struggle and reconnection with the land.
Listen to an audio of the interview here.
CAITLIN: Thank you. I understand that you have a trial coming up and you’ve been through quite a few things leading up to this, too. Is there any back-story you’d like to share?
AMBER: Well, actually, the trial already happened. The court date coming up was set for the judge to hear oral arguments to discuss RFRA1. So, there was a trial that was held, and what has followed since has been the change in representation. My former lawyer was Paul Gattone, who helped guide the court case along. He’s the one that originally argued the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in court, and after the trial date, that is when a judge decided to take out the RFRA argument and only take it in part.
So, you asked about a backstory. So, before trial, there were many people speaking out. Before border wall construction began and during border wall construction, there were tribal members and there were environmental groups that were also defending the land and the biodiversity of the area, the landscapes, the water, so there’s been an ongoing effort for a long time to not only protect the lands, but to even have access.
There’s a whole history that has not been heard. There’s a story of the Hia-Ced O’odham that hasn’t been told, I’m sorry, that has been told by our elders. It’s a story that we as a younger generation must continue on to combat the government’s erasure efforts on our people, the Hia-Ced O’odham, specifically.
So, like I said, I’m Tohono O’odham and the Tohono O’odham Nation is a nation. It is federally recognized. But as we know, there’s a history of Indigenous lands being downsized and reservations are not entirely home to all who reside on the reservation. Home makes it beyond the borders of tribal lands and of government and federal lands. And we’ve known that as Indigenous people, as Hia-Ced O’odham, as Tohono O’odham, we know where our history is. We know where we connect and how we connect. It’s innate in us.
We’re taught as children, our songs and our language, and we’re told who made us. What it was that we were here to do as O’odham. We’re told that we are made with a purpose. We’re made to be keepers of the land and we have stories and we have characters and we have a rich culture and one thing that people may not understand is that the Tohono O’odham Nation included the Hia-Ced O’odham, there’s a strong history of the Hia-Ced O’odham fighting for acknowledgement and access to lands.
There was a line that was drawn. There were many lines that were drawn dividing our lands. One of the backstories is that the Hia-Ced O’odham lost their lands. The Organ Pipe National Monument, those are Hia-Ced O’odham lands and they hold villages that were traditional villages. We lost access to those traditional villages, we lost access to Sacred sites because of the Barry Goldwater Bombing range. There’s the mine in Ajo. There are lands beyond the United States Mexico border that are Hia-Ced O’odham lands.
Quitobaquito is a known sacred water site. It is currently under the Organ Pipe National Monument’s care and there is irreversible damage that has been done. And as people who are Indigenous to these lands, we have seen what harms have been done, what lasting damage can be done by decisions made by corporations, by mining operations, by government. By the decisions on how federal governments choose to use their…choose to use land. I’m sorry, I can’t say ‘their.’
That was one thing that was argued in court. There was a Navajo Nation case2 brought up on the prosecutors side, arguing that with federal land, the government can do as they see fit, regardless of if there may be harm done, because it’s the government's wish. But with this, we knew that our voices…you know, the goal was to raise awareness with the issues that were coming our way as a younger generation.
There is a generation of us, Hia-Ced O’odham, Tohono O’odham, Akimel O’odham…O’odham. We’re learning about our history, we’re learning about the lands that we connect to and the lands that have been taken and even what has divided our people, politically, spiritually, physically, mentally. It’s an ongoing effort of this new generation. We have to educate ourselves in order to maintain and to revitalize what’s been taken. Our efforts are not always seen as aligned with the government’s wishes and some of us even joke about how it’s boarding school, it feels like boarding school conditioning that we’re really working against.
Our generations, our relatives, our elders were conditioned to assimilate. There was a lot of fear, intentional fear, placed. Fear of stepping out, fear of speaking out, censorship is real and we have experienced a lot at the hands of the government, spiritually even. You know, on the Tohono O’odham reservation there is a strong presence of border patrol, now national park service. There’s the government, the law enforcement, there’s military, and we as O’odham live through that.
We’ve been living through that for some time now and we’ve continually faced some wrong things as a tribe and as O’odham as a whole, and ultimately, you know, it’s our time to speak out. It’s our time to continue to raise awareness so future generations can understand that their voices matter. Their efforts and their dreams. Things that they may not believe are possible, are entirely possible.
We’ve seen enough happen on our reservations, we’ve seen enough happen to our people, we’ve seen enough wrongs done to our people, even by those we trust. Border patrol agents, there’s real death that has happened at their hands that they have not been held accountable for. National Parks service has a history of removing O’odham from their lands.
There’s a history to this time. There’s a history of our people being divided and before going to trial, one thing that the public didn’t see was the effort being made behind the scenes for people to unite in our voices. It comes from the elders leading us to the future. Getting through to us, speaking to us.
This is an effort that the government didn’t want. This is the trial, the trial happened, the prosecutor's office did send a request recently to the judge requesting that she again deny the motion to reconsider the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, so like I said, there will be court on January 19th at 11am at the Federal Court building here in Tucson.
The government, the prosecutor’s side, made it clear that they didn’t want the argument to be made at all in court. They attempted to prevent the trial from proceeding. They attempted to silence the story, the truth, so the backstory is getting the truth out. The truth of what’s been done to our people, the truth of what we experienced, the truth of what it is that we’re battling to live, to survive, to have acknowledgement, to have freedom for not just…this isn’t for just any one person. This is for our future. The future of our lands, the future of our animals, the future of our water.
The Spring we knew was going to be affected. It’s impossible to have done what they did without having consequences. That’s permanent damage, that’s irreversible damage, that’s irreversible division that severed life for animals. The Spring itself is a known bird's nest. So many animals live and rely on that source of water for existence and the wall, what they plan on doing, it doesn’t serve the land, it doesn’t serve the people, it doesn’t serve the animals. It doesn’t serve the future.
The technology that they plan on bulking it up with also causes problems. We already see shifts happening in migration. We already see extinction happening and it’s a part of our history again.
You know, as Hia-Ced O’odham, there’s a battle to combat the erasure, the erasure even of who we are as a people, our name, our lands, the connection we have to these lands, and it’s been an ongoing thing. The Hia-Ced O’odham have been fighting for a long time for federal recognition. There is a tribe, a band of O’odham, Hia-Ced O’odham, that are separate from Tohono O’odham that were excluded. Their lands were known. There’s a strong history that is known, it’s documented. And so that’s the backstory.
C: So that’s leading up, and then what can you tell us about the day you got arrested, or leading up to that, to fill in that part of the story?
AMBER: Sure. So, there was construction clearly happening. It was messy, it was loud, it was consistent. It was difficult to watch. We leaned on elders to guide us through those times. It was emotional, it was frustrating not knowing what it was we could do to carry on the story. We were learning about our history and one of the main things that was encouraged was prayer.
This is a spiritual attack. This is the government, this is the battle that has been ongoing since colonization and all we could do was pray and visit the Spring. We could sing, we could be with the land, it felt important to be there. There was a pull, this constant pull a lot of us were feeling. It was this need to be there, to be with the land.
I was working at the time and my job happened to be right off of Highway 86. So I was seeing panel after panel after panel after panel go by. I was making trips to Quitobaquito and the day of the arrest we made a trip. It was early morning and the holiday had passed, so you know, we knew the construction was halted for a second because of the holiday and so we went to be there.
It was much more pleasant without the noise, the vehicles, the constant surveillancing—it was constant, and it was difficult to watch. We saw the ground water being pumped and sprayed for the construction, for construction vehicles to pass. It was the sickest thing to watch. You know, natural ground water, rain water, water that you know has been unharmed for…since time immemorial, if you really want to go there, because that’s how long the land had been untouched.
Land trauma exists and what we witnessed was traumatic to see because there was an attempt by environmental groups and even the Tohono O’odham Nation to halt construction, to stop construction. There’s the lawsuit3, and there was fear because we knew this job was happening. We knew it was wrong. We knew our history was being desecrated in front of our eyes.
In the way they built, they used this scattered method–they scattered out their operations to build inward. And so we could see how far they were from the Spring. At the time, the ruling had not been made with the 9th circuit. They ended up ruling that the wall was unlawful, and the funds were diverted. It was decided that it was wrong, but at the time that decision had not yet been made.
We wanted to be with the land, we wanted to be with the water. The day we were arrested, we started off going to special spots there. Without knowing that day, when we heard the construction vehicles approaching and we heard the ‘ding ding ding ding ding,’ it was an alarm clock for both of us.
Without hesitating, we ended up meeting right there. Running to the site, to where they were headed. That day, it was without hesitation that we felt we needed to stop what they were doing because that was our history. That was our history and they had no idea what history they were messing with. There were no cultural monitors present. That was the fear, losing more history. Losing more of what little we have left. It was a response. It was an innate response that we felt we needed to do without hesitation.
In those moments, there was no sense of wrongdoing whatsoever. We had water and we had our voices and we had songs and we were going to use those things, we were going to speak and sing. When border patrol and national park service arrived, they didn’t know what to do with us. Because we were singing, because we were refusing to leave our lands. We were refusing to leave because that was sacred to us. That area was special, is special, will forever be special.
They weren’t willing to hear that. It wasn’t their job to hear that. It’s not their job to empathize with that or to even show respect for that. We could have been cited and released. They told us they were taking us to Ajo. They didn’t tell us they were taking us to CoreCivic4. They didn’t have any charges for us. It took two days to receive charges during COVID. We didn’t’ now at that time what the consequences would be. We just knew in that moment that we needed to attempt to do something.
While we were there [with the land], there were phone calls that were made. I called someone to let them know where we were and what we were doing and we alerted a lot of people. When camera crews arrived, there was a shift. We noticed that border patrol backed off. It was a long day. That day, I just wanted to be with the land. We wanted to stay put. The goal was to prevent something we believed was wrong. And now, and now it’s here. It’s here.
Fighting this, I knew I could be found guilty, and that’s okay. I say that because that wasn’t the point. The point was not to necessarily win the case. It was to bring truth to light, even if found guilty, about how the government responds to Indigenous people when protecting lands versus non Indigenous people who are not necessarily protecting their religion or their lands or what they believe is sacred. Or they are, but we know pushing forward with this case and fighting it that the government does have a history of siding more with non-Indigenous people, and honoring European settlers and religions more than Indigenous religions, spirituality, to these lands.
And so I could be found guilty. I was told that by one lawyer, after being released from CoreCivic. She told me flat out. First thing as I sat down, she said, “You’re going to lose,” that was heart wrenching. I knew then that that wasn’t the lawyer for me.
I’m really grateful right now to have different representation. As soon as she reviewed everything, before reviewing the details, she knew that it was a case she could argue. She understood what needed to be done. She could see that the government’s decision was based on a narrow perspective of religion. They were saying that the government didn’t ‘hold substantial burden,’ meaning that I still had access to Quitobaquito Springs. But the issue was being removed from the entire area.
So, Quitobaquito and the surrounding lands, the surrounding area, that’s the sacred lands. That’s the sacred site. It includes even beyond what’s considered the border. It was clear that they didn’t understand, and the fact that [the lawyer] was able to see that right away was like this glimpse of hope. It was like, “Okay, yes! Thank you, yes! You see it! You understand it! I want to go to court with you! Let’s go to court, let’s argue this!” So that’s what’s going to be happening January 19th, then sentencing will come after.
So one of the other things [the lawyer] brought up was the case law. The prosecutor used the Navajo Nation decision, but you know, there’s a difference. On my end, I’m not suing them, this isn’t a civil lawsuit. It’s a religious freedom case. They want to bring up using federal lands as they please to, show their muscle in some way, to flex in some way, to scare future efforts made to protect sacred sites, sacred land.
They don’t want to hear the Indigenous perspective. They don’t want to hear our side. It almost feels like the government, the prosecutor’s side, doesn’t feel like they need to respect or acknowledge that this is an Indigenous case. This is a case that has been fought for a long time for our people, the fight to speak and to be acknowledged and to have access.
It’s unknown right now what this could look like but the fact that right now we are able to have clear details and examples of what it looks like to fight RFRA–what it means, what it looks like on both ends. This is just the beginning of so much and the continuation of so much. So that’s the other backstory. The fight for federal recognition is also a part of the history.
The Hia-Ced O’Odham did have a 12 district under the Tohono O’odham Nation and that was dismantled. So there is this ongoing effort for Hia-Ced O’odham to have a voice and to have a seat at the table, in a sense, because there is a tribe, there’s a band of O’odham that are alive and have shown unity and we have O’odham on the other side of the border.
There’s proof that we’re here, that we’re here and we have this historic connection that can never necessarily be taken away. We’re here and we’re going to continue to fight and there’s so many stories of truth that haven’t been shared and we want our future generation to know it’s possible. It’s entirely possible to really transform things using the culture. That’s been the main thing, even through this, being redirected with the culture, is that O’odham Himdag5, it’s that our Himdag, it’s our way.
It’s been difficult to understand the government, even when they have your best interest. This is definitely going to be something I’ll be working on understanding for the rest of my life. You know, like I said in the beginning of the interview, it’s part of an ongoing effort to also educate ourselves. So we know. So we know.
C: I’m glad you’re not alone in that fight anymore, legally, it must feel really good to have Amy Knight just come in and seem to understand a little bit more and believe in this. Is there any, I have a couple of other questions, but I want to try to keep it open ended. What do you want the people to know?
AMBER: The Hia-Ced O’odham are not extinct. The Hia-Ced O’odham are not divided. Our lands may be divided, and even politics may be divided. But we are not a divided people. We’re not non-existent, we’re real. We’re a real band of O’odham that will continue to fight. We have a strong history that we have been kept from. You know, there are sacred sites, for instance, that we are told we are not allowed to access or visit. But we’re well aware of what is where and we have our elders who have dreams they want to see carried out.
There was a plan before the dismantling of the 12 district for the Hia-Ced O’odham to have lands and a community in Darby Wells in Ajo , Arizona. In a lot of ways, that’s still a dream. For Quitobaquito to be revitalized, that we will see happen, and the story isn’t over.
That’s another thing. The people who are listening should know that this has been an effort going on for a long time to show that we’re alive. We’re alive and we’re well and we want our rights back. We want our rights to our lands and to what was taken. There’s an effort to revitalize not just the lands, but our own people, and that’s really all we can do because of what’s been done and we’ll be doing this for some time. You know, it’s part of our purpose.
C: I wanted to ask, it feels like, for many reasons, you know, colonization…there’s been a broken connection for a lot of people that live in these lands. There’s a broken connection to the land, there’s a broken connection to spirit, but you’ve expressed that you and the Hia-Ced people have this strong connection, this sacred connection to the land. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about what that feels like for you. So, before construction, when you have this obnoxious noise and these people desecrating this sacred space, when you could go there before, what did that feel like for you to be there? What does that mean to you?
AMBER: Oh, that's a good question. It means returning home, it felt like home. It felt, and will always feel like home. My dad and his dad, there's a history. We all have this history, all of us as Hia-Ced O'odham, we have this history that connects to our family, our parents, our grandparents, that water, that source of water is what provided for our relatives, our Huhugam6. And our, you know, all the animals, it's a known village. It was a known village.
As a descendant, and I know I'm not speaking for just myself, it felt like home. It feels like home, like we're home. And it was felt and it's always felt. That's what made it difficult, was the wall. The fence, that barrier, that thing that exists there, it may seem like something small to people who are not connected or aware of what it means to us, but it changed.
It changed the environment. There's work being done at the Spring, because of the construction that was done, to repair. So the repairs, of course, have changed the spring. The construction changed the scenery. It may seem like something small to people who really have no connection to it, but it was felt.
That's the fear, is what else could be felt? You know, if we feel it as humans, as O'odham that are connected to the water, to the land, then you know that the animals are feeling it. And the devices, these stadium lights interfere with migration. They attract bats and they poop, and then there's wall rust maintenance that this wall is requiring, and those are chemicals.
We already saw enough chemicals go through the land because of construction and repair work. So the repair work being done to the Spring is transforming the Spring and we are watching that with our own eyes. We watch the land crack without being able to do anything physically for it. You know, there's work and it's changing the Spring and that we can't stop. The damage has been done and we want life to continue for these animals, for these plants.
One of the things that people are also unaware of is the medicinal plants that are gone, that need to be revitalized. There's been death in the entire area, to Hia-Ced O'odham lands. Darby Wells, the mining operation, what that mine did to the lands and the tailings, the toxins, these things have been done to our lands. It may sound outlandish, but it's not. We feel it as a people, we feel the effects of what was done. All the Hoshen7 that were taken, all the water that was taken, all the death that we have seen, all the death that we may see. You know, we feel it.
That’s something that those who are not O'odham may not understand, but it's real. We feel it. And we're all in the process of healing from it. Gathering our strength from it. How do we move forward?
What's been done is similar to the pandemic, you know, pandemics exist on lands and we have to heal from what's been done. We have to heal from these traumas in order to move forward. Spiritual trauma exists. Cultural trauma, land trauma, erasure efforts. It affects the whole. To imagine that Spring without water, to imagine that area without life. That was the fear, and we can't have that happen.
Feeling forever connected to that land. You can't change that. Hia-Ced O'odham will always have a connection to that water, to that area. There was food that was grown out there before the national park service took over. There was a village there, there's still a cemetery there. The food that was grown was actually being grown right on the other side of what's now the border.
There's a history that we will always feel. And in a way, it comes alive and it has come alive. Even with the arrest, the two of us being arrested and removed by the national park service. Now that's also in a document, one of the documents describing Hia-Ced O'odham and their experiences, their life experiences at the Spring. And moving away from the Spring and even being taken to a Yuma prison, you know, wrongfully accused.
There were siblings that were wrongfully accused of killing their brother. He fell off a horse and he was dragged and they accused the siblings of killing him. So they removed them from Quitobaquito. Took them to a Yuma prison, and they were there for two years.
And when they were released, they walked back from Yuma to Quitobaquito and they saw how drastically different it was. And they saw a decline in who was there. There's a whole history. And so in a way, when we visit, it's revisiting what's been done. It's revisiting, and it's also asking for healing from what's been done. That place is a known…that water is healing. That water is sacred, and it's used by medicine people on both sides of what's considered the border by all our people. There's a history of ceremonies and you can't change that. You can't change the feeling, you can't change that, you just can't.
C: Yeah. I think it's so helpful for people to start to have that understanding. So many people go to church, go to this brick building to connect spiritually, right? You're talking about this land that brings you home and connects you to spirit and that's so powerful. Thank you for sharing that.
AMBER: Thank you. Thank you for asking that. I feel like that's one of the things that people seriously, who are not a part of it, don't understand. You can't capture that on camera. You can't send that type of feeling to someone to help them understand, you just have to be in it and to know it and to feel it. If anything, visiting a sacred place, that's what it is. If comparing it to a brick building is what it is for you, people practice different ways of honoring, and being in those moments and the beauty of what we know and what we have on our side is the water, our lands, that is it.
We know our mountains, you know, those are our sacred place. That's where we pray. We go to specific sites. And that's what the prosecutor’s side doesn't understand. That's what the government is fighting against. We've been fighting that since…that’s the Doctrine of Discovery8. You know, it has to be a certain way. And that's technically in violation of O'odham Himdag.
You know, O'odham Himdag is our way of life. What is O'odham Himdag? How do we live out the ways that we're supposed to, keepers of the land, protectors of the land, acknowledging our beliefs, our plants, our animals, our songs, traditions, the seasons, the planting seasons, harvesting seasons, ceremony? There are songs that are specific. We're battling to keep our traditions and cultures alive. And this case is part of that, since the Doctrine of Discovery. And again, it is for future generations to understand.
C: At the last court case, I stood in at the end and heard the prosecutor’s side use a comparison. He was arguing against RFRA and he was saying that if someone saw the U.S. capitol building as a religious site, then that would give them a reason to go and storm the capital or however he put it.
It just showed me what little understanding, like you said, that these people have of your family’s…your ancestors have this sacred connection to this land, time immemorial. And these comparisons, that I thought were absurd, illustrate how little people understand of what it means to have a connection to a sacred space, what it means to connect with your family in that way, and to connect with the land. And to compare it to this government building? So strange.
AMBER: Yes. If you watch the footage of the insurrection, and then you watch the footage of the arrest, you know, go ahead…watch both. I watched the insurrection and it was disturbing. I didn't want to. I kid you not, it wasn’t until after trial, when the prosecutor compared what we did to that and my blood started to boil while sitting there. Like, how dare you? That is your ignorance speaking. And that's an educated man who clearly does not acknowledge Indigenous lands and even cultures.
What we did was not that. That was our response to land trauma. That was our response to trauma that has been done by, by border patrol, by national park service. There's a history of us being oppressed as Indigenous people, as O'odham. And as women, even, men don't even take into consideration how much we as women have endured and seriously watched, as we hope for these men to make the right decision for our future generations.
But that was a disgusting effort done by the Trump administration that we watched. We watched how disgusting it was from the get go. The rallying of him, the rallying around his lies, his deceitfulness. He's a coercive man. He's a financially wealthy man. What he did, that was a business deal. There's controversy behind his presidency. There's ongoing things that we know he did that are beyond the border that are in politics that I will not even speak of. There are people who still consider him president, what they did was sick and sinister, twisted. I'm not even sure what the prosecutor, what his understanding of things is, but that was sick. The things that people said in the footage, live footage, the things that were coming out of their mouths.
So people wanna talk about what we said and what we did, but the things that came out of those people's mouths and what they did, in what was like a mass hypnosis, that's something creepy. That's something disturbing, that's something wrong. Those people should all be technically held accountable, but we don't even see that. They're making an attack on who we are, no matter what we do, how we do what we do. Our people, our tribes, they're completely different situations.
C: Yeah. I felt my blood boil, too, when he said that.
AMBER: Yeah, those people, they had that planned, that was premeditated, that took some collaborative effort. Another sick thing done on, on [Trump’s] behalf.
C: I think something else that might be hard for people to understand, and you've talked a little bit about this, but I think what can be really powerful is kind of a picture of daily life and maybe some specific examples of things that have happened to you or people in your community.
You've talked about more and more militarization in that area, and how that's related to the border wall and the surveillance that's happening there. But like, how does that change daily life for you? How does that create limits for you? When you're trying to go to the store or trying to come into town, how does that feel and what does that look like?
AMBER: Recently that has changed. So, the conditions for release made it possible to be outside of the prison walls, but it also made it uncomfortable because you're well aware of the monitoring that is happening on a consistent basis. And they require, it felt like being in prison in a sense. There's a feeling to it, to where you have to report your whereabouts, an address.
They questioned when I stayed away from home to visit home. So, home is home–the rez, where I grew up. And then there's home where I [currently stay], you know, so there's having to explain home. We went there, we went to home because my pretrial service officer asked, “why can't you stay at home? Why do you have to have more than one home?”
It's like, I don't necessarily have more than one home. It's like, I have the home where I grew up. And then, you know, I live here and I like to visit, and I work over there. It's the colonized perspective of things, you know, things need to be a specific way, the assimilated way. Where do you clock in? What is your job title? Where and how long do you work? What is your schedule? And if you're not home every day, why are you not home every day? So there was just this really uncomfortable thing that was happening while I was in the city and traveling.
There were places and times where I felt followed and there was nothing I could do about it. I brought it up and I was told that each officer has their designated area and that's how they can tell if you're not home because they check their areas.
I have been released from pretrial services. How that came about, I still [don’t know], and I'm super grateful for, my lawyer was even surprised.
But they, they made it uncomfortable, receiving a violation. So you're allowed to receive three violations and I was violated for not returning a phone call right away. I was given a violation for participating in a spiritual run and I crossed the border and crossed back. There was the muscle of them present. They made it uncomfortable. They did their job. Pushing past their efforts to really suppress movement, freedom, that took some time. It was difficult mentally. I missed my job, I missed my freedom.
I wanted to travel. I had to make requests to travel. I was denied traveling outside of the state. There was the consistent effort that they made. It has taken a lot of strength to get through this. There was a part of me that regretted even agreeing to be released under the pretrial conditions. In the moment, I did feel like staying put maybe would've been the best way to deal with it, only because there's a greater story to this, right? We do go through these things. They want us to view prison as this thing, to make you never go back. But there's these lessons, there's an effort to understand these things.
Why is it this way? Why did we, for instance, have to be taken to CoreCivic, versus being, cited and released? Why is it that it took so long for this case to be taken to trial? Because there's a large amount of money being put toward prosecuting us. There's month after month after month after month. So we're going on over a year now of this being ongoing. What Nellie Jo David went through, she was in this fight as well, but it wore her down. It mentally wore her down to the point where she was like, “you know what? This isn't right, this wasn't right from the get go.” And even in her attempts to defend herself, there's an effort put on silencing her. There's a whole story she has.
They haven't made it easy. The amounts of money that have gone into this from the government side, it's disturbing. CoreCivic, during the COVID pandemic, did not have hand sanitizer. They did not have hand soap. They did not have gloves on. We had to advocate for ourselves and it wasn't until we were taken into cells and our uniforms, or, you know, the suit, that we finally could have soap. But what we experienced is what so many people experience. There are so many wrongs in the government and in the system where the money exists, and that's a disturbing part. Money exists there, large amounts of money. The fact that we didn't get sick was surprising.
It was real. We really went in there, and I could really go back. And that would be okay, that I wouldn't be surprised by. I really do feel like that is the government. You know, “find her guilty, send her in, let her pay her consequences so she can know. And so people will know there's consequences. It feels like this muscle, this flex, you know. Like show 'em, show 'em we're in charge, show 'em we have the supreme power. We have the say, not them, not these Indigenous people, not these people connected to their lands, their sacred sites, defending their cultures. Not them, no. We, as the United States government are in supreme power and we will show them, we will use whatever money needs to be spent to prosecute this, this terrorist, this heathen, this savage, this dissonant. How dare they? How dare they go against the United States government to defend their people, their culture. We can't have that.”
That's what it feels like. It's like this strong attempt to say, “No, you're not, no, we have power. We are going to do what we want to your land, to your people, to your cultures, to you.”
Again, I am so grateful to have this new representation. Amy Knight, she’s fought this. She has this enthusiasm. She's like, “we're gonna get there. We are going to argue.” She's excited. And it helps because it hasn't felt good, but there's this new excitement. So it's approaching, the end part of it. They said sentencing could take six months after trial. The motion to reconsider RFRA, that's a new decision. So, that's exciting news. It's huge.
C: I think what you said about the government having this money, this large pool of money that exists, and them using it as a tool to oppress people and scare people, as opposed to using it to help people and support people. And we think that the government is here for us, you know, by and for us. But really, what you're experiencing is so much different than that.
There's also a lot of money that goes into patrolling everyone, right. Patrolling like these border patrol checkpoints, the cameras in the desert, and just the watching. I can't imagine, feeling like you were being followed. Was there a feeling even before these trials started, of being confined? Of being watched? Having to watch your step in your movements, on your own land? Or maybe coming back and forth from here in Tucson, because of so much military and border patrol and general government presence?
AMBER: Yes. That has been the case for a while now. So I grew up close to the border. There was constant monitoring that would take place and we've known border patrol to stop even school buses. I experienced that growing up.
My mom would get pulled over taking us to school and they would make a point to pick me out of it. My dad was hassled by them. I was hassled by them, my mom, my sister, we have stories of being hassled by them. That started young and that was irritating because we lived there. These were agents that literally parked across from our home, literally saw every home, every resident, every vehicle. And then in the morning they would make a point to pick who they wanted to harass.
We couldn't change that. We couldn't stop them from what they did. We could keep them off our property, but that's what I grew up with. Checkpoints, it's a norm. You grow up feeling that's your life. Helicopters, you know, it's your life. It wasn't until I moved off the reservation for a good length of time and then when I moved back, I realized that there was a huge difference. What I considered normal, wasn't normal.
Now I know that I can defend myself. I can still speak up. Yes, we're followed. We're monitored and it's throughout the reservation. That's our real life. Helicopters in your most peaceful moments. They even do that at Quitobaquito. We're not allowed really too much privacy. Everything is monitored, but there's still issues. There are issues that people have because there's all this surveillance happening, yet we're still having issues.
How is it that there's technology set along the borders and there's equipment and there's money and they have access to every means possible to help, to monitor things, yet we're the targets? How is it that the people who are Indigenous to the lands and who have family connections, how is it that they're the targets and the things that are unwanted are still present?
There are still issues we have because of the presence, because of the abuses. Abuses take time to heal. People who are abused, you know, have lasting effects. We are a monitored people, the Tohono O’odham Nation. Everyone knows that. We don't experience it as much off the reservation versus on the reservation. But it's affected our lives.
C: We've been going for almost an hour now and I want to respect your time and energy. But, is there anything else, as we're wrapping up, that you feel like still needs to be spoken?
AMBER: I think that'll be good. Yeah, I think that was plenty. Thank you.
C: Well, I'm so thankful to hear that since you have this new lawyer, that there's some new excitement that you're feeling empowered by having them on your team. Just to hear the joy in your voice when you talked about that was really beautiful.
Thank you for sharing your story and putting it out there. And like you said, I hope that sharing this story can help people understand how meaningful this is. Not just to how meaningful this is to you, but to your people, to these lands, and to the future of life on this planet.
1. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act prohibits the U.S. government from substantially burdening a person's exercise of religion.
2. A federal court rejected the Navajo Nations claims that the Forest Services acts were in violation of their religious rights under RFRA, citing that the Forest Service’s actions did not “substantially burden the exercise” of the Navajo Nation’s religious practices.
3. A federal judge in Arizona ruled against the U.S. Government agencies in a lawsuit regarding harms caused by the border wall, as the agencies failed to prepare an updated environmental impact statement.
4. CoreCivic is a privately owned prison located in Eloy, Arizona.
5. The Tohono O’odham Himdag consists of the culture, way of life, and values held and lived by the Tohono O’odham.
6. Huhugam refers to O’odham ancestors, of whom living O’odham peoples are a lineal descendant of.
7. The Hoshen, or saguaro cactus, are considered elders and sacred ancestors to the Hia-Ced O'odham.
8. Also known as the Doctrine of Christian Discovery, originated from a series of official communications from the Vatican in the 15th century instructing “sanctioning the brutal Conquest and Colonization of non-Christians who were deemed ‘enemies of Christ’ in Africa and the Americas.”