The Tohono O’odham Nation, a federally recognised tribe with a reservation that spans 75 miles along the US-Mexico border, said on Thursday that it does not support the proposed wall and will attempt to block construction if it goes ahead.
In a statement it criticised the White House for signing an executive order without consulting the tribe, and hinted at Standing Rock-style mass resistance if necessary. The tribal vice-chairman has previously said the government could build the wall “over my dead body”.
The tribe, which has about 28,000 members, said it has suffered for decades from the “militarisation” of the international border, which cuts across its ancestral lands. Members have said they are frequently assaulted or threatened by border guards and impeded in visiting relatives south of the border.
The reserve is meant to operate as an autonomous territory, but in practice people living there say they are afraid to hunt on their own land or even let their children ride the bus to school because of harassment by security agents. They said in the statement that they are routinely stopped from “simply travelling through their own traditional lands, practicing migratory traditions essential to their religion, economy and culture”.
The Tohono O’odham Nation occupies the second largest Native American base in the country and has so far spoken out the loudest in opposition to the wall, but it is possible other tribes which span the border will also refuse to let Mr Trump build on their territory.
The Kumeyaay in California and the Kickapoo in Texas, as well as the Cocopah, also in Arizona, all occupy land spanning the US and Mexico. Representatives of all these tribe have gathered together in the past to discuss tactics to oppose border security, with several indigenous leaders saying the militarisation and occupation of indigenous lands is in direct violation of their right to economic, political, social, and cultural control of their lands.
Tribe member Bradley Moreno, 35, told the Guardian there is already a steel barrier at the border, but if a wall is built, the results would be disastrous.
“It’s going to affect our sacred lands. It’s going to affect our ceremonial sites. It’s going to affect the environment. We have wildlife, and they have their own patterns of migration,” he said. “There are just so many things that are wrong with this. The whole idea behind it is just racist.”
It remains unclear how Congress intends to finance construction of the wall. Mr Trump initially claimed that Mexico would be forced to pick up the bill, but recently he suggested instead that he would place an additional tax on all goods imported from Mexico to raise funds– outraging Americans who like tequila and avocados.
However the legal challenge Mr Trump could face if he attempted to build a wall on Tohono O’odham land without the tribe’s permission could pose an even larger problem than finding the money.
“He is going to have a very serious and prolonged battle with the O’odham people,” said Raul Grijalva, a Democratic congressman from Arizona, speaking to the Guardian. “They know what’s at stake is their sovereignty.”
Even if Mr Trump won a legal battle, he would face a fight on the ground. Mr Moreno said people were already discussing strategies for “direct action”.
Audra Antone, who lives in the state’s Gila River Indian Community and whose family is O’odham, told the Guardian if the government tried to start construction, large protests like at Standing Rock could emerge.
“It’s divide and conquer again. We need to stand our ground as Native American people,” said Ms Antone. “We’re going backward if we do not stand up and fight.”