Last week I had the pleasure of having Mike Wilson and his partner, Susan Ruff, in my home for a few days. Mike is a tribal member of the Tohono O’odham Nation in southern Arizona. The reservation on which the nation is situated straddles the United States / Mexico border. I got to know Mike and Susan when I was filming my documentary, The Second Cooler, in which Mike appears.
Mike is an original. He is a Native American who joined the United States Army and trained at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. He became a member of its Special Forces. Sent to El Salvador in the 1980s, his duty was to “win the hearts and minds” of the Salvadorans. That means that he was to encourage Salvadorans to assent to US domination.
While there, he had what in Christian circles is sometimes referred to as a Road to Damascus moment during which he encountered who he was and what he was doing. He concluded he was a “North American imperialist” in El Salvador.
He says that he was “called” out of the Army and into seminary, then called back out of seminary “by faith”. He was prompted by his conclusion that the Church had become an instrument of imperialism. He spent a year as a lay pastor, however, at the Presbyterian church in Sells, the capital of the Tohono O’odham Nation. For those who do not understand the idea of being “called”, it refers to a belief that God has placed a special task on a believer’s shoulders. Today, Mike says, everything he does is because of his faith in God.
One of the issues which Mike, Susan, and I discussed at length under the cool arbor on my deck was Mike’s frustration with white people who will not confront tribal leadership on life and death issues. In this short clip from The Second Cooler, Mike talks about the running conflict he has had for years with tribal leaders of the nation. The context in the clip is the criticism he was receiving from his Presbyterian Session in Sells.
The conflict has to do with the fact that Mike puts water on tribal lands for migrants crossing there illegally. The migrants, who come from Mexico, Central America and elsewhere disproportionately are indigenous. Tribal leadership forbids him putting out water because they believe it encourages migrants to cross through their lands.
Part of the problem is that the militarization of the US / Mexico border, especially at the Arizona border, has been deliberately designed to push illegal immigrants into the vast, treacherous Sonora Desert which makes up much of the Nation’s land. Figures are difficult to come by, but estimates range from a very conservative 7,000 to approximately 21,000 since 1997 when records began to be kept.
Mike also has had a running conflict with immigrant advocates in Tucson. Advocates there, who are white or Latino, work day in and day out to rescue migrants, call attention to their deaths nationally, and keep records of deaths. Yet, they will not tell tribal leadership that they are wrong to contribute to migrant deaths by refusing to give them water.
Mike wants white and Latino advocates to stand up to tribal leadership arguing that human beings are suffering and their lives are hanging in the balance.
White and Latino advocates will not. They argue that to do so is a form of racism: “White people have told Native Americans what to do for too long.” And so, Mike not only is persona non grata among tribal leadership, he is persona non grata among the non-Native advocates in Tucson.
While we talked, I remembered a remark he made at the screening of The Second Cooler in Tucson at the Arizona International Film Festival in 2013 during the Q&A. A number of those whom he had tried to persuade to support him by standing up to tribal leadership were in the audience that evening. I recalled him having said to no one in particular, “What do you think we Tohono are? Your pets?”
Mike believes, and I agree, that preferring to let migrants die rather than stand up to the people who could help save their lives is, in and of itself, a particularly toxic form of racism. As Mike pointed out while we talked, refusing to stand up to people who hold other people’s lives in their hands because of their racial or ethnic identity is applying a different standard to their actions or lack thereof. I believe that a separate standard is necessarily a lower standard reflecting a lingering belief that Native Americans are too emotionally delicate, too childlike, to take criticism. And, because they are Natives and made fundamentally different from Whites, according to the logic, they are inherently incapable of racism.
Or, as Mike asks in the clip from The Second Cooler, rather than stand up to tribal leadership or wrestle with the nuances of racism, is it just “easier to let the migrants die”?
This is the racism which we can deny by taking the moral high ground of ultra sensitivity to Native Americans’ feelings. We can deny our and Native racism while colluding in the brutal deaths of thousands of Mexican indigenous. Applying any moral yardstick, how can we justify this? Do migrant deaths really matter? Are Tohono O’odham tribal leaders full grown men and women?
Or are Native Americans our pets?