Tohono O'odham Nation "Shadow Wolves" Track Smugglers On Arizona/Mexico Border

Brian Bennett / Los Angeles Times

Kevin Carlos is a member of the Shadow Wolves, a team of eight American Indian trackers who stalk drug smugglers though the desolate canyons and arroyos of the Tohono O'odham Nation reservation.

"I like to think I am protecting not only the U.S. but my area as well, my home," he says.

The Shadow Wolves work for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE. To join the special unit, each officer must be at least one-quarter Native American and belong to a federally recognized tribe.

The trackers spend their days traversing the most isolated parts of the reservation, an 11,000-square-mile parcel of land in southern Arizona that shares a 73-mile border with Mexico. The nation, as it is called here, is the size of Connecticut and populated by more than 13,000 tribe members - slightly more than one per square mile.

There are no street signs and few paved roads. On the state highway, it takes three hours to drive from end to end.

The Shadow Wolves walk ridgelines, ride ATVs and roll high-powered pickups over mounds of shale and through rutted washes. They've trained their eyes to read the desert's tells:

Fresh tire tracks shimmer in sunlight.

Old footprints are crisscrossed with insect trails.

Marijuana bales leave burlap fibers on mesquite thorns.

When the U.S. Border Patrol clamped down on crossings in an area east of the reservation five years ago, smuggling rings moved their routes to the forbidding 60-mile backcountry corridor that crosses Tohono O'odham lands. Two billion dollars worth of marijuana, cocaine and heroin have moved through the reservation since then, according to ICE estimates.

The Shadow Wolves use GPS locaters, high-powered radios and other modern tools, but it is their tracking skills and their feel for the hidden box canyons, caves and seasonal watering holes that make them formidable counter-narcotics agents.

"It takes patience. These guys think they are out in the middle of nowhere, scot-free," Carlos says. "Then we find them."

For more information on the Shadow Wolves, read the LA Times article HERE.

Fake Snow On Sacred Peaks: "It's Like Bombing A Church"

San Francisco Peaks, Arizona (Al Hikes)

The legal battle over whether fake snow can be sprayed by a ski resort in Arizona’s 12,000-foot-high San Francisco Peaks has a new venue: the Flagstaff City Council. Tribal elders, U.S. senators, federal judges and senior Obama Administration officials all have weighed in on the controversy of artificially applying frozen water to land where the Hopi, Navajo and 11 other tribes trace their origins. Many Native Americans believe it is sacrilege for skiers and snowboarders to use the area for recreation, and more so for the ski resort owners to tamper with the natural surroundings. The Arizona Snowbowl resort says it's just trying to run a business.

The Snowbowl ski area is located on 777 acres in the Coconino National Forest. Tribes have been battling the resort since the 1970s. For the second time in 20 years, the U.S. Supreme Court last year refused to hear their case, and now the matter will be reviewed by the Flagstaff City Council. Local officials are to vote on whether to pump potable recycled water to the resort to make snow. It's unclear whether this will be acceptable to the Tribes, who were infuriated by a previous plan to use treated sewer water.

"This mountain is where life began; it created us," says Rex Tilousi, a leader of the Havasupai tribe. Native Americans journey to the peaks to collect herbs for traditional healing and worship deities they believe dwell there. Dumping artificial snow there, says Mr. Tilousi, is "like bombing a church."

For the operators of Snowbowl, artificial snow is necessary to ensre a steady ski season, which is the basis for hundreds of local jobs. "If you don't have snowmaking, the question is not if you will go out of business; it's when you will go out of business," says Eric Borowsky, the resort's owner. "We only occupy 1% of the peaks. Can't we share this?"

After years of environmental review detailed in a 600-page report, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Forest Service, which oversees the federal land that the resort sits on, approved the artificial snow plan in 2005.  If the new plan to use potable water goes through, the federal government may contribute funds to off set the cost increase compared to the use of treated sewage. Arizona Senators John McCain and Jon Kyl sent a letter in March condemning "the use of taxpayer dollars to subsidize snowmaking at Arizona Snowbowl." At the same time, they called on the government to grant Snowbowl permission to start its expansion "immediately."

Tribes Voice Sovereignty Concerns Regarding Arizona Immigration Law

The Inter Tribal Council of Arizona has sent a letter to Arizona’s Governor stating the concerns of Native communities regarding the state’s new criminal laws pertaining to illegal immigration. The law, S.B. 1070, makes it a crime to be in Arizona without legal immigration status, and requires police to check suspects for residency paperwork. It also bans solicitation of work and hiring day laborers off the street.

“We have a range of concerns, including tribal sovereign nations not being recognized as able to define and protect their own borders as they see fit, and the possibility that tribal citizens will be profiled by police,” said John Lewis, director of the organization. “This impacts all indigenous people, and the lawmakers need to know it,” Lewis said. “America’s boundaries are not tribal boundaries.”

Lewis noted that some tribes, including the Tohono O’odham Nation and the Pascua Yaqui Tribe, are on and near the U.S.-Mexico border. “Our tribes have much interaction with Mexico, through culture and life, and I’m not sure people realize that there’s an economic impact involved as well.”

Ian Record, education manager with the Native Nations Institute, said he is concerned that he could be targeted, since his truck has a “Latinos for Obama” sticker on it. “It’s scary that something like that could be a factor in you getting pulled over. My wife is Latina. We shouldn’t be afraid of that.” Record noted that citizens of the Tohono O’odham Nation and the Pascua Yaqui Tribe have been strongly rallying against the law. “It complicates things for tribal citizens, especially of those nations. It has to be greatly concerning to everyone that law-abiding citizens of those nations are likely to be pulled over,” Record said. “The tribe’s sovereignty and the tribal citizens’ rights are obviously being harmed.”

Tribal Economic Development Featured On National Public Radio


This week the National Public Radio program “All Things Considered” airs a two-episode series on Tribal economic development in the Southwest. The programs highlight the diverse issues, challenges, and opportunities for Tribes in different locations and which possess different levels of resources. The program focuses on two particular Native economic development models: The Navajo Nation and The Salt River Pima – Maricopa Indian Community.

Interviews include:

Joe Shirley, Navajo Nation President

Martin Harvier, Vice President of the Salt River Pima – Maricopa Indian Community

Quannah Dallas, Salt River Pima’s Economic Development Manager

Brett Isaac, Shonto Community Development Corporation

Joseph Kalt, Director of Harvard University’s American Indian Economic Development Project

Greg Guedel, Chair of Foster Pepper PLLC’s Native American Legal Services Group


Part I of the program, focusing on the Navajo Nation, can be downloaded HERE.

Part II of the program, focusing on the Salt River Pima – Maricopa Indian Community, can be downloaded HERE.

Can Spirituality (And The Law) Save The Environment?

(photo: Genesis Realty)

The San Francisco Peaks in Northern Arizona are considered sacred lands by more than a dozen Tribes in the region. Stunningly picturesque, the Peaks are also home to the Arizona Snowbowl – a popular ski resort that attracts thousands of people to its slopes each year. Tourism in sacred Tribal lands is often a source of socio-political tension, but when the proprietors of the Snowbowl sought a special permit from the US Forest Service to begin spraying the Peaks with artificial snow made from treated sewage water, the Navajo Nation and other local Tribes were moved to action.

Instead of utilizing typical principles of environmental law, the Tribes took a different approach. They petitioned for an injunction against the Snowbowl under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), 42 U.S.C. § 2000bb, a federal law enacted in 1993 to prevent government actions that would substantially burden a person's free exercise of religion. The RFRA prohibits the federal government from placing a “substantial burden” on a person’s exercise of religion unless the government’s action furthers a “compelling government interest” or “is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling government interest.” It also reinforces the “strict scrutiny” test for any governmental action that would tend to impinge on religious freedom – this is the most stringent and demanding standard for governmental actions, requiring that any the action be closely tied to a compelling government interest in order to be legal.

The Tribes argued that spraying “snow” made of treated sewage effluent on the sacred Peaks was both an unreasonable interference with their religious practices and not sufficiently related to a compelling government interest. Since the Snowbowl is located on land controlled by the US Forest Service, the issuance of a permit for the artificial snow is a governmental action subject to scrutiny under the RFRA. The Tribes succeeded in convincing a 9th Circuit panel that the spraying was a violation of the RFRA, but the decision was reversed by the full 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. The Tribes then petitioned the US Supreme Court and are currently awaiting review.

As global climate change increasingly calls into question modern pollution-producing lifestyles, it is interesting to ponder ancient Native philosophies regarding the environment. In Pre-Columbian times, Native American Tribes created communities that lived in remarkable harmony with nature. The Anasazi cliff dwellings in Canyon de Chelly provide a striking example of people building and operating a society based on knowledge of and respect for their natural surroundings. Those familiar with Native American culture know that this approach was based on something far deeper than mere geographic expediency; Native people viewed the earth as sacred, and embraced its preservation as a spiritual imperative.

Using legal tools like the RFRA, contemporary Native communities can work to heighten awareness and protection of lands that have ritual and religious significance – and at the same time make positive contributions to the environment for the benefit of all people.