O'odham man works to save lives
BABOQUIVARI DISTRICT, Ariz. - Tohono O'odham Mike Wilson's truck is loaded with water - plastic gallons and huge jugs of it. Wilson is delivering water alone, as he has been doing for the past five years, for dehydrated migrants that he will likely never see - migrants crossing the desert on foot on Tohono O'odham tribal land and struggling to survive.
Along this stretch, in the valleys of the Tohono O'odham's sacred Baboquivari Mountains, migrants die every summer when temperatures soar up to 118 degrees in the Sonoran Desert.
Overhead, a helicopter marked ''police'' hovers; and within earshot on the dirt road, 17 miles north of the U.S./Mexico border, a group of a dozen migrants, who appear to be young indigenous men and women from the south, are being detained and deported by the U.S. Border Patrol.
''I call the Border Patrol an occupying army on borderlands,'' Wilson said of the Border Patrol agents on tribal land.
Wilson is carrying out his weekly routine, replenishing his water stations in hopes of saving lives. In some areas he leaves gallons of water; in others, there are barrels which he fills. He is not harassed this day, but when he began his humanitarian effort in 2001, he was threatened.
Federal and tribal police officials, non-Indians, demanded that Wilson desist from leaving water in the desert on tribal land or face reprisal from the Tohono O'odham Legislative Council and banishment from the tribe.
Wilson did not back down. Wilson contacted Edward Manuel, then-chairman of the Tohono O'odham Nation. Manuel told him, ''No one can banish you. You are O'odham.''
Still, the moral issue remains. Wilson questioned why the Tohono O'odham Nation has taken no action to prevent the deaths of men, women and children from dehydration.
''We know what oppression is; now the oppressed are the oppressors - that is what bothers me.''
When Wilson was the lay minister of a Presbyterian church on Tohono O'odham tribal land, the church's governing body voted in 2002 to forbid Wilson from leaving water in any of the tribe's 11 districts.
''I left and said, 'I will continue to put out my water.''' Wilson also told them, ''I do not know what you are, but you are not Presbyterians. You had rather let God's children die in the desert than for me to put out water?''
In the beginning of his effort, Wilson left gallon containers along washes, the well-traveled routes of migrants, and under bridges. At first, he spent about eight hours pushing the gallons of water in a wheelbarrow to select spots on migrant footpaths. Now, with the paths worn, he drives past the stiff thorns and prickly cactus that scrape his truck. It takes half a day now for him to replenish his water stations.
Wilson doesn't see those who benefit. ''The reality is they would rather not see anyone, and that is fine with me.''
Some, however, he does see: like the 7-year-old girl who was so badly dehydrated that she was passing blood through her kidneys. ''The mother and daughter could not keep up, so the coyote abandoned them out there,'' Wilson said, using the term for those who lead migrants across the border for profit.
The girl lived, but others were not so lucky.
Wilson was cast in the spotlight this year at the Sundance Film Festival during the screening of the new documentary ''Crossing Arizona,'' which includes his efforts. During the festival, he answered questions and was featured in the national media. So far, harassment has not increased for him locally, he said.
In fact, Wilson said, it is the media that saves him from law enforcement pressure and makes it possible for him to continue putting out water: ''It is the only thing that saves my butt.''
Wilson said his water containers have been confiscated.
''It is a crime against humanity,'' Wilson said of the seizure of water containers that could save lives, including those of children and elderly. ''This is not vandalism; it is sacrilege. Confiscating life-saving water is a sacrilege.''
Delivering water alone in the remote desert, which is heavily militarized with aircraft and patrolled by agents in vans, trucks and on horseback, Wilson does not have the option of allowing intimidation.
Wilson is retired from the Special Forces in the U.S. Army. As Wilson drove across the desert, he halted and turned his attention to his water station. All of the 50 gallons of water he left the previous week were gone without a trace. ''I think they have been confiscated.''
There are no signs of the ''slasher,'' the unknown person who slices the water gallons with a knife to let the water drain out. The slasher began when Wilson began his efforts.
''My water stations are positioned to minimize migrant deaths,'' Wilson said.
The drought in the Southwest is obvious here. Somehow, bees have made it into the sealed blue barrels marked ''agua'' and must be flushed out. There is another sign of drought: animals have been chewing on the barrel spigots.
''It is a sign of drought. The small animals have been gnawing on the faucet, and I haven't seen that before.''
As Wilson delivered water, overhead a helicopter bearing the word ''police'' hovered and then left. Apparently Wilson is easy to identify now as an O'odham and he is not harassed. Agents in trucks and on horseback pass by. One uniformed Border Patrol agent with blond hair drove by in an old pickup truck, obviously undercover.
Wilson, a high school teacher at a downtown charter school in Tucson, is teaching Spanish this year. Still, each week he delivers hundreds of gallons of water, repairs spigots, fills the barrels, picks up trash and drives back to Tucson.
When Wilson's water containers were all emptied and the gallon jugs delivered, he stopped along the dirt road to pick up trash. It is the third week of March, and he has already put out 800 gallons of water this month alone. The temperature is nearing the 90s and soon the water could be the difference between life and death for migrants.
Meanwhile, all day federal agents search out, detain and deport migrants. The misery on the agents' faces reveals their job satisfaction.
Wilson, however, smiled. He is at peace. When asked what discourages him, he replied that he is not discouraged.
''I've come to realize I can do just so much. Once I put the water out, I can't control what happens. I do what I can. If it helps one person, then it is worth it.
''It feels good,'' he said as he left the water stations on tribal land. Pointing in the distance 20 miles to the north, he motioned toward the next water station for migrants in the distant mountains. With summer heat soaring to 118 degrees in July and August, the Humane Borders water station off tribal land is nearly 40 miles north of the border. Many migrants do not even know it exists.