Settler-Colonialism in the Sonoran Desert: Who is Really Native to the Land?

Photo via BLM Arizona

By Coco de Marneffe

Growing up in the Arizona Sonoran Desert involved field trips to nature preserves and
national parks, visiting friends who lived in luxurious homes on tops of mountains with perfect plumbing, and history classes that glamorized early Arizona while entirely ignoring the settler-colonial foundation of the state. It is not a coincidence that I, an American citizen, am afforded the opportunity to engage with the “nature” and “history” of the area in this way: the Sonoran Desert is largely unceded indigenous land that has been colonized, purchased, and nationalized to further American expansion and the settler colonialist imaginary with the unfortunate—but certainly not accidental—consequences of environmental degradation and exploitation of the land and its traditional inhabitants.

This paper will lay out the ways in which desert wilderness has been weaponized against
indigenous communities and subaltern groups through the case study of the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. The Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument (OPCNM), located on the U.S.-Mexico border in Arizona, is an institutional, political, and physical space that privileges the rights of certain American visitors while violently denying the rights of noncitizens. Before the 1853 Gasden purchase, the land of this U.S. monument belonged to Mexico. Prior to 1957, the indigenous Tohono O’odham tribe lived on and cared for the land. The institution of the U.S. Government and the National Parks Service (NPS) has weaponized the wilderness of the Sonoran Desert and the Organ Pipe Monument for nationalist aims with political justification to remove Mexican migrants and members of the O’odham tribe at the expense of the physical environment.

Before 1937, when the land was officially declared a national monument, the Tohono O’odham tribe sustainably produced and managed Quitobaquito springs at Organ Pipe. For millennia, natural culture and biodiversity flourished under their stewardship (Nevins 469). Water (specifically that of Quitobaquito springs) has always been essential to O’odham culture and spiritual practice. The nationalization of this wilderness obstructed the ability of the O’odham to continue their management of the water source at Quitobaquito. The NPS destroyed the existing wetlands to construct a “Midwestern fishing pond” in their place (Nevins 469). In addition to this already egregious trespass, the NPS completely demolished O’odham buildings and sites, many of which were sacred or historically significant, and covered them with parking lots (Nevins 469). The O’odham were forced off their land and the area was transformed for touristic American consumption. The official Organ Pipe website, however, tells a different story: their timeline suggests that in 1959, the park rehabbed Quitobaquito by deepening the ponds, razing surrounding buildings, and improving its general appearance. Here, the NPS describes destroying indigenous sites, necessary ecological resources, and irrigation systems as “rehab” which allowed them to “improv[e] general appearance.” The “improv[ed] general appearance” comes, of course, at the cost of ethnobotanical wealth, biodiversity, and sacred land.

When the OPCNM was established, President Franklin D. Roosevelt proclaimed it to be
in the public interest to reserve such lands as national monuments. When announcing this historic news, the New York Times titled its article, “Prehistoric Land Made as a Reserve Still as it Was Eons Ago,” writing that the park was “a desert country so waterless and formidable that it is rarely visited by white men” (Provenzano 468, NYT author unknown). This article expresses precisely what is at stake in the nationalization of land: the very language used to discuss the park’s status insinuates that the “we” of the “public” interest is a white American man. Through the park-making project, the very subjects to whom that land is open become the White American citizen-explorer. The OPCNM, as an extension of the NPS and the U.S. government, cements the American national identity as white by removing indigenous peoples and culture and preventing unwanted (that is, nonwhite) individuals from traveling through the monument during migration. As a result, whiteness moves from the cultural imaginary into the physical space of southern Arizona through the intentionally exclusionary stewardship of water. In writing that the reserve is still as it was eons ago, the NYT erases the indigenous tribes and their centuries-long project of sustainable stewardship and care. For the white American, wilderness is an unpopulated place. Any trace of living people—particularly nonwhite people shatters the conception of The Wild. The only person who can enter the “wilderness” is the privileged desert walker, often the white American man and his nuclear family unit. This veneer of Organ Pipe as a neutral ground for Americans to explore obscures an astonishing and abiding political violence.

This violence finds its most coherent expression in the United States 1994 Prevention Through Deterrence border policy. An excerpt from a 2010 report to Congress reads, “Prevention Through Deterrence […] has had the unintended consequence of increasing the number of fatalities along the border, as unauthorized migrants attempt to cross over the inhospitable Arizona desert without an adequate supply of water” (De León 34). Essentially, Mexican migrants are forced to travel through the hostile terrain of the Sonoran Desert, specifically the OPCNM, in order to enter the United States. The policy sought to limit and deter migration through a set of severe strategies, most notably the intentional withholding of water. In Organ Pipe, water is given freely to certain visitors and withheld from others. But this is not merely a strategy of U.S. Customs and Border Protection—the official Organ Pipe Monument website, run by the National Parks Service, warns that people in distress will ask for food and water. The website instructs park visitors not to make contact or assist them by providing water; rather,
visitors are to report the distressed persons to park staff or border patrol. This practice both encourages and codifies as national policy denying water to people in distress (typically migrants from Mexico and South America). This insidious weaponization of water access makes clear that the federal government—and through the government, the American public refuses to view migrants as human beings deserving of water. Specifically, the OPCNM website makes clear that “smugglers” and “migrants” who are lost, in need of food/water, or in medical distress are not to be engaged with, nourished, or protected in any way. In fact, park visitors are actually warned to secure their valuables—not just money, but also food and water. In this case, water is explicitly designated as a valuable commodity to hoard and protect at all costs. And, as Pope Francis writes in Laudato si’, “access to safe drinkable water is a basic and universal human right, since it is essential to human survival and, as such, is a condition for the exercise of other human rights.” (Section 30).

The national political project of Organ Pipe is a disturbing ethical problem: the Tohono O’odham tribe and many Mexicans are indigenous to this wilderness space, to this nature. In the ongoing process of creating an American ideal, one indigenous group has been displaced while another has been–and continues to be–violently expelled. Wilderness is not neutral, but a tool of nationalization, violence, and exclusion for the American government. As an American citizen born in Arizona, I am left asking what moral responsibilities I have to the institutional, political, and physical environment in which I live. Certainly, they are different from the ongoing approach toward this land. There are broader ethical imperatives in question here such as the right to land and the right to life. These questions will only become exacerbated as climate change continues to hit indigenous land and areas of “wilderness” with increasing force. As such, it is important for an Arizonan and American citizen such as myself to engage with these
questions and problems.


“About.” Undocumented Migration Project

Childs, Craig. Secret Knowledge of Water. Back Bay, 2002.

Kino Border Initiative,

“Laudato Si’ (24 May 2015): Francis.” Laudato Si’ (24 May 2015) | Francis, 18 June 2015,

León Jason De, and Michael Wells. The Land of Open Graves Living and Dying on the Migrant
. University of California Press, 2017.

“Proclamation 2232-Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument.” Proclamation 2232-Organ Pipe
Cactus National Monument
| The American Presidency Project, 13 Apr. 1937,

Provenzano, Adriana, and Joseph Nevins. “Arming the Environment, and Colonizing Nature,
Territory, and Mobility in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument.” ACME,

“Safety.” National Parks Service, U.S. Department of the Interior,

Coco de Marneffe ’22, graduated from Fordham University Lincoln Center with a major in theology and a minor in fashion. She was awarded first place in the Fordham University Center for Ethics Education 2022 Dr. K. York and M. Noelle Chynn Undergraduate Essay Prize in Ethics and Morality.

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