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Water Tank Tussle 

Mike Wilson battles his tribe and fellow humanitarian group leaders to maintain his desert water stations

It's a moody, overcast Saturday morning on the Tohono O'odham reservation west of Tucson. A brawny storm ravaged these hills last night, and desert debris is scattered like loose change alongside State Highway 86. Cruising this two-lane road in a big Dodge truck, Mike Wilson clicks his tongue at the storm's power. "I don't know what the washes are going to be like," he says, slowing near Mile Marker 120. "We may not be able to get through."

A retired U.S. Army Special Forces master sergeant, and now a school teacher, Wilson is following the same route he's traveled for nearly three years. Each Saturday, he rises long before dawn, his truck groaning out to the rez under a ton of sloshing barrels and jugs. By late afternoon he will have filled each of his eight water stations, all perched along routes heavily used by thirsty migrants from Mexico.

When Wilson first began putting out water, he was serving a brief, testy stint as a Presbyterian lay minister in the tribal capitol of Sells. Given the endless migrant deaths on O'odham land, he told congregates it was his Christian obligation to help prevent a few.

His congregation disagreed, and he quit before they could boot him.

As official policy, the Tohono O'odham Nation also takes a grim view of member Mike Wilson's efforts. A recent phone call was equally discouraging: A friend reported to him that a 50-gallon water station had been confiscated, apparently by tribal cops, at the behest of an agitated district chairman.

Wilson's truck rumbles up to the station, where the news proves true: barrel and stand are both gone. All that remains is an upright container filled with empty jugs.

Like most O'odham, Mike Wilson is soft-spoken and overly polite. But he's not timid about hauling along the media, to press his case. Accompanying him today is a Tucson Weekly reporter and two filmmakers from New York. They're shooting a documentary about border issues.

Wilson frowns when he sees the empty site. "Well, this is disappointing," he says quietly. But the film guys want a little more. "Can we do this again, Mike?" says one. "Can we have you stand by the water station, and tell us how you feel?"

He obliges, traipsing over to indentations in the sand where the tank once sat. As he talks, clouds billow sullenly overhead. Maybe more rain is on the way.

The plight of Mike Wilson's water station reveals two conundrums. First, it reflects the Tohono O'odham Nation's seething frustration at serving as a migration conduit; Border Patrol strategies help funnel up to 1,500 northbound migrants through O'odham country each day. And though the tribe has a tradition of helping travelers, patience has worn thin.

Second, the water confiscation bares a bitter rift between the tribe and local humanitarian group leaders, as well as between those group leaders themselves, sparked by the O'odham government's refusal to allow Tucson-based Humane Borders to put its own water stations on the reservation.

That friction turned red hot last year, when Rev. Robin Hoover, pastor of the Tucson's First Christian Church and head of Humane Borders, wrote a scathing guest editorial in the Arizona Daily Star blasting the tribe's position.

In May 2001, says Hoover, Humane Borders called upon government officials throughout Arizona--including the O'odham Nation--to allow assistance for distressed migrants. "We think it's immoral to deny providing water, when people are dying of thirst."

According to reports, Hoover's loud criticism of the O'odham greatly angered Rev. John Fife of the Southside Presbyterian Church. Fife is highly respected for his humanitarian work with the 1980s Sanctuary Movement and with Samaritan Patrol, which dispatches volunteers to aid distressed migrants in the desert. He's also a leader of the No More Deaths movement, established over the summer to spotlight the annual migrant killing fields in southern Arizona.

With longstanding ties to the O'odham Nation, Fife reportedly feels that the tribal government shouldn't be criticized for refusing to let outsiders work on the reservation, where even Samaritan volunteers are restricted to state right of way a few feet on either side of Highway 86.

Attempts to contact Fife for comment were unsuccessful.

Contentious or not, this feud between Hoover and Fife is a philosophical clash among the well-intentioned, says one insider. "I think they all have good hearts. They just see things differently."

Into this schism has stepped Mike Wilson. As an O'odham, he's no outsider. And he says his tribe should be taken to task. "I think 'white man's guilt' is why some people won't criticize the Tohono O'odham Nation," he says. "But I think the Tohono O'odham Nation should be held morally accountable like everyone else."

Unfortunately, even establishing accountability for the removal of Mike Wilson's water station is an arduous task. Tribal officials are notoriously elusive when reporters come calling, and media requests are now channeled through Matt Smith, a partner with the politically insidious Tucson PR firm Strategic Issues Management Group.

The firm is perhaps best known for fabricating a student letter to the editor supporting the UA's Mount Graham telescopes a few years ago. The letter was published by the Arizona Daily Wildcat. At the time, SIMG was running a spin operation, coordinated by the UA's Steward Observatory, to put a happy face on the controversial telescopes. Ironically, that project was under assault by not only by environmentalists, but also by members of the San Carlos Apache Tribe, which considers Mount Graham a sacred site.

When contacted for this story, Smith made a few phone calls, and then reported that "no one (on the reservation) knows anything" about Mike Wilson's confiscated water tank. As more information surfaced, Smith didn't return several subsequent calls from the Tucson Weekly seeking comment.

But as it turned out, at least a few people were in the loop, including Ambrose Encinas, chairman of the nation's Schuk Toak District. He had phoned Humane Borders around the time the tank was taken. "I received a garbled message from Ambrose Encinas," says Rev. Hoover says, "about Mike Wilson's water station."

A day later, Mike Wilson received a similar message from Encinas intimating that the chairman ordered the tank removed.

Making things murkier, two Samaritan volunteers were patrolling Highway 86 at about 8:30 a.m. on Monday, Aug. 9, when they were stopped by a female Tohono O'odham police officer. "She was angry," says volunteer Kathryn Ferguson, "and wanted to know if we were the ones who put out the water station that they had confiscated."

Several attempts to contact Chief Richard Saunders of the Tohono O'odham Police Department were unsuccessful, and a receptionist for Ambrose Encinas reported that the chairman was traveling. However, Vice Chairman Ronald Widener says he thinks Encinas had the tank removed, adding "I don't believe that Wilson went through the approval process" necessary for establishing water stations.

Encinas and Widener are welcome to their opinion, Mike Wilson is saying, as the documentarians trail him back to his truck. "But I'm just going to be out here next week, and replace that water station. Why should the Tohono O'odham be held to a lesser moral standard than anyone else?"

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