“If you do research on Quitobaquito, the majority of times you will read about the cattlemen that lived here in the area, about the people that went through Quitobaquito,” she said. “You hear nothing about the fact that it’s an old Indian village. It was abundant. Now, it’s just … well, you see what it looks like.”

The first thing you notice most about Quitobaquito Springs is the trees. It’s the only source of water for miles in the desert and the lush vegetation around it is stark against the dry tan and khaki landscape and occasional organ pipe cactus. The second thing you notice: the border wall, 30 feet tall, just feet from the water’s edge. I asked Eiler how the landscape compares to her early memories of the site.

“Barren,” she said. “Very, very barren.”

For thousands of years, people have used Quitobaquito as a place to trade, to grow food, and to rest. The springs also provided water for animals in a region where it’s hard to come by. Quitobaquito’s springs are still sacred to O’odham people today and several of Eiler’s relatives, for example, are buried here.

“It has always been a place of refuge, a place of survival for anybody and anything that’s ever crossed through that territory,” said Amy Juan, a member of the Tohono O’odham Nation and the Tohono O’odham Hemajkam Rights Network, a collective of college students and youth focused on issues impacting Tohono O’odham peoples.

In the 1900s, the springs and the surrounding area were selected by the U.S. government for conservation and given one of the highest levels of environmental protection in the world. But today, Quitobaquito’s sacred springs are drying up. So what went wrong?

Quitobaquito Springs is part of the O’odham people’s traditional homelands — especially the Tohono and Hia-Ced O’odham nations. Before it was part of a National Park, before Arizona became a state in 1912, and even before there was an international border, the springs were really more like a marsh. Water flowed into the wetlands, feeding the gardens of squash, corn, and melons in the middle of the desert.

Read the full article about Indigenous water protection by Maria Parazo Rose and Daniel Penner at Grist.