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BORDER PATROL'S RUSSIAN RESERVATIONS

Last week, while taking photographs of a virtual wall tower near the U.S./ Mexico border, an agent of the Border Patrol/ Department of Homeland Security detained me while his partner verified my identification.

They said I was doing
nothing illegal as far as the jurisdiction of the Border Patrol/ Homeland Security was concerned.

Still, the agent said he and his partner thought I looked suspicious.

Like a Russian, he said.

Or perhaps someone with some outstanding warrants.

Either way they wanted to know who I was. LISTEN.

Personally, I think they just wanted to know who was taking photos of their new toy.

The story about how I found myself being racially
profiled by Border Patrol/ Homeland Security (I'm not clear if they thought I was a Russian spy or a migrant) begins about an hour or so before sunrise.

The sparse monsoon air is thick and speckled with stars.

Traveling west along
Route 86, an almost full moon slips into a pocket of lightning filled clouds.

Baboquivari Peak looms in shadow.

My truck is packed with water, recording gear, a cello bow and implements of mass percussion.

Where Arizona ends and the
Tohono O'odham Nation  begins, I slow down for a Border Patrol/ Homeland Security check point.

The guards at this check point could easily be confused with Mexican federales.

They lounge on chairs, some seem to be smoking, some have feet propped up, some lazily
watch nightjars dive and twirl wildly before the spotlights as they wave me through.

On the reservation I tune into the
native radio station where a battle for air wave dominance is underway with a conservative Christian broadcast.

Bible thumping, chants, hallelujahs and rattles are released from the speakers and become entwined like snakes.

Eventually native trumps Jesus as I roll deeper into the wide open expanse of forever horizon, crosses and shrines glowing in my headlights like ghosts.

The
Tohono O'odham Reservation is a sovereign nation about the size of Connecticut tucked into the southwestern corner of Arizona along the border between Mexico and America.

Long before there was a Mexico or United States, the Tohono O'odham called land on both sides of the border home.

To accommodate this dual national identity,
a simple, unmanned gate allowing tribal members to move easily back and forth across the border to visit family and friends has been in place for almost as long as there has been a reservation.

But as with  much of post-9/11 Arizona these days,
things ain't what they used to be.

Drug smuggling, gangs and migration pressures are taking a toll on the Tohono O'odham land, people and culture.

There has always been drugs and migration on the border, but the
Bush-era walls built to the west and east of the reservation have served to concentrate this traffic across their vast open lands.

Of course there are two simple solutions to these problems.

First:
Legalize drugs.

Second:
Reform immigration laws.

But that doesn't seem to be happening any time soon.

Border security like the prison industry and the military industry is a short-term economic driver. Without fear and loathing, business would suffer.

I’ve heard about the walls built along the reservation's borderlands
causing flooding, impacting wildlife and desecrating native graves.

This change is something I've wanted to see first hand and perhaps play as I’ve done with other border structures.

At Sells I make a left and follow
Route 19, a gangplank of asphalt dropping off into Mexico.

Horses, cows, packs of dogs and adobe shacks dot the landscape.

The land is vast and lush and beautiful, reminding me why I fell in love with Arizona to begin with.

In the distance a security tower rises where Border Patrol/ Homeland Security has established a base.

A bit farther along, the paved road abruptly turns to dirt.

I follow the winding rutted road past a water tank waving to a Border Patrol/ Homeland Security agent waiting in his patrol truck knowing he'll likely follow me.

The dirt roads are an unmarked labyrinth and I make mental notes of the twists and turns for my return.

Up ahead in a clearing, a second virtual wall tower rises above the scrub and mesquite. Unlike others I’ve seen to the east, there is no signage warning about trespassing.

In November I’ve been asked to present
The Anta Project at a University of Oklahoma conference. For that event I decide to a take a few photographs.

I also set up my recorder to gather some
audio of the droning generator that supplies power to the tower in this remote location.

A few moments later the Border Patrol/ Homeland Security agent I’d waved to pulls up as expected, gets out and the following conversation,  paraphrased here as best I can recall, ensues.

“Are you with the company?” he asks.

“Me?” I reply. “No. I’m just taking some photos.”

The agent puts on his dark sunglasses. His smile is gone.

“Who are you with then?” he asks, his hand now falling to close proximity of his gun.

I want to say: Who am I with? I’m with you guys. I’m an American. This is America right?

But humor is clearly not the way to go and my mind grinds a few gears trying to figure out how I can explain being a freelance journalist, sound sculptor, university adjunct, stay-at-home dad and curious citizen who likes seeing for himself how his tax dollars are being spent along the border.

So I tell him about the photos for the Oklahoma Power Point presentation and my desire to see and play the  San Miguel gate.

The agent is clearly perplexed by this and he informs me I’m not allowed to be there.

No problem I say and get ready to move on as I've done before.

But he’s not done yet and asks me to wait as he goes to his truck.

I ask him if what I am doing is illegal and he says I am trespassing, but also notes that enforcing trespassing is under the jurisdiction of the Tohono O'odham police not Border Patrol/ Homeland Security.

He then gets in his truck and a second Border Patrol/ Homeland Security truck pulls up.

The two agents engage in a lengthy conversation before finally getting out.  

I can tell they're debating what to do with me.

The bigger of the two keeps his hand beside his pistol and I naturally start to sweat as I often do when outgunned and outmanned in the middle of nowhere.

The first agent then asks me for some identification.

I give him my driver’s license plus my business card that clearly states: sound sculptor, journalist, educator, baker, instrument designer.

I also give a business card to the agent guarding me and he pockets it.

When the first agent returns to his truck and presumably calls in my information on the radio, the second engages me in conversation.

My recorder is still running.

According to the agent, driving on the nation’s dirt roads is trespassing although there never was any signs stating this.

However, the agent tells me the Border Patrol/ Homeland Security has no authority to enforce that law.

All they can do is report me to the rez police who will then decide whether to site me or not.

When the agent realizes my recorder is on, he indicates he'd like me to turn it off, and of course I comply.

Anything to keep things friendly.

Then the conversation gets interesting.

So why am I being detained by the Border Patrol/ Homeland Security if trespassing is not under their jurisdiction?

The agent instructs me to take my hands out of my pockets.

Again I gladly comply.

He informs me they want to see if I have any outstanding warrants.

They also want to make sure I am the person my driver’s license says I am.

The reason?

He says: "We want to see if you are a Russian."

And he says this with a straight face.

Now I have nothing against the Border Patrol.

In fact, from what I can tell, the majority of men and women patrolling the borders are trying to do the best they can in an often insane situation.

Usually they are polite and not once have they ever detained me or asked me for I.D. when playing the border walls and fences.

I’ve also made it a point to educate rather than alienate whenever possible.

I go out of my way to be cordial and to make sure I obey all laws and signage along the border as best I can tell.

But this meeting was the most intimidating encounter to date, and the idea that I might be a Russian national or spy bordered on the surreal.

If I were a white male Russian engaged in subversive activity, why on earth would I be wandering around an American Indian reservation where I stand out like a sore thumb, headed not into the United States but towards Mexico?

Wouldn't it be much simpler to take pictures from the Mexican side?

Or maybe I'd just been profiled because of my race and the Russian excuse was a ruse?

And if I am under suspicion as a white male, I can only imagine what happens to people of color, or people with "foreign sounding names" or those who dress in ethnic clothing.

After I was cleared and assured the agents I would leave the area pronto, I thanked them --- basically for not arresting or shooting me --- and headed back home.

However, not much further on I was stopped again by two more Border Patrol/Homeland Security agents.  

This time they didn't get out of their trucks.

Instead they just rolled down their windows and asked me what I was doing.

Surprised, I ask them if they hadn't heard the other agents conversations on the radio.

They say no, so I retell the tale once again.

After a few moments the agent in the passenger seat tells me it is not illegal to drive along the dirt roads to the border.

But to do so he said I would need to get a permit from the nation at the district office (mile post 19).

Now that was more like it.

On the way back I stop by the district office which is closed.

One of these days I’ll have to see about getting a permit to play the San Miguel gate.

But for now, based on the recent Department of Homeland Security traffic
on my site, I'm just glad to learn so many of them have developed a taste for avant garde sound sculpture.

I hope they listen deep.