A Conversation with Mike Wilson

On November 14th, we met with Mike Wilson, an activist and member of the O’odham Nation. We had previously encountered stories about Mike Wilson in our summer reading for the program, a book called The Death of Josseline by Margaret Regan. The book, which chronicles the dangerous journey of many migrants through the desert, highlights Mike Wilson as an independent man set on providing water for migrants. The book also discusses the political tension between Wilson and the O’odham Nation with regards to migrant deaths on land belonging to the Nation. Ultimately, our conversation centered on the complex web of accountability that exists within the notion of humanitarian aid and the ramifications of larger immigration policies.

In our conversation, Wilson expanded on his political conflict with members of the Nation. To begin, he drew a chart on the board that created a distinction between the O’odham Nation and the O’odham people. Wilson’s chart emphasized that his debate was not with the O’odam people themselves, but was rather with members of the Nation’s various governmental bodies. He also used charts to highlight the high numbers of migrant deaths on O’odham land and juxtaposed those charts with anecdotes about his struggle with members of the O’odham Nation. When questioned about the reasons why the Nation might oppose the placement of water in the desert, Wilson referred to the Department of Homeland Security’s wide-spread dissemination of anti-immigrant narratives, for example the racist myths that migrants are dangerous, stealing jobs, and are connected with terrorism.

It is crucial to recognize the power of racist rhetoric around migrants because this rhetoric is constantly influencing policies in the Borderlands. Along with recognizing the influence of this language, it is also important to consider where these myths originate from and who is benefiting off of their dissemination. As Wilson highlighted, the origin of anti-immigrant myths stems from the US government and the web of private companies that are also engaged in the task of promoting increased border militarization and deportations. Ultimately, these entities are benefitting from anti-immigrant myths through perceived public, political support and also through financial gain, such as the profit from private prisons. Therefore, I believe it is important to not only look at the decisions being made about water on the Nation, but to also look at the root causes for anti-immigrant sentiment, a sentiment that did not originate within the O’odham Nation.

Wilson’s theme of accountability stretched to critique the network of organizations in Tucson that work to provide humanitarian aid in the desert. He highlighted the fact that several organizations in Tucson have failed to reach out to the O’odham Nation and ask if they can place water barrels on the Nation’s land. This notion of accountability ties into sovereignty, as many of these organizations may feel that it is not their place to tell the O’odham how to govern their land, especially given histories of colonization. However, Wilson confessed to us that he felt this reasoning was paternalistic and racist because it did not hold the O’odham to the same standards of morality. Within his words remains the question: how does one navigate dynamics of sovereignty while still maintaining accountability?

His language also reminded me of a presentation we had in class recently on the topic of Human Rights. The presentation was centered around the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948. In our class conversation, we discussed how implementing a universal standard of human rights can be used as a political tool to spread western, imperialist standards. Furthermore, the notion of human rights can be used to dismiss current systems of oppression within the United States. Conversations around universal equality can often ignore the present existence of oppression and injustice, and instead simply promote the status quo. This idea of universality with regards to human rights could also be applied to questions of standard morality. Ultimately, Wilson’s talk pushed me to consider how I would define my morality if I am skeptical of a standard bar of moral behavior.

Tied into the conversation of morality and accountability was also the dynamic of activism and performativity. Wilson critiqued the way that numerous community organizations appear to be considering questions of equity and justice on the surface, but are not actually following through on their promises. While this “follow through” may look different based on one’s personal identity and experiences, it raised several questions for me about the way that activism can be enacted. I was also struck by the next part of his presentation where he charged us to remember that, “silence is never neutral.” Though I have heard a version of this sentiment before, I was reminded of its value and to continue holding myself to its implied challenge. It was also a important reminder considering the end of our group conversation, which delved into questions of intersectionality, including gender and racial justice. This was a charged conversation, and I was reminded of the neutrality of silence when considering when/how I wanted to articulate my argument. Ultimately, the presentation reminded me that we were all students and teachers, and for many reasons, I hope that we were able to challenge and stir Wilson, just as he had challenged and stirred many of us.

– Uma Venkatraman

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