Sign Cutting II – History of Sign Cutting

As detailed in my last post, Border Patrol agents use sign cutting to track anyone crossing the international border including migrants seeking job opportunities in the United States or drug smugglers moving their narcotics across Arizona’s Sonoran Desert in the Southwest.

Sign cutting was not devised by American border enforcement. The history of sign cutting dates to a period long before modern civilization, when humans had little in the way of protection from the natural elements. In addition to shelter and fire, food represented the most basic need. Hunter-gatherers would track creatures such as mammoth and elephants for long periods of time.

History of Sign Cutting - Agent prepares to search for migrants

Search and Rescue agent gets ready to track migrants in the Sonoran Desert

History of Sign Cutting: American Indians

Moving forward in time, American Indians also used tracking methods to hunt for food. One recent story from 1859, a magazine about life in Oregon, recalls the life of Avex Miller, a Wasco Indian from Oregon’s Warm Springs reservation. The story details how his father taught him tracking methods, which Avex used subsequently to locate a boy who strayed from his family and the body of a police informant who had gone missing, among others.

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Miller laughed at the theory that American Indians are the best trackers, attributing it to stereotype. But he does point out how Indians were raised closer to nature than a lot of other social groups. He says effective tracking/sign cutting relies on four qualities: patience, perseverance, keeping an open mind and having empathy for the person you are tracking. (That last point ties in with the occasional Border Patrol experience of finding sign that indicates a medical emergency and the need to call in emergency personnel.)

The Border Patrol has had a strong partnership, incidentally, with a group of elite American Indian trackers from the Tohono O’odham Indian reservation in Arizona, called the Shadow Wolves. Smithsonian featured the Wolves in a magazine article in 2003.

The Tohono O’odham reservation is federally protected land in the middle of the Sonoran Desert. A significant amount of illegal border traffic crosses the reservation and smugglers would often recruit locals to assist in their operations. As one retired Border patrol agent told me, one strategic reason the Immigration and Naturalization Service decided to partner with the reservation and its elite trackers is because they knew the local communities. Their tracking skills, first of all, could be put to great use. But the very presence of the Shadow Wolves could also, hopefully, deter smugglers who hoped to take advantage of high rates of unemployment on the reservation to move contraband.

As the Smithsonian article details, the reputation of the Shadow Wolves has become such that they have received invitations to lead training exercises internationally to assist other countries hoping to deter smugglers of biological and chemical weapons.

History of Sign Cutting: Border Patrol Continues Age-old Tradition

The idea of the Border Patrol agent hearkens back to the American concept of the rugged outdoorsman–the cowboy, the rancher or the cattle driver. U.S. ┬áCustoms and Border Protection, which now falls under the domain of the Department of Homeland Security (the INS having been dismantled in 2003), is a much more politicized and much less romantic group of individuals than cowboys are.

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Yet, the same tracking skills Border Patrol agents use on a daily basis tie to that history of sign cutting that has evolved over the period of thousands of years. The United States is a relatively young country and border enforcement issues tend to drive the ire of many a Congress person or senator. But agents continue to harness the power of tracking in the American Southwest. It’s a job that has never gone away.

About Joe Kovacs

I write literary fiction and am currently pursuing literary representation for my novel, Billy Maddox Takes His Shot, which is about a young Border Patrol agent in southern Arizona. Subscribe to The Write Place Blog by submitting your email address in the box in the right column of this page.
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