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: 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.
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.
History of Sign Cutting: Border Patrol Continues Age-old Tradition
The concept of the Border Patrol agent hearkens in some ways back to the romantic American concept of the rugged outdoorsman–the cowboy, the rancher or the cattle driver. U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the federal agency which now falls under the domain of the Department of Homeland Security, is not what one might consider a sentimental-seeming group of individuals.
However, as T.J. Bonner, former president of the National Border Patrol Council told Pat Morrison in a 2009 interview for 89.3 KPCC, the ancient tradition of sign cutting trumps all modern advancements and technologies such as vibration sensors and infrared cameras. If cowboys tracked cattle that strayed from home, the old methods including sign-cutting are still the best.
In Billy Maddox Takes His Shot, Agent Pete Beemer offers Billy a snapshot overview of another agent who honed formidable sign cutting talents as a child on his home ranch in Texax:
“Brown’s from right outside Brownsville. Brown. Brownsville.” Beemer laughed at his own joke. He leaned across the table. “His family kept Angus cattle and when he was a boy, he had to keep them from wandering into Mexico. He’s a great tracker. When we’re cutting for sign at Pipe Organ or on the rez he’s a good one to have around.”
The “rez” that Pete Beemer refers to is the reservation home of the Tohono O’odham Indians, who now live on federally protected land in the middle of the Sonoran Desert. In another post, I write about the occasional partnership between the Border Patrol and the well-known Indian trackers, the Shadow Wolves, which brings the story back once again to the idea (stereotypical or not), that the American Indians have a history as effective sign-cutters.
The LA Times actually does suggest that sign cutting DOES come from Native Americans.
Of course anyone who ever needed to hunt for food–even millennia ago–had to learn the skill to survive. Today, it is put to use by modern border enforcement agents in a highly politicized environment. But it is their job. And it is likely a job which, despite all the technological advancements in the world, likely won’t go away anytime soon.
Subscribe: If my historical, social and political stories don’t get delivered to your inbox yet, please leave your email address. Once you subscribe, check your inbox to confirm your interest.