Native Village Youth and Education News
October, 2009


Establishing boundaries, protecting citizens
By Lucinda Hughes-Juan
Condensed by Native Village

Arizona: According to the National Congress of American Indians, about 40 tribes are affected by the international borders of the United States. But, the Tohono O’odham Nation is the largest when it comes to border impact.

Located in the Sonoran Desert in south central Arizona, the Tohono O'odham has nearly 28,000 citizens. Their reservation includes 75 miles of land along the United States/Mexico border. It is the largest stretch of border land held by any U.S. Indian tribe. But this international border has severed the O'odham's traditional homelands and separated part of the tribe.

The Tohono O’odham have nine recognized communities. Their main reservation is on four pieces of land on the American side.  But almost 1,500 tribal members live in Mexico and are not U.S. citizens. Crossing the borders to be with families and friends creates many challenges.

ohono O’odham leaders must consider many things in regards to border issues --  national security, protecting and preserving  tribal lands and resources, tribal sovereignty, and the safety and security of Tohono O’odham citizens. While the Department of Homeland Security works with them regarding these concerns, DHS only recently began including the Tohono O'odhams in policymaking from the initial stages.

the new Obama administration we are seeing a lot more headway in dealing with our border problems,” said Isidro Lopez, Tohono O’odham vice chairman. Lopez, a Navy veteran who served in Desert Storm, sees himself as a “protector of freedom.”

Increased drug activity and human tracking threaten tribal members' safety, traditions, and culture.   “Federal lawmakers need to hear from the whole T.O. Nation and involve all tribal members – not just those living on the border – when it comes to these issues, because we are all affected in many ways,” said Stanley Cruz, Pisinemo District chairman.

There are currently two U.S. border patrol checkpoints, one on Tohono O’odham territory and one near the nation’s border that the tribe approved.  Some tribal members are used to them; others express annoyance with their constant presence. However, all realize that high security comes with a cost, and no one is excluded from the impact.

Recently, tribal member and Christian leader, Renee Cruz, was stopped by U.S. border agents on her way home from church. Renee was removed from her vehicle, questioned and eventually arrested. The incident is under investigation. For tribal leaders, cases like this force them to impose tribal rights.  “When there have been problems, we have exercised our right to remove border agents from tribal land,” said tribal councilman Timothy Joaquin.

Another issue is the construction of a fence along the Mexican/American border.  Many differences of opinion exist among both tribal and non-tribal members. While cost and practicality are concerns, some tribal members say the fence represents something more – modern-day oppression of indigenous peoples on their own lands.

“It is one more thing that has subjugated us. … it is something we can bluntly see, another symbol of the suppression of our indigenous rights." says April Ignacio, a Tohono O’odham college student.  " … Policy makers need to be aware of this and see it from our point,” 

The Tohono O'odham Nation spends nearly $3,000,000 each year on dealing with illegal immigrants who cross the borders on their lands.  Policing, medical care and environmental cleanup is draining tribal resources while only a small percentage -- about 150 immigrants -- are caught  each day.  “We need to stop the activity at the border,” said Ronald Homewytewa, a tribal member and Vietnam veteran. He recommends the tribe develop its own “standing militia” to secure the border area.

There are no easy answers for the Tohono O’odham and for now, members and leaders must continue to battle problems at the border on a daily basis. “We have a constitutional responsibility to our tribal members, to keep them safe and to allow them to live harmony,” Lopez said.

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