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Living in No-Man's Land

Kristina Pyclik and Jennifer Leibig

As the largest tribe in the United States that has land stretching across a border, the Tohono O’odham have struggled to maintain their traditional way of life as security along the U.S.-Mexico border has increased dramatically since the September 11 terrorist attacks. In response to the closing of several major ports of entry, illegal immigrants and drug traffickers have turned to Tohono O’odham lands for passage into the United States. Yet instead of providing relief, recently added border control personnel have only complicated the situation by treating the Tohono O’odham as illegal immigrants on their own land.

For a community that uses oral tradition to pass down knowledge of the land and its resources, this sort of environmental disturbance has deep impacts. “There is a word for our way of life: Himdag,” says Ofelia Rivas, an O’odham member. “Our way of life is based on the land and living in harmony with the land. All of this has been violated and there has been a tremendous imbalance even within our own people.”

Until the 1854 Gadsden Purchase, the Tohono O’odham’s land stretched undivided across the Sonoran Desert. Now, a 70-mile border divides the community in two, with 1,400 of the 27,000 members of the tribe living on the Mexican side of the border and the other members living on the United States side of the border. “We didn’t ask for the international border to go through our land, and now we are living with this,” laments Rivas, who sits and watches as the United States Border Patrol sets up stakes to mark where a wall will be built along the border in her backyard.

The wall is being built partly in response to increased smuggling in the wake of the closing of the Yuma and El Paso border crossing points. According to Police Chief Richard Saunders in an interview with USA Today, Native American reservations have become the “path of least resistance” for smugglers. The Border Patrol notes in an interview with the New York Times that the Sonoran Desert is the top smuggling entry point along the U.S.-Mexico Border.

According to the Drug Enforcement Agency, 50,800 pounds of marijuana were seized on Tohono land in 2000, but by 2005 that amount had quadrupled. Moreover, according to Tohono O’odham officials, 1,500 Mexicans illegally pass through the area every day. Many of these illegal immigrants die crossing the scorching Sonoran Desert, which can reach temperatures of 130 degrees in the summer. In 2005, 145 deaths were reported, almost one third of all illegal immigrant deaths reported on the border for that year. All this activity comes at a high cost: The Tohono O’odham Nation Police Department estimates that in 2003 it spent $3.4 million on illegal border activity.

Illegal activity has serious consequences for the land, as well. Today, in the area where Tohono O’odham have hunted deer and harvested acorns for 6,000 years the landscape is covered with trash, including backpacks, water bottles, clothing, human feces, toilet paper, dead bodies, and abandoned vehicles. Between 2002 and 2005, a quarter of a million pounds of trash was removed. Traffickers also create new trails through this sensitive environment, home to 600 plant and animal species, some of which are endangered.

“The government has no concern about protecting our Mother Earth,” says Jose Matus, a Tohono O’odham leader and human rights activist. “The land was untouched by development before, and animals were free to move. There was vegetation that the elders would use for medicine and food. Now it is being scraped off by the Border Patrol for the building of roads, and this is creating a different environment.”

The illicit activity taking place on their land is not only disturbing the environment but also corrupting the community. Tohono O’odham officials estimate that, together with the Border Patrol, they stop only a quarter of the traffickers. Moreover, Tohono officials report that many times tribal members themselves will participate in drug trafficking to earn money. In a tribe where the unemployment rate is 60 percent and the 2000 per capita income was 33 percent of the American average, the $5,000 that drug traffickers will pay locals to help them transport drugs is a natural draw.

“There are so many young men in prison because the conditions out there are very Third World, very impoverished,” Rivas says sadly. “They get enticed into drug trafficking by a lot of the main drug traffickers from Mexico.”

More than anything, the Tohono O’odham are frustrated by their powerlessness in the situation. While the Tohono O’odham’s location on the border potentially places them in a unique position to discuss immigration policy with the U.S. government, they are never asked to participate. And they suffer the consequences of border decisions. “We are the last ones to know,” says Motes. “We are never invited to the table to present our issues and concerns. Once they decide on laws, then we have to deal with them. The legislation is not working at all. They are putting on more border patrols, and it still hasn’t affected the flow of undocumented people. It has created more problems than not, so the issue is not an enforcement issue, it is an economic issue.”

While increased border patrols would appear to address illegal trafficking problems for the Tohono O’odham, it has only made matters worse. Motes explains how tribal members are doubly afraid: “The smugglers create a criminal element and create fear, but on top of that you have the Border Patrol. If you are driving home late at night from a ceremony, you are stopped all the time and the vehicle is searched and human rights are violated.”

People without a country
In 2000, Arizona Representative Ed Pastor introduced a bill to Congress that would allow all tribal members to become U.S. citizens. While this bill found initial support in Congress, it eventually died without ever receiving a hearing. Then again in 2003, Representative Raul M. Grijalva introduced a citizenship bill, but it never got out of committee. Both of these bills would have given U.S. citizenship to all enrolled tribal members turning their tribal membership card into proof of citizenship. This U.S. citizenship would not change their status as a sovereign nation but is a “convenience for them,” according to Margo Cowan, former general council for the Tohono O’odham Nation. It would, she said, allow all Tohono O’odham to cross the border freely. “All the scholars recognize, whether you believe the O’odham creation story or not, that they were here first,” Cowan says. “The whole question of dual citizenship is really trying to figure out how to take a situation that is not accommodated by either the U.S. or Mexico and make it work in the paradigm of both of those countries.”

While Native Americans living on the U.S.-Canada border were granted freedom to travel and work across the boundary hundreds of years ago as a part of the Jay Treaty, the Tohono O’odham do not have that right. An estimated 7,000 of the Tohono O’odham do not even have birth certificates, making them easy targets for border control officials. Ceremonial sites, planting sites, and sacred sites fall on both sides of the border, but today most Tohono O’odham are afraid to cross the border even to visit their family for fear of being treated like illegal immigrants.

“You have the original people of the region really being conquered through time,” Cowan says. “Then in modern time how are they supposed to negotiate this artificial border? The ones born in Mexico are Mexican citizens. The ones born in the U.S. but can’t prove it require U.S. citizenship. It’s like taking an apple and trying to close your eyes and make it a tomato. It’s a fundamental right of federally recognized American Indians to engage in cultural and religious ceremonies. That’s the tomato. The apple is immigration authorities that only consider state citizenship.”

Gustavo Solo, spokesperson for the Tuscon Border Patrol, is upbeat about the agency’s relationship with the tribe. “We have a great relationship with the Tohono O’odham,” he says, “because we need to and are making strides in the right direction.” However, Rivas describes how the Border Patrol constantly raids Tohono O’odham homes, searching for drugs and treating the homeowners as if they were criminals. “One woman was breastfeeding her baby at 4:45 A.M., and the border control just walked in with flashlights looking for undocumented people. One elderly lady was telling me that they were sleeping and they saw border control agents peeking in their window. Many people feel very upset that they have no peace, and they feel violated.”

Frequent home invasions have made many Tohono O’odham members want to leave their land. Even traditional ceremonies are threatened, because the Tohono O’odham are unable to cross the border with their medicine bundles to traditional sites, and border control officials ignore the Tohono O’odham’s requests to remain undisturbed during ceremonies. “The community becomes at risk even though the Border Patrol claims that the quality of life has improved,” Motes says. “The quality of life has gone down in the past 10 years.”

Rivas also recalls one conversation between a man from her village and the Border Patrol. “One of the Border Patrol agents stopped a man from the village and the man from the village tried to tell him that we have rights. The border control official responded by saying ‘Oh you Indians think you have sovereign rights, but you don’t have any rights. We are the authority here.’”

Since the U.S. Senate approved building a border fence along the U.S.-Mexico border on May 17 and President Bush initiated Operation Jump Start, National Guard troops have been sent to the border in larger numbers. More than 6,000 additional Guard members will be deployed in the coming months. Rivas explains that the U.S. Border Patrol has mostly replaced tribal border control. But more border enforcement does not seem to be the answer, according to many members of the Tohono O’odham Nation. “To us the problem is the border control,” Rivas says. “The undocumented aliens have been coming across the land for many years and every time I have talked to the elders they say they have never been bothered by the people that come across before.”

While Solo says that the problem in the Tohono O’odham nation is a problem of “manpower,” Rivas says a solution to border issues must involve the Tohono O’odham people. She notes, “We are the people living there. If they called us to the table we would have a solution that was better.”

The border issues that have plagued the Tohono O’odham for years are still as alive today as they were when the Tohono O’odham first started pushing for dual citizenship in 2000. “You see these communities that can sleep peacefully at night in the United States,” comments Rivas, “and they have noise ordinances. It seems like they don’t have any problems. In my community you can’t sleep outside because the Border Patrol is spotlighting you all night. You have no peace. It’s so disrespectful, and all our rights as people have been violated.”

The danger that illegal trafficking has created on the border has deeply affected the lives of the Tohono O’odham. Moreover, the human rights violations perpetrated by the U.S. Border Patrol have left the Tohono O’odham feeling unsafe in a home they have inhabited for six millennia. “They are criminalizing a lot of people by the color of their skin,” laments Rivas. “They see me as a criminal first, and then they find out who I am.” The Tohono O’odham struggle for their rights but are mislead by authorities and have difficulty getting involved in discussions. Rivas describes how one group of tribal elders were told that, “It was a matter of their own security that they agree to build this wall [the new wall being built along the border], and if they didn’t agree the terrorist people were going to come across and bomb them.”

With the tribal government having its “back against the wall” according to Rivas, the burden now falls on us to continue to pressure our local representatives to make the Tohono O’odham a priority. Until the Tohono O’odham are able to participate in discussions about border control on their reservation they will continue to be victims of policies and governments that treat them as a people without a land and without rights.

Kristina Pyclik and Jennifer Leibig were interns at Cultural Survival over the summer.

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