The Tohono O’odham Nation faced a rude awakening on March 3, when tribal members found fencing, poles and three signs posted up at the San Miguel Gate located on the boundary of Chukut Kuk District, one of the eleven districts of the Nation and right on the U.S.-Mexico international border.
The signs, one in Spanish, one in English, and one in both Spanish and English, were posted on the Mexican side of the border and said that the boundary is “private property” and “the Tohono O’odham Nation nor any other agency of the United States Government has any jurisdiction over this land.”
The signs, fencing and poles were allegedly posted up by a Mexican family that owns the land. For a tribe that spans two countries, the signs and fencing were an unwelcome gesture threatening the rights of tribal members accustomed to passing freely through the gate as long as they had their tribal IDs.
The tribe, located in southern Arizona, shares 75 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border. This border was established through the Gadsden Purchase of 1854, when the United States acquired what is now southern Arizona and southwestern New Mexico, yet there had always been an understanding that the O’odham could cross freely to visit communities on the other side.
According to the Tohono O’odham Nation website, historically traditional O’odham lands stretched south to Sonora, Mexico, but after the border was established the O’odham communities in Mexico dwindled, and currently there are nine communities remaining on the Mexican side.
Though an international border runs through O’odham land, the O’odham people are not so easily separated. According to the tribe’s tribal college website, as of 2007, there were 1,800 enrolled O’odham in Mexico. In fact, the O’odham in Mexico have their own form of governance.
Joe Garcia is the current governor of the O’odham in Mexico, and he himself says that he is a citizen of both the United States and Mexico. In regards to the gate, Garcia said in an interview with ICTMN that “we’re a bi-national tribe” and “we have always used that gate as an exit and an entrance into Mexico and Sonora.”
David Garcia [no relation to Joe Garcia], known as a Tohono O’odham human rights observer and registered with Chukut Kuk District, said in an interview with ICTMN that the O’odham “don’t recognize the international border,” which is what makes the signs so troubling.
He said that shortly after tribal members discovered the signs, fencing and poles they immediately took them down and mobilized to bring awareness to the issue.
He set up a meeting with the Mexican Consulate on March 7 to inform them of the incident and asked them to intervene on behalf of tribal members.
In an emailed response that Garcia provided to ICTMN, the consulate wrote that they “are not able to enforce or to directly investigate such matters,” but they would send the information to Mexican authorities.
Since then, Garcia has been spreading awareness at various community meetings and through social media, and even presented the issue to the Tohono O’odham Legislative Council. Garcia expressed disappointment with tribal leadership for not responding in a timely manner, and emphasized that this incident at the gate is “not a Tohono O’odham Nation issue, it’s an international issue.”
The Chairwoman of Chukut Kuk District did not respond to ICTMN’s requests for comment.
An emailed statement from Tohono O’odham Nation Chairman Edward D. Manuel regarding the incident said, “The Nation’s leadership is working directly with the local community and is committed to resolving this problem. This issue is not a new one, rather it has been ongoing for decades. This gate is of critical importance to O’odham members living both in the U.S. and Mexico. As such, the Nation plans to work with Mexican officials and take other actions to ensure that its members are safe and able to practice their traditional activities and obtain needed services.”