TUCSON, Ariz.- President Donald Trump’s executive order to construct a border wall on the US-Mexico border has caused Tohono O’odham tribal members to become apprehensive about the future. “I’m completely opposed to the wall,” said Nellie Jo David, a Tohono O’odham law student at the University of Arizona. “Issues affecting our sovereignty are at stake—our sacred sites, ceremonies, relations with relatives, and respect for ancestors’ burial sites.”
David admits she is fearful of what may lie ahead, especially since the US-Mexico border fence already separates the O’odham.
“In real time, we are seeing these effects,” said David. “I strongly feel that as a community we need to come together and oppose the wall.”
The Tohono O’odham (desert people) have occupied a huge area in the southwest since time immemorial. Traditional O’odham homelands extend South to Sonora, Mexico, north to Central Arizona, west to the Gulf of California, and east to the San Pedro River. This land base was named “Papagueria” by the Spanish settlers.
Today, the Tohono O’odham Nation is the second-largest reservation in the U.S., 2.8 million acres, and is the size of the state of Connecticut. The reservation includes 75 miles of the U.S./Mexico Border. The Nation has 30,000 tribal members and 11 districts –two of which are border districts.
Sara Mae Williams (Tohono O’odham) is from one of the border districts, Chukuk Kuk, and she said things are complex in her community.
“It is a little complicated coming from Chukuk Kuk and listening to the elders and listening to the kids,” Williams said. “We are divided.”
She said there are those who want a border wall for safety reasons and others are tired of getting their cattle stolen. Then there are those who want to fight for their land.
“I don’t think a wall is going to make you feel safe,” Williams said. “In places that do have walls, people either go under or over it. It doesn’t stop illegal activity.”
Williams feels that no one is listening to each other. “Everyone has their own perspectives and that is one thing we haven’t done, we haven’t all listened to each other and come to a consensus,” she said.
O’odham current territory issues began shortly after the Mexican-American War. In 1853, negotiations made through the Gadsden Purchase divided O’odham between the United States and Mexico. The O’odham people were not consulted or informed of the new border. Furthermore, it split the Tohono O’odham into two nationalities –“Mexican” to the South of the border and “American” to the North.
Indigenous recognition came slowly on both sides of the border. In 1874, the San Xavier reservation was established just south of Tucson. The remaining portions of the “Papago” reservation was later established in 1917. Then in 1937, the entities merged into one reservation under the newly established terms of the Indian Reorganization Act.
In 1927, reserves of lands for Indigenous Peoples, were established by Mexico. Today, there are nine O’odham communities in Mexico, according to the Tohono O’odham Nation website.
Jose Garcia, the Tohono O’odham Nation Lieutenant Governor for the O’odham in Mexico, believes a border wall would only cause more problems for O’odham in Mexico.
“If a wall was built it would completely shut off the visitations between O’odham families and medical services,” Garcia said.
Furthermore, a border wall would break off the relationship O’odham in Mexico have with the Tohono O’odham Nation, and affect the O’odham language, which Garcia is trying to revive in certain areas of Mexico.
Not to mention the impact a border wall would have on the environment, like animal migrations and pollination of plants.
In the 1990s, the Southwest Border Strategy was implemented as “a broad, five-part strategy to strengthen the nation’s immigration laws including, among other things, strengthening border enforcement.”
After September 11, 2001, border security was heightened to an unprecedented level. The Homeland Security Act of 2002 authorized a new agency, the United States Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and a new cabinet position of Secretary of Homeland Security. In 2005, the Real ID Act gave the Secretary of Homeland Security greater powers than the president, the ability to waive any law at his or her discretion.
In 2006, President George Bush signed the Secure Fence Act. The main provisions were 700 miles of double-layered fence along the border, $1.2 billion for increased border security and adding Border Patrol checkpoints and surveillance equipment including drones.
Members of the tribe were free to travel back and forth without much difficulty, but after September 11, many O’odham saw a drastic change.
The U.S.-Mexico border has become “an artificial barrier to the freedom of the Tohono O’odham. . . to traverse their lands, impairing their ability to collect foods and materials needed to sustain their culture and to visit family members and traditional sacred sites,” according to the Tohono O’odham Nation website.
There have been groups formed, like Tohono O’odham Hemajkam Rights Network (T.O.H.R.N.), that is a network for O’odham who are opposed to militarization on their jewed (land). Music artists like Shining Soul are raising awareness about the border through their songs and activism.
In 2008, in response to the DHS using authority under Section 102 of the Real ID Act to waive all laws, the Nation Council issued a resolution opposing acts taken without tribal consultation and consideration.
In addition to providing a brief background on lack of consultation with O’odham when the border initially was formed, the resolution calls for a repeal of the Secure Fence Act, the DHS Secretary’s authority to waive laws in addition to “meaningful and timely consultation.”
On January 26, 2017 Tohono O’odham Chairman and Vice Chairman’s Office sent out a press release regarding President Trump’s Executive Order on the border wall. It stated, “While the Nation does not support a large-scale, fortified wall, it has worked closely for decades with U.S. Customs and Border Patrol and other agencies to secure the U.S. homeland. The executive order signed yesterday was done without consultation with the Nation or many other border communities. As a first responder on the border, the Nation invites the new President to visit so that in depth discussions can be held on the impacts of such actions.”
O’odham activist and former Nation Tribal Council representative David Garcia felt that the Nation’s press release did not say very much.
“The language is no different from what previous [Tohono O’odham Nation] chairmen have stated,” Garcia said. “What does that say in my opinion, it says the Nation is scared to bite the hand that feeds them.”
Garcia is eager to see what the Nation’s Chairman Edward Manuel and Vice-Chairman Verlon Jose are going to do. “Until the [Tohono O’odham] Nation’s leaders takes a true stance, then that’s when we can have a serious conversation [about the border],” he said.
The Tohono O’odham Nation’s Chairman and Vice-Chairman could not be reached for comment.