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Establishing boundaries, protecting citizens

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 and perhaps most recognized when it comes to border impact.

Located in the Sonoran Desert in south central Arizona with a population of nearly 28,000 citizens, the Tohono O’odham reservation encompasses 75 miles of land along the United States/Mexico border, the largest stretch of border land held by any U.S. Indian tribe.

The international boundary line has severed the traditional homeland of the Tohono O’odham and separated part of the tribe. The Tohono O’odham have nine recognized communities; the four pieces of land on the American side make up the “main” reservation. But approximately 1,500 tribal members reside in Mexico and are not U.S. citizens. These geographical dynamics of the Nation create unique challenges.

Tohono O’odham leaders, including the chairman, vice chairman, and legislative council, must address many things when it comes to border issues – national security, protection and preservation of tribal lands and resources, tribal sovereignty, and most importantly, the safety and security of Tohono O’odham citizens.

Although the Department of Homeland Security has been working with nation officials for many years, it wasn’t until recently that the federal agency has included the tribe in policymaking from the initial stages.

Photos by Lucinda Hughes-Juan The Tohono O’odham Nation is the largest and perhaps most recognized Indian nation when it comes to border impact. Located in the Sonoran Desert in south central Arizona with a population of nearly 28,000 citizens, the Tohono O’odham reservation encompasses 75 miles of land along the United States/Mexico border, the largest stretch of border land held by any U.S. Indian tribe.

“Under 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. As a tribal leader, Lopez, a Navy veteran who served in Desert Storm, sees himself as a “protector of freedom.”

Increased drug activity and human tracking have not only created a safety threat to tribal members, but a threat to their traditional lifestyle and cultural way of life. As Stanley Cruz, Pisinemo District chairman pointed out, “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.”

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. Many tribal members have grown used to them and seem somewhat indifferent about their existence, others express annoyance with their constant presence. Tribal members weigh the consequences of eliminating the presence of border patrol altogether. They know high security comes with a cost, and no one is excluded from the impact.

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Recently, Renee Cruz, a tribal member and respected Christian leader, was accosted by U.S. border agents on her way home from an evening church service. Cruz was stopped, forcibly removed from her vehicle, questioned and eventually arrested. The incident is under investigation. For tribal leaders, such incidents make protection of tribal members a high priority. But sovereignty is also important, and in this case, the nation recognizes its rights. “When there have been problems, we have exercised our right to remove border agents from tribal land,” said tribal councilman Timothy Joaquin.

Border checkpoints are not the only issue. Perhaps the most controversial issue is the construction of the border fence. Recent efforts by the federal government to build a larger, more restrictive barrier has brought about a difference of opinion from tribal and non-tribal members. Its cost and practicality is under constant scrutiny. But for some tribal members the fence represents something more – modern-day oppression of indigenous peoples on their own lands.

The Tohono O’odham Nation is the largest and perhaps most recognized Indian nation when it comes to border impact. Located in the Sonoran Desert in south central Arizona with a population of nearly 28,000 citizens, the Tohono O’odham reservation encompasses 75 miles of land along the United States/Mexico border, the largest stretch of border land held by any U.S. Indian tribe.



“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. … Policy makers need to be aware of this and see it from our point,” wrote April Ignacio, a Tohono O’odham college student. Ignacio’s poem, “My America,” won second place in a competition earlier this year.

The Tohono O’odham Nation has had to use significant fiscal resources dealing with illegal immigrants who funnel through the reservation. According to tribal administrators, upwards of $3 million annually is spent on law enforcement activity. The high cost of policing, medical care and environmental cleanup is creating a drain on tribal resources.

About 150 immigrants are apprehended each day on the territory, a small percentage compared with the actual numbers making their way through the nation’s border. The influx of illegal border crossers has had a devastating impact on the Tohono O’odham’s desert homeland. “We need to stop the activity at the border,” said Ronald Homewytewa, a tribal member and Vietnam veteran. He recommends the tribe take a more aggressive and independent stance in developing its own “standing militia” to secure the border area.

When it comes to border issues, making decisions can have a pendulum effect, with one decision or action placing negative force on another. So it is with asserting human rights and seeking protection from law enforcement, preserving resources over maximizing security, balancing tribal sovereignty versus collaboration with state efforts. Many criticize tribal support of federal and state security efforts, saying the increased law enforcement personnel and equipment have developed a police state on the reservation. Tribal members are divided with regards to their safety and the suppression of personal rights.

The magnitude of the issues faced by this Indian nation requires strict control of its homeland in order to maintain peace and security. 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.



Editor’s note: Lucinda Hughes-Juan is an enrolled member of the Tohono O’odham Nation.