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Extinct No More: Hia-Ced O'odham Officially Join Tohono O'odham Nation

After decades of fighting the Hia-Ced O’odham are now being recognized as part of the Tohono O’odham Nation.

After 33 years of hard work to right the past, the Hia-Ced O’odham, once thought to be extinct, can finally say they belong as part of the Tohono O’odham Nation.

On June 12, the Hia-Ced O’odham District officials were sworn-in and the Hia-Ced District was officially recognized as the 12th district of the Tohono O’odham Nation.

“What took place here was historical not only for Hia-Ced O’odham but for the Tohono O’odham Nation,” said Christina Andrews, Hia-Ced District chairwoman. “The Nation grew its boundaries and this is a fine example of tribal sovereignty.”

The struggle began in 1937 when the Tohono O’odham established its constitution and gave tribal members formal enrollment. The Hia-Ced O’odham were ignored according to a 1996 Tucson Citizenarticle.

In the years to follow, the United States government would shrink the territory where the Hia-Ced O’odham’s traditional lands were, forcing people to move away. The Hia-Ced, or sand people, are a band of O’odham in Southern Arizona with its traditional lands stretching west to Yuma, Arizona, north to Phoenix and as south as Puerto Penasco, Mexico.

“The Tohono O’odham Nation said the Hia-Ced O’odham were extinct and the government gave the Nation $26 million for their traditional land,” Andrews said. “The government then took Hia-Ced O’odham out of their homes and said you have to go we just bought your land.”

With no sense of belong and no home, the Hia-Ced O’odham were never recognized by the federal government or state. This was due to the fact the sand people did not have the means or knowledge to begin the recognition process, according to Lorraine Eiler, legislative representative for the Hia-Ced District.

“At the time we knew we felt different because none of us were enrolled, none of us had anything to do with the Tohono O’odham, they had nothing to do with us,” Eiler said. “Tribal officials didn’t come talk to us or do anything to help us. We were not a part of them and the elders always said we are Hia-Ced O’odham and they are Tohono O’odham.”

Courtesy Patrick Andrews

Newly sworn in Hia-Ced District Council, from left, are: Marlene Vasquez, Sherry Serventi, Delfina Cameron, Virginia Garcia.

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Then around 1979-1980, a group of Hia-Ced O’odham began working with the Tohono O’odham Nation on various issues like health care and funding for college.

From 1981 to 1984, the group met with staff of the Nation and the Tohono O’odham Nation Legislative Council. In 1984, the Council passed a resolution to help the Hia-Ced O’odham.

Between 1985-1986, there was another resolution passed to set up an office in Sells, Arizona, the headquarters for the Nation, to begin working on establishing the Hia-Ced O’odham as a district.

In the 1990s there were about 1,100 Hia-Ced O’odham according to Eiler.

As the Hia-Ced and Nation were working together, the Nation on February 24, 2009 placed around 650 acres of land into trust and designated it the home for the eventual Hia-Ced District.

It wasn’t until 2010, when the process finally took off and the Hia-Ced O’odham were on the road to successfully establishing a district.

Andrews admits the process was not an easy one and had plenty of challenges along the way.

“This hadn’t been done before and the money concept came up but it wasn’t about the money it was about what was right,” she said. “What was done to us was wrong and the right thing to do was for the Nation to adopt us.”

On October 23, 2012, the Tohono O’odham Legislative Council passed legislation establishing the Hia-Ced District. Then on May 25, of this year, the Hia-Ced District held its first election establishing its district council, leadership and legislative representatives.

“It is one of the greatest feelings to finally belong –so when I die my kids, grandkids, great-grand kids, will know who they are and have a place to call home,” said Andrews.