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Interview with Tohono O'odham Nation's Vivian Juan-Saunders

ICT: You are the first elected chairwoman for the Tohono O'odham tribe. How have people reacted to your election?

Vivian Juan-Saunders: We had close to 60 percent of the total vote. So I feel there's been significant change in terms of mentality. Because we are in a new generation, a new period in time, I believe that people feel that if they're going to be a multimillion dollar operation, then we need people in place who have the expertise to address internal issues of accountability. I feel that it wasn't a matter of gender but of who has the best qualifications to move our nation forward.

ICT: What are your qualifications?

VJS: I graduated from Baboquivari High School on the reservation, then went to Central Arizona Junior College with an AA, then to Arizona State with a bachelor's in Political Science and Secondary Education. I completed my master's degree from the University of Arizona in American Indian Studies Public Policy. I'm currently enrolled as a doctoral candidate in Educational Leadership at the University of Northern Arizona.

I have close to 10 years of working for tribal government here on the Tohono O'odham nation in the chairman's office and also for the Salt River-Pima Maricopa Indian community for almost five years in governmental relations. I've also worked as an assistant dean for Native American students at the University of Arizona for close to five years.

ICT: Is the international border problem getting worse for the tribe?

VJS: Ever since efforts were taken to beef up security in other ports of entry in Arizona, Texas, New Mexico and California, that created a funnel effect where, because of the increase in security elsewhere, there was no other avenue of entry but the Tohono O'odham nation. I feel that as long as there's no attempt to secure the 75-mile-stretch that we have that is adjacent to Mexico, it will always continue to be in the state that it's in now.

ICT: Why has the tribe been left out of security plans?

VJS: The same reason that all tribes have experienced in years past. There's no respect for our tribal sovereignty, no respect for government-to-government consultations.

ICT: Has the tribe received any Homeland Security money since 9/11?

VJS: Not until recently, when we started to express our concern. We developed our data along with the help of some of the federal agencies to accurately produce the number of undocumented immigrants coming through our tribal lands. About 1,500 are crossing our lands every day, and close to 50 undocumented immigrants have died on our reservation lands since January.

Indian Health Service spends half a million dollars of IHS funds that should rightly come to members of our nation, and our health care needs are compromised because that half a million dollars is spent on health care for undocumented immigrants. Our local tribal police last year spent $3 million on responses to these situations involving undocumented immigrants, when members of our nation require local law enforcement to address their community policing needs.

The Senate Committee on Indian Affairs recently scheduled a hearing on the tribal amendments to the Homeland Security Act of 2002 in Washington. I testified on behalf of the Tohono O'odham nation. We support the tribal amendments for S. 578. We feel that our law enforcement personnel are at the front lines. Our local police officers already detain undocumented immigrants, but we wait for federal law enforcement to arrive. We feel that we need the resources to come directly to the Tohono O'odham nation instead of being funneled to the state and then through to the county.

ICT: Can you explain the proposed Tohono O'odham Citizenship Act?

VJS: It's to ensure that members of our nation who are without proper documentation be considered U.S. citizens. Some of them are veterans who cannot access benefits for veterans because of lack of proper documentation.

ICT: These people have lived all or most of their lives in the U.S.?

VJS: A combination. Some still reside in Mexico.

ICT: Is it difficult for people from the reservation to cross over the border to make family visits?

VJS: Yes. There are ports of entry on the east and west ends of the reservation, which are still quite a distance away. And even for ceremonial purposes, it's been difficult. But we have managed to work with the Mexican consulate in Tucson and with the border patrol. If we notify them ahead of time and give them a heads-up of the ceremony that will take place, they're very cooperative. We just feel that it was the U.S. and Mexico that negotiated the terms to place the border there, and it certainly wasn't us.

ICT: Some Mexican people crossing the border happen to be indigenous, too - looking for a better way of life.

VJS: It's not just people from Mexico, it's Central America. They're coming from all over. And our people are starting to notice the differences in features. Historically, our people have helped these immigrants heading north by providing food and water. But it's gotten to a point where we're so overwhelmed that it's placing a burden on our own resources.