TOPPENISH, Wash. – In the museum gift shop at the Yakama Indian Reservation, Wendell Hannigan shows off a small bronze statue of a Native American woman holding a basket full of hops.
Asked if there are Yakama farm workers left, the 66-year-old Yakama Nation member laughs and says, “no, no.”
Behind the laughs, though, is Hannigan’s conviction that the large influx of illegal Latino immigrants into this reservation, about 160 miles southeast of Seattle, poses a threat to his people.
His beliefs have prompted Hannigan to spearhead efforts for better supervision of undocumented workers – mostly from Mexico – on the reservation, and sponsor a state ballot initiative to impose stricter immigration rules.
“It’s almost like a whole group of people are overtaking the Yakama Indians, and they’re doing it quite effectively,” Hannigan said. “Their goal is the same as the Indian people. It’s empowerment, but they’re doing a more effective job, in my mind.”
The former tribal council member and his backers echo concerns about illegal immigration that are frequently used by anti-immigration proponents. Among many things, they say jobs are taken by Latinos and that gang violence has spiked because of the influx of immigrants.
But their arguments also reflect resentment toward Latinos, who now far outnumber the Yakama, original inhabitants of the land.
This wind-swept region of the state is one of the poorest. Gang violence here is common. It’s also the home of one of the biggest economic engines for the state, agriculture. Hop fields and fruit orchards dot the land.
The area is one of the oldest destinations for Latino immigrants in the state. The first waves came looking for work in the vast agricultural fields here decades ago. Many stayed and established a community.
The 1.2 million-acre reservation was formed in 1855, after 14 tribes were banded together in a treaty signed with the United States government.
The state estimates that there are about 100,000 Latino residents in Yakima County, which includes the reservation. In contrast, there are about 8,500 Native Americans in the area.
Tensions between tribes and illegal immigrants have been more apparent along the U.S.-Mexican border.
The Tohono O’odham Tribe in Arizona, which sits on a 2.8 million square acre reservation on the border, has repeatedly asked the federal government for help securing its lands. The large reservation has been used for years as a crossing point for illegal immigrants and drug smugglers.
In Washington, though, the resistance from Hannigan touches on more than just illegal immigration, and his comments often blur the line between immigrants who are legal and illegal.
Like many Native Americans, the Yakama were forced to speak English and lose their language, which is now nearly extinct, while Latinos have “demanded” bilingualism, Hannigan said. Intermarriage is also an issue.
“It does away with our blood core. I don’t think we have any full blooded Indians on the reservation. It’s all mixed,” said Mavis Kindness, vice chairman of the tribe’s general council and another outspoken anti-immigration proponent.
Adding fire to the debate is the history of this reservation. Within the reservation’s boundaries there are private plots that house non-tribal members, farms, and whole cities, such as Wapato and Toppenish. It’s commonly described as a “checkerboard” reservation.
Hannigan sees farm worker housing projects in Wapato and Toppenish as further encroachment on their reservation, but organizers for one of the projects say the tribe has not raised concerns.
How many people among the Yakama Tribe share Hannigan’s feelings is not known, but these cultural rifts are common enough that people inside and outside the community can speak to them.
“They think they’re the owners of everything here,” said Juana Espinoza, a 36-year-old mother from Mexico who lives on private land in the town of Wapato, within the reservation. “They don’t want anyone here, whether they be the whites, Asians or the Hispanic community.”
It’s an issue of sovereignty, fragmentation and cultural identity, said Tom Colonnese, a professor in the University of Washington’s American Indian Studies program.
“Their dominant numbers are changing. Their concept of America is going to disappear,” said Colonnese, who is part Sioux. “We’re especially sensitive, we already went through this with white America, it seems there’s going to be a second wave.”
Colonnese said he has observed similar rifts between Indians in Canada and the Asian community, as well as between other groups.
“This idea that the success of one group depends on another group not having an opportunity, it’s just not inside the Native community,” he said.
For longtime Yakima-area Latino activist Luz Bazan Gutierrez, Hannigan’s arguments amount to more of the same.
“To me, they act no different than the white population,” she said. “Within the reservation, there’s lots and lots of resentment.”
Gutierrez said most people get along in the area, and that it’s just a few people making trouble. She said that Latinos and Native Americans have much in common.
“They’re a conquered people, and so are the Mexicans in a lot of ways,” she said.
Hannigan is an unusual proponent of stricter immigration rules. In many instances, the soft-spoken man with long gray hair and a baritone voice is a Democrat. He was the co-recipient of the “Man of the Year” award by the state party in 2006.
Hannigan’s attempts to clamp down stricter immigration rules, however, are likely to fail. His plan to introduce a program to fingerprint and photograph all non-tribal workers on the reservation received a lukewarm reception from the tribal council. Similar statewide initiatives to the one Hannigan is sponsoring that would impose stricter immigration rules around the state, including requiring proof of citizenship when the state issues a driver’s license, have not garnered enough signatures in the past.
Immigration “is always in the back of our minds all the time,” said Tribal Council Chairman Ralph Sampson Jr. “But we rely on the federal government to implement their policies.”
His actions, Hannigan says, serve as a reminder to the federal government that the immigration issue is far from being solved.
“I feel like it’s our responsibility to keep the issue alive, that they’re here and we need to do something about this.”
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