Tribes seek practical border solutions that respect culture, religion and family

Tribal leaders at the Tribal Borders Summit last week. Vivian Juan Sanders, Tohono O'odham; David Bean, Puyallup; and Francisco Valencia, Pascua Yaqui. (Alliance photo)

Mark Trahant

Tribal governments continue to press to be included in the debate about international borders and security

Tribal governments continue to press to be included in the debate about international borders and security, including a proposal to include an Indigenous-only visa.  Last week in Arizona tribes met at a border summit and produced a working document that will be released next month in Washington.

Chairman Edward Manuel of the Tohono O’odham said the tribal border alliance is preparing a document that will propose “practical solutions that secure the U.S., while respecting our traditional and cultural practices and protocols.”

Manuel said tribes want relatives on the southern border to be able to temporarily enter the U.S. in order to participate in traditional and cultural activities.

Tribes are on record opposing the physical construction of a border wall. A resolution passed by the National Congress of American Indians in 2017 said such a wall would “further divide historic tribal lands and communities; prevent tribal members from making traditional crossings for domestic, ceremonial, and religious purposes; prevent wildlife from conducting migrations essential for survival and general life, health and existence; injure endangered species such as the jaguar and other wildlife sacred to tribes; destroy endangered and culturally significant plants; militarize the lands on the southern boundary; disturb or destroy tribal archeological, sacred sites, and human remains” and have a negative impact on tribal communities on both sides of the border.

“The current visa categories do not consider the cultural requirements of tribal members and our relatives,” he said. “We are frequently subject to inconsistent and arbitrary actions. We will push for the creation of an “Indigenous-only visa” that will permit all tribal members to engage in their culture and to protect their heritage no matter which side of the border that they reside.”

He said there also needs to be improvements in the execution of the Jay Treaty of 1794 that recognizes the inherent rights of northern border tribes to freely cross into Canada.

“Unfortunately,” Manuel said, “subsequent U.S. laws require that tribal members prove they possess at least 50 percent “Native-tribal” heritage or “blood quantum” to permit regular border crossings.  Tribes, as sovereign nations, have the exclusive right to determine who qualifies as a member. We propose amending the Immigration and Nationality Act so that our own governing bodies can decide who can claim member-status and cross the border freely.”

“We are at a unique opportunity in history,” said Francisco Valencia, council member of the Pascua Yaqui Tribe, in a telephone news conference Monday. “The debate over securing our borders is front and center never had we had a better chance to advance common sense solutions that can receive support from policymakers on both sides of the aisle.”

The tribal leaders said whether or not there is a southern border wall, tribes will be “caught in the middle of the same border debate” and that tribes have cultural, religious, and famiy ties on boths sides.

Indian Country has three borders to navigate. The southern border with Mexico. The northern border with Mexico. And the border in the Bering Sea with Russia.

“The Tribal Border Alliance is committed to solutions that protect our sovereignty, culture and traditions while simultaneously securing our borders,” Valencia said. “International borders may cross (and) intersect our Native land that that does not weaken our resolve to protect them.”

The tribes said there must be better training for federal officials to get a better appreciation for the culture, and legal rights, of the tribes on both sides of the border. That includes a recognition and capability for translation of Indigenous languages.

Mark Trahant is editor of Indian Country Today. He is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. Follow him on Twitter - @TrahantReports



The National Congress of American Indians is the owner of Indian Country Today and manages its business operations. The Indian Country Today editorial team operates independently as a digital journalism enterprise.