Perpetual Threats to Native Sovereignty in the Borderlands

Cover Image: The barrier running along the U.S.-Mexico border cuts across the Tohono O'odham Nation. (AZPM)

The Tohono O’odham Nation is a tribe native to the southern United States and Northern Mexico, (pronounced Toh-HO-noh AW-tham) whose capital lies in Sells, Arizona. In March of this year a member of the tribe, Joaquin Estevan, attempted to make the regular journey from his village of Cumarito, Mexico to the capital of the Nation.  He approached the San Miguel Gate, one of the primary crossing points used by tribal members to travel between the U.S. and Mexico. He met the border agent and despite presenting his federally recognized tribal ID, he was refused entry for an unknown reason. After his refusal, he made an illegal crossing far enough away from the border gate so as to not be seen by the agent. He went to the first house he came upon in the hopes of securing transportation to Sells and was eventually offered a ride by a man living there. While driving, they were stopped by the very same agent that had turned him away earlier, who then arrested Estevan. He was subsequently deported to Nogales, Mexico, a city unfamiliar to him.

Stories like Estevan’s are indicative of the unfair policing practices faced by the Tohono O’odham Nation. While the O’odham are granted federally recognized tribal ID cards meant to give them relatively fluid access through the border, their validity is often questioned. Many members report not only skepticism of their identification by border agents while trying to cross the border, but also active resistance to their crossing. Many of these instances go unreported out of fear of further complications.

Amnesty International, in researching this problem,  requested evidence from the CPB (Customs and Border Protection), and received over 26 pages of reports made against the agency by Tohono O’odham members. Apart from issues related to tribal ID cards, there have been several notable incidents of explicit violence against O’odham, even in the past several years. In June of this year, a member of the Tohono O’odham tribe was struck by a border patrol vehicle, which was met with outrage by O’odham activists. The reports suggests that instances like these are not isolated, but rather representative of long-term tension with and abuse by the federal government.

Estevan’s tribe has occupied the Sonoran Desert region in what is now southern Arizona and Sanora, Mexico for thousands of years – long before any modern conception of political boundaries existed in the Americas. When the U.S.-Mexican border was first drawn after the Mexican-American war, the Tohono O’odham Nation remained geographically intact, however after the Gadsden Purchase in 1854, a new border was drawn directly through their territory. This process was a part of a massive land acquisition by the United States government in the American Southwest after their victory in the Mexican-American war almost a decade prior. Those living in “Arizona” became “Americans” and those in “Sanora,” “Mexicans”. There was little formal recognition of “dual citizenship” between Mexico and America, but movement across the border, as well as access to public resources in the United States for O’odham living in Mexico, was rather easy.

The land held by the tribe includes 2.8 million acres, 28,000 residents in Arizona, and around 3,000 residents in Sonora (though the actual population of Tohono O’odham in Mexico is disputed due to faulty census recording). Seventy-six miles of Tohono O’odham land lies on the U.S.-Mexican border and in the past few decades has become one of biggest corridors for drug smuggling and migrant crossing along the Southern border. This has been difficult to combat because while the border enforcement of O’odham lands is itself still invasive and sometimes abusive, it is relatively relaxed compared to other stretches of the border.

The enforcement of the  U.S.-Mexican border has strained the ties between O’odham living in Mexico and those in the U.S. Joaquin Estevan’s village of Kom Wahia (Cumarito in Spanish) rests relatively close to the border and yet is “almost entirely cut off from the tribe on the other side” according to Alden Woods, who reported on Estevan’s denial of entry. Several years ago Amnesty International published a report on the condition of indigenous populations on the U.S.-Mexican border that highlights this disconnect created by the border and its enforcement. It notes that prior to 1993, there were few border patrol agents on O’odham land; however, since then, and especially after 9/11, CBP presence has accelerated. This development includes a fence that has recently been replaced with much sturdier, vehicle inhibiting barriers as well as a CBP forward operating base, with a detention center for migrants. This facility is rather notorious and is sometimes referred to by activists like Ofelia Rivas as “the cage.” Along with these physical structures, development has come along with hundreds more CBP agents and vehicles.

These developments are officially a response to the the increase of movement across O’odham lands. CBP thus built these installations to combat the increase in migrant crossings and drug smuggling across O’odham territory. However, most of these intrusions were consented to reluctantly by tribal leadership, who themselves needed ways of combating the the risks posed by having a heavy flow of criminal activity through their territory. It should also be noted that since the tightening of surveillance on O’odham territory, the numbers of migrants apprehended has dropped to 14,000 last year, from 85,000 in 2003.

The tribe is not ignorant to the threats posed by consistent drug and migrant trafficking through its territory, and while it has been more sympathetic to migrants than the federal government, it has also made efforts to establish locally operated law enforcement agencies. The Native American Targeted Investigations of Violent Enterprises task force, the only tribe-led task force of its kind, as well as the Shadow Wolf tactical unit (operated by ICE but staffed by Native Americans) act as examples of tribal led border enforcement. They represent a potentially mutually beneficial collaboration with the federal government to slow migrant and drugs flows across their land. While these organizations certainly play an important role in regaining O’odham sovereignty over their territory, they are often over strained due to a lack of resources and funding. To fight crime on the border while protecting Native sovereignty, the federal government must provide greater support to these agencies, at least to demonstrate their trust in the tribes they claim to protect. So long as the federal government ignores tribal demands of support after years of surveillance and oppression, there is little hope of improvement of the tribe’s current standing.

Unsurprisingly, President Trump’s plans for a wall on the Mexican border have become a major issue in the fight to maintain sovereignty. In a resolution of the Tohono O’odham Legislative Council, passed in February, 2017, the body stated their opposition to “the construction of a physical wall on the Nation's southern boundary; and the application of IIRIRA (Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 ) Section I02(c) waivers of federal and other laws on the Nation's lands.” This particular section of the IIRIRA states:

“The provisions of the Endangered Species Act of

1973 and the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 are

waived to the extent the Attorney General determines necessary to

ensure expeditious construction of the barriers and roads under this


Numerous waivers made under the authority of this section of the law have provided an excuse for the federal development of O’odham land. The tribal government has rejected these waivers on legal precedent that the federal government must consult native tribes before interfering with their territory. And in the aforementioned resolution, the tribe gives a list of reasons for its rejection of a border wall. The biggest impact for the tribe is the further divide of the Nation's historic lands and communities, which prevents Nation members from making traditional crossings for domestic, ceremonial, and religious purposes. One such instance is the annual St. Francis pilgrimage to Magdalena, Mexico, which is one of the most important ceremonial traditions of the Tohono O’odham today. It is considered a time for meditation and spiritual expression and the tribe worries that a wall would not only prevent members from taking part in cross-border ceremonies, but would actively “disturb or destroy tribal archeological, sacred sites, and human remains.” There is also a worry that a solid border wall would prevent culturally important wildlife such as the jaguar from “conducting migrations essential for survival, health and existence.”

Despite the increasing amount of CBP surveillance on the territory and the election of President Trump who has mandated stricter U.S.-Mexico border enforcement, the tribe has successfully dug its heels in against further increases in surveillance on several occasions. Earlier this year, President Trump ordered an increase in National Guard presence on the border, which the tribal government rejected vehemently. The tribe released a statement that indicated an agreement had been made between the tribe and the Border Patrol Tucson Sector Chief to halt this further militarization of O’odham territory.

Though many acknowledge the border and its militarization as the cause for the division, O’odham activists have been critical of what they perceive as the tribal government’s tendency to cooperate with the United States Federal Government over developing unity between tribal members on both sides of the border. While the resolution lists two actions by the federal government rejected by the tribe (the border wall and the use of waivers of federal protective law to justify its construction), the resolution also lists seven items of desired cooperation between the government and the tribe, including “the construction and maintenance of vehicle barriers on the Nation's southern boundary.” These sorts of concessions have been frustrating to some members and activists. However, the abuse and threat to cultural and political sovereignty stems from the seemingly inevitable surveillance itself, not simply the tribal government’s decision to acquiesce.

Ryan WirtzComment