For the Tohono O’odham nation, a border wall already exists, it just hasn’t been built yet.
In the desert of southern Arizona, the federally recognized O’odham reservation occupies 4,464 square miles of desert that half of its 34,000 enrolled population call home. But, the original tribal land — roughly the size of Connecticut — extends far past southern Arizona into Sonora, Mexico.
Some tribal members still make the journey across the border to practice traditional migratory patterns and visit family members and sacred grounds in northern Mexico.
Donna Garcia, 31, a mother and lifetime resident on the O’odham reservation, said her mother, Janet, makes the trip to the border from Sells on foot. Her mother is only one of a large group of O’odham people who migrate in early October to celebrate the feast day of Saint Francis of Assisi in northern Mexico.
The O’odham people once used the San Miguel border gate as a major port of entry into Mexico and a straight shot to the tribe’s capital in Sells, Arizona. But, traveling across the border through the gate is now impossible after a family of ranchers bought the surrounding land from the government and sealed the gate for travel last March.
For the O’odham community living in Mexico, traveling north is essential. Many tribal members make the trip to Sells not only for tradition, but also for health care at the local hospital and government administrative services.
When Trump signed his executive order for a 2,000-mile-long border wall, O’odham government leaders quickly voiced their discontent with the president’s plans, vowing to leave a 75-mile gap in the wall where the nation straddles the border.
Last month, members of the O’odham community in northern Mexico organized a protest on Facebook to rally support against Trump’s proposed border wall at the closed San Miguel gate.
At the gate, activists from across the state were turned away by the Border Patrol. Agents cited a 1990s tribal code, signed by the chairman, which can exclude and remove non-members for trespassing without permission from the tribal government.
Donna Rose, an activist turned away by local police and Border Patrol agents, said she is unsure about how to show her support when the tribal government and law enforcement is clearly against a protest.
“I’m torn because there’s obviously dissent within the tribe on how to handle this,” she said.
Verlon Jose, vice chairman of the O’odham tribal government, had a message for Trump after he announced the plans for a border wall.
“Over my dead body,” he said.
Many tribal members living on the reservation echoed his sentiment. In the traditional tribal language, there is no O’odham word for “border.”
Garcia said she of knows of tribal members who live in the Mexican communities who make the trip across the border daily. If there’s a wall, she’s not sure if those individuals will be able to make it across.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen with them on that side,” she said.
The tribe does take its own initiatives to secure the border, spending about $3 million toward border security and enforcement.
When the federal government began to crack down on illegal immigration at nearby ports of entry, much of the problem was funneled onto O’odham land. The influx in illegal border crossings and smuggling causes 60 percent of O’odham police efforts to focus on border issues, according to the Tohono O’odham Department of Public Safety.
The land separating the U.S. O’odham reservation from the Mexican side is surrounded by vehicle barriers meant to tackle illegal immigration and drug smuggling, something that Max Chavez, 62, an O’odham member on the reservation, said he’s seen himself.
Chavez said he “doesn’t have a problem” with the wall because of the direct effects that illegal border crossing has on the local community. During his time on the reservation, he said he saw about 20 people quietly traveling through O’odham land — people he believes were traffickers.
Before the vehicle barriers built in 2007, the border wasn’t a border at all, leaving wide-open space for cars to barrel through the desert. The barriers, in their own way, act like a wall and have deterred illegal activity from crossing through the O’odham drastically.
For years, the tribal government has been against any permanent physical barrier impeding on their land. In the past, the Tohono O’odham Legislative Council passed more than 20 resolutions opposing a border wall.
Most recently, the council signed another resolution outlining reasons for its opposition to Trump’s executive order, citing problems with the wall’s efficacy and impact on the environment:
“A continuous wall on the Nation’s southern boundary would: further divide the Nation’s historic lands and communities; and prevent Nation’s members from making traditional crossings for domestic, ceremonial, and religious purposes, including the annual St. Francis pilgrimage to Magdalena, Mexico, and cultural runs; deny tribal members access to cultural sites, ceremonies, and traditional cemeteries for burying family members; 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 the Tohono O’odham; destroy saguaro cactus and other culturally significant plants; militarize the lands on the Nation’s southern boundary.”
In a statement addressing the border wall, the vice chairman said the plan would not help rid the área of illegal activity.
“Walls, through this world, have proven to be not 100 percent effective. We believe that, what is effective, is continued cooperation and working together,” Jose said in the video statement. “When you talk about homeland protection and homeland security, these are our homelands and we want to protect, we want to secure them as well.”
Over the last decade, the tribe has relied on the help from Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Border Patrol and the nation’s own police force to address border issues in the place of a fixed barrier.
In that time, the tribal government fostered close relationships with ICE and Border Patrol, providing full staffing support for the ICE Shadow Wolf program, a special-trained tracking unit based exclusively on the Tohono O’odham reservation, and Border Patrol agents in regular town hall meetings.
But, some O’odham members have doubts about what enforcement officers do for the community.
The tribal government acknowledges multiple cases in which O’odham members were detained and deported while migrating across the border after restrictions were placed on travel. Others accuse Border Patrol of confiscating religious items from O’odham members.
Terry Encinas, 59, a member of the O’odham community, said the Border Patrol has little regard for what the people living on the reservation want. While Encinas said communication has improved, he said relationships between O’odham community members with the agents are very different from those with the local police force. He doesn’t think the Border Patrol is as open with the community as it should be.
“You can tell just by going down the highways, (agents) don’t live by the law — they do what they want,” Encinas said. “They go as fast as they want, they’ll do whatever they want because they know they won’t be seen.”
A history of the tribe and the government
Since the beginning of the United States, Native American tribes were left without a choice in government decisions. For the Tohono O’odham tribe, this is just another battle. As the nation decides whether it wants to yell or whisper its grievances, the battles both internally and externally could grow worse. And building a wall could put an end to 1,000 -year-old pilgrimages and rituals of which the culture has grown around.
After the Gadsden Purchase in 1853, the O’odham land was drastically minimized — a once expansive piece of uncharted territory was reduced to a small reservation given to the tribe by the U.S. federal government. And, the split didn’t come without consequences.
Tribal communities were broken apart across the U.S.-Mexico border. Today there are nine communities south of the recognized O’odham reservation most of which are located in northern Mexico, the home for some 2,000 O’odham people.
Under the provisions of the Gadsden Purchase, the U.S. government promised to respect the property and rights of former Mexican citizens, which the O’odham people were considered under Mexican law. The U.S. did not uphold that promise. Instead, the government took the land from the tribe and justified the decision because it did not consider the O’odham people as former Mexican citizens.
When the U.S. established the main O’odham reservation in 1917, it divided up native communities within Arizona. Tribal communities that lived off the main reservation were placed into three separate reservations in southern Arizona: the Gila River Indian Community, the Ak-Chin Indian Community and the Salt River Indian Community.
While the tribe was split apart into these separated communities the government did not recognize the O’odham people as a sovereign government until 1937 — a full 20 years after the main Tohono O’odham Nation was established.
At first, members were able to move freely across international lines, but, with the militarization of the border, travel to Mexico became restricted. In the late 1990s, Congress passed a law that required O’odham people to carry a passport and a tribal identification card or be subject to arrest.
Because of the rural landscape, many O’odham people were born on the U.S. reservation land but have no birth record, making them undocumented. For the thousands of O’odham people who don’t have birth certificates to prove their citizenship, crossing the border is impossible.
Lauren Renteria and Jordan Glenn are reporters for the Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com