To the Tohono O'odham, the barbed-wire fence that stretches across the Sonoran Desert, dividing southern Arizona from Mexico, was always seen more as a cattle barrier than an international boundary. For as long as they can remember, tribal members have traveled back and forth across the border to visit relatives, join in ceremonies and follow the seasonal fruiting of the saguaro cactus.
The Tohono O'odham became a sovereign tribe in 1937, but members who lived south of the border were never granted U.S. citizenship. Additionally, many members of the tribe who were born in the U.S. lack birth certificates to prove their citizenship. This was never a problem until the mid-1980s, when the United States stepped up efforts to stem the flow of drugs and illegal aliens across the border. Now, with over one-third of the tribe lacking citizenship papers, the heavily patrolled fence has become a painful divider.
In all, 8,400 of the 24,000-member tribe are unable to obtain government services - or to travel across their traditional lands without fear of arrest and deportation.
"Indigenous people are being turned into aliens on their own land * how can an indigenous person be an alien?" says Guadalupe Castillo, a volunteer for the tribe's Citizenship Initiative. Castillo believes that without U.S. citizenship, the Tohono O'odham nation will become divided, and its traditional way of life will be destroyed. This summer, 18 volunteers for the initiative are petitioning Congress to allow tribal membership cards to act as United States birth certificates.
In June, U.S. Representative Ed Pastor, D-Ariz., introduced the bill to Congress. Margo Cowan, general counsel for the initiative, says she is confident that lawmakers will right what she sees as a "basic historical oversight."