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Know the West

One Nation, Under Fire

Illegal drugs and immigrants pour across an open frontier. The government responds with helicopters and ATVs. And the once-quiet desert homeland of the Tohono O’odham Nation becomes a nerve-wracking police state.


Tohono O’odham Nation, Ariz. -- A five-strand barbed-wire fence is all that separates the United States and Mexico in this remote southeastern corner of America’s second-largest Indian nation.

On a warm Sunday afternoon in early January, no one from U.S. law enforcement is checking documents as people move back and forth at a crossing — really, just a steel cattle guard in a gap in the fence — known as the San Miguel Gate. There are no signs of Mexican border officials keeping tabs on the gate. Tohono O’odham tribal police are nowhere to be seen.

On this day, in fact, the only suggestion of government control is a Border Patrol officer, posted several hundred yards north of the gate. The officer does not stop a High Country News reporter in a Chevy Suburban (a vehicle prized by the border area’s smugglers) from driving southbound, on the dirt road leading to the gate.

Officially, only members of the Tohono O’odham Nation are allowed to pass through the San Miguel Gate. But no signs warn non-members against crossing. The biggest obstacles to traversing the border at the San Miguel Gate, it seems, are the six-inch gaps between the steel rails of the cattle guard there.

And once you’re in Mexico, the party begins.

Vendors from the northern Sonora towns of Altar, Caborca and Sasabe sell tortillas, white cheese, sodas, water, beer and tequila from the sides of vans and backs of pickup trucks. A Yaqui musician strums his guitar and squeaks out a tune on a harmonica, entertaining six O’odham folks jammed into a sedan, downing quarts of beer and eating tamales.

For decades, O’odham tribal members have used the San Miguel Gate to enter Mexico and shop at the weekend flea market rather than face a lengthy drive to purchase traditional foods (and, for some, liquor, which is not sold on Indian lands) off-reservation. The mood at the bazaar is light-hearted and friendly, at least until an Anglo reporter approaches and tries to strike up a conversation. The vendors are eager to sell their wares, but they are reluctant to talk about what else goes on at the market, particularly when the sun goes down.

“This place is out of control,” says Francisco Bennett, leaning against the side of a pickup truck from which an old man is selling food and beer out of a cooler. Bennett says he’s been coming to the bazaar for years to shop, party and socialize with his O’odham friends, who live on both sides of the border. Years ago, he says, families with young children would gather for the day and stay well into the evening.

But those relaxed weekends are long gone.

Bennett, who lives a few miles away in the ranching hamlet of Newfield, on the U.S. side of the border, says that now he won’t even come to the area at night. “There is smuggling of people, drugs, whatever,” Bennett says. “It’s very dangerous.”

For years, the stamped-down and trashed desert south of the San Miguel Gate has served as a final staging area for smugglers of both human beings and narcotics into the United States. Evi-dence of the crossing’s extra-legal use is everywhere.

Signs provide stark warnings to desperate would-be immigrants about crossing the Sonoran Desert, where snakes, scorpions, searing summer heat and sub-freezing winter nights are only a few of the lurking dangers. Two 55-gallon plastic drums filled with water are perched on stands just a few feet south of the border; a third drum, a reserve, sits upright on the ground. Nearby, a blue plastic wreath is draped over a steel cross with remnants of burned candles at its base. It serves as a sobering testament to the 342 men, women and children who perished attempting to cross through the Tohono O’odham Nation between 2002 and 2006.

Border Patrol officials say some smugglers simply drive or walk through the San Miguel Gate, hoping to penetrate far enough into the U.S. to deliver their goods, whether human or narcotic. Others fan out across the desert for miles on either side of the gate, slipping through the barbed-wire fence at the border and either bushwhacking their way across the desert or navigating serpentine trails through the Baboquivari Mountains, six miles to the east.

One of five such informal crossings along the 75-mile international border that marks the official southern boundary of the Tohono O’odham Nation, the San Miguel Gate stands in sharp contrast to border crossings in urban areas of Arizona. (At Nogales, Ariz., for example, a 15-foot-high steel wall divides the two countries.) For decades, these cattle crossings have provided the O’odham direct access to the tribe’s traditional lands — lands that once stretched far into Mexico, reaching Hermosillo to the south and the Sea of Cortez to the west.

Unlike the U.S., Mexico does not formally recognize traditional O’odham territory with reservation status and provides no special services to tribal members. As a result, for the several thousand officially enrolled members of the O’odham tribe living in Mexico, direct access to the United States — and the medical, educational and social services it provides — is essential.

For approximately 28,000 U.S.-based O’odham members, many of whom continue to follow traditional ways, unfettered migration into Mexico — to perform sacred ceremonies, to visit summer homes, to hunt and to collect herbs and plants — is a cherished part of life.

And O’odham in both countries, of course, have cross-border family ties.

But increased border enforcement in major urban areas along the border — particularly in San Diego and El Paso — has funneled drug and human smugglers to ever more remote locations. The Tohono O’odham Reservation now lies in the heart of the second-biggest trafficking corridor for drugs and illegal immigrants on the U.S.-Mexican border, according to Border Patrol officials. (Only Nogales, with its major port of entry for commercial vehicles, exceeds the reservation as a smuggling conduit.)

And with the smuggling come huge negative impacts.

Illegal immigrants not only face a dangerous trek through the desert; they must also deal with the possibility of being robbed, abandoned, beaten, kidnapped, raped, or murdered by their smugglers or rival smuggling organizations. And violence is on the rise; today’s smugglers often carry high-powered handguns and assault rifles. “In the past, most of the people that you arrested for smuggling were your ma-and-pa types, smuggling relatives,” says U.S. Border Patrol supervisory agent Jesus Rodriguez. “It’s no longer that. It’s organized crime.”

Narcotics smugglers have also zeroed in, and the lure of quick cash has enticed many O’odham, who are, in general, mired in poverty and have few on-reservation job opportunities. More than 100 tribal members were arrested on narcotics-related charges in 2003 and 2004, and relatives of tribal leaders are in prison after drug convictions.

Smuggling is also having a devastating environmental impact on the Sonoran Desert, where the O’odham have made their home for centuries. Thousands of vehicles — many stolen from Phoenix and Tucson — have been loaded with drugs and migrants and then driven across countless miles of the fragile desert that makes up most of the O’odham Reservation, which is about the size of Connecticut. A startling fact: More than 1,400 wrecked or abandoned vehicles were towed off the reservation in 2005.

Stepped-up efforts by the Border Patrol and the recent deployment of hundreds of National Guard troops to the area have further increased environmental damage that, tribe members say, will take decades, if not longer, to repair.

The Tohono O’odham Reservation’s wide-open U.S.-Mexico border is both a link to tribal tradition and an enabler of modern social ills. To limit those ills, and with the blessing of tribal government leaders, the Border Patrol and National Guard have begun construction of vehicle barriers that will eventually span the reservation’s border with Mexico. The barriers, which resemble the tank traps lining the beaches of Normandy during World War II, will allow people and animals — but not the cars and trucks that ferry illegal immigrants and drugs — to cross.

But the tribal leadership opposes the Secure Fence Act of 2006, which calls for construction of a barrier that will vary in design depending on the terrain. In most of the desert it will be a solid steel wall similar to barriers near San Diego and other urban areas. In desert areas where the border crosses washes, the barrier will be a chain-link fence. In other areas, it will have a buffer zone between rows of fencing. An all-weather road would run parallel to the wall.

The proposed barrier would follow 700 miles of the border from Texas to California, including 75 miles of the Tohono O’odham Nation. The fence, tribal officials say, would prevent the free flow of O’odham across their traditional lands, as well as restrict migration of animals.

“We would like to reduce, really reduce, the flow of what they call illegal aliens,” says Harriet Toto, an executive assistant to tribal chairwoman Vivian Juan-Saunders. “At the same time, we want our people to be recognized as members of the (Tohono O’odham) Nation and be free to come back and forth as they have for centuries.”

But if one thing has become clear on the reservation, it is that the situation now is not anything like it has ever been.

Caught in a crossfire between smugglers and government forces, the O’odham have watched their once-tranquil home in America’s desert outback become a nerve-wracking police state. Helicopters hover, Border Patrol all-terrain vehicles carve up the desert, police routinely pull over tribal members searching for contraband, and smugglers bang on the doors of residents, demanding supplies.

The O’odham are believed to be descendants of the Hohokam, who occupied central and southern Arizona and the northern parts of the Mexican states of Sonora and Chihuahua from 200 BC to about 1450 AD. Like their predecessors, the O’odham traditionally were farmers, growing corn, beans and cotton. (Many O’odham, in fact, are now returning to the farming of traditional crops in an attempt to stem a diabetes epidemic that now afflicts half of the tribe’s adult population — one of the highest rates in the world.)

In Pre-Columbian America, the O’odham were scattered across the vast Sonoran Desert. The tribe resisted the early incursions of Spanish missionaries, staging major rebellions in the 1660s and 1750s. The insurrections forced the Spanish to retreat to the south. But the tribe’s traditional lands were sliced in half in 1853, when the U.S. bought southern Arizona from Mexico in the Gadsden Purchase, creating the present international border.

The United States created a reservation for the Tohono O’odham in 1874, by executive order. The current form of tribal government was instituted in the 1930s and is based in Sells, the Nation’s largest town, with a population of about 2,000. The 2.8 million-acre reservation is divided into 13 districts, two of which are adjacent to the U.S.-Mexican border.

The tribe is genuinely poverty-stricken, with unemployment hovering around 42 percent, and with 40 percent of O’odham living below poverty level. The 2000 per capita income of $8,000 is only 33 percent of the American average and far below the $13,000 average for Native American tribes.

The tribe’s biggest employers and revenue generators are three casinos that employ about 1,400 workers, half of whom are O’odham. The first casino opened in 1993, and gambling revenue has helped fund modern infrastructure on the remote reservation, including a new hospital, a nursing home, a community college, five recreation centers and a museum and culture center.

Approximately $60 million in casino revenue has been used to administer and finance post-high school education; so far, some 3,500 O’odham have received educational stipends. The recent efforts to improve education and training opportunities, however, follow many decades of a crippling high school dropout rate (currently 48 percent).

Though impoverished, until recently O’odham routinely extended a helping hand to illegal immigrants crossing their lands. Many immigrants are from indigenous cultures in southern Mexico and Central and South America, and the O’odham have felt kinship for them.

“Throughout my whole lifetime, I know we always fed them and gave them water,” Toto says during an interview at the tribal headquarters in Sells.

A middle-aged woman who has spent most of her adult life in and around tribal politics, Toto recently moved from Sells to a home a few miles north of the San Miguel Gate. Sells, which offers little more than a grocery store, gas station, bank and few small shops, is the main commercial center of the sprawling reservation. It’s also the center for tribal governmental services that provide nearly 1,000 jobs to O’odham.

Toto says she moved out of Sells to live in a quieter location. Instead, she says, her new home is engulfed by the frantic and dangerous world of smuggling. Gone are the days of a few immigrants casually walking by on their way to jobs, friends and family in the U.S.

“It used to be they would take time out and do some chores, clean your yard and things like that,” Toto says. “But now, they are in a hurry because of the increase in Border Patrol, and they want to get out of there, so they have become more demanding.”

What was once a trickle has turned into a flood — reportedly as many as 1,500 illegal immigrants a day cross tribal lands — and the onslaught is ruining daily life for many tribal members. And both the immigration wave and the government’s attempts to stem it have had enormous environmental impacts.

“They come at all hours of the day and night,” Toto says. “They will be pounding on your windows asking for food and water.”

Nothing on the reservation, it seems, is safe from being stolen — clothes, food, vehicles, cell phones, electronics and, increasingly, bicycles, which allow immigrants to cross the desert more quickly than hiking would. More than 3,000 bicycles have been found abandoned in the northern and eastern parts of the reservation. (Tribal officials say illegal immigrants dump the bikes after reaching pickup points near Interstate highways 8 and 10.)

But bikes aren’t even the beginning of the reservation’s trash problem. Immigrants leave personal belongings throughout the reservation, either when they are arrested by Border Patrol or as they are picked up by smugglers taking them to destinations north. The tribe has removed more than 80 tons of trash from 128 sites since September 2004, says Gary Olson, manager of the tribe’s solid waste management program. Beyond the 1,500 or so vehicles removed from the reservation each year, another 200 vehicles have been abandoned in parts of the reservation so remote that they cannot be reached by tow trucks.

“We know how much we have cleaned up, but we don’t know how much more we have to clean up,” Olson says.

Increased enforcement by the Border Patrol has also harmed the desert, as ever more wildcat roads are cut through the southern part of the reservation. “A lot of time they (Border Patrol officers) make their own roads and go wherever they want to go,” Toto says. “Our people feel it is disrespectful to go into areas where they are disturbing archeological sites.”

The tribe, she says, wants the Border Patrol to increase enforcement efforts at the immediate border, rather than spreading its resources across the sprawling reservation, which spans three counties in southwestern Arizona. “We would prefer that the Border Patrol and National Guard stay at the border and send (migrants) away before they cross over,” she says. “We really feel strongly about this. Eventually, if the immigration doesn’t stop, tribal leaders might support construction of the wall.”

It is unlikely construction of a full-scale border fence will occur anytime soon on the Tohono O’odham Nation. The Secure Fence Act signed by President Bush on Oct. 26, 2006, authorizes partial funding for the “possible” construction of 700 miles of fencing and barriers along the border. The Congressional Research Service estimates the entire barrier would cost $50 billion.

A separate Homeland Security Department law authorized spending an initial $1.2 billion for border fencing. But that law also withholds $950 million until Congress approves the department’s plan for spending the money.

In January, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said the House will reconsider the border fence, and Democratic committee chairmen are holding up the $950 million in funding until Homeland Security presents its comprehensive border-security plan. There also are bipartisan calls for reviewing the wall. The two Republican senators from Texas, John Cornyn and Kay Bailey-Hutchinson, advocate revising the fence plan.

Last fall, the Department of Homeland Security awarded the Boeing Co. a contract to construct a series of 1,800 towers equipped with cameras, sensors and computer links — part of a plan for a $2.8 billion “virtual” fence that would monitor the U.S. borders with both Mexico and Canada. Homeland Security Director Michael Chertoff has said that an eight-month, $67 million test of such a virtual barrier along a 28-mile stretch of border south of Tucson and east of the Tohono O’odham Nation will be conducted before any permanent fence is constructed.

There is nothing virtual about the problems the Border Patrol faces on the Tohono O’odham Nation. As it tries to stop the flow of illegal immigrants and narcotics into the U.S., the agency must also take into consideration the unique cross-border orientation of the O’odham. “These are the normal migration and normal historical paths that the O’odham have used for centuries,” says Gustavo Soto, a public affairs officer for the Border Patrol’s Tucson Sector, which includes the reservation.

O’odham with tribal identification cards will continue to be allowed free access across the border, regardless of citizenship status, Soto says. There is, however, no written agreement between the tribe and federal authorities on allowing unfettered passage or on maintaining the informal border crossings. “That is an unofficial agreement we have with the Nation,” Soto says.

The likely delay and possible scrapping of the border fence constitute welcome news for traditional O’odham, who strongly oppose a fence that would restrict movement of people and animals, says Ofelia Rivas, a leader in the O’odham Rights Cultural and Environmental Coalition. Traditional O’odham, she says, are very concerned that they will be prevented from crossing through checkpoints at the border if a wall is built. Many O’odham who were born in Mexico are not recognized as American citizens, Rivas notes, and cannot obtain passports, even though they are enrolled members of the Tohono O’odham Nation.

“A lot of people don’t have birth certificates,” says the 50-year-old activist, who holds a degree in fine arts from Northern Arizona University. “I was born at home, and I don’t have a birth record.”

Before Sept. 11, 2001, Congress was poised to pass legislation that would have made all enrolled Tohono O’odham members, including those who live in Mexico, U.S. citizens. But the bill died in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks at the World Trade Center and Pentagon.

Fifty miles west of the San Miguel Gate is another cattle-guard crossing, at Maneger’s Dam, the reservation’s westernmost gate. Located about 20 miles south of the village of Gu Vo, the gate is in an area that has been hit hard by drug smugglers. The Sierra de Santa Rosa to the west and the Mesquite Mountains to the east provide cover to smugglers, who frequently pass through the area. Police say the mountains disrupt radio transmissions, a fact the smugglers know and exploit.

Several graves are located immediately next to the border. A cement monument marking the international boundary lies about 25 yards south of the barbed-wire fence. The five-foot marker is wrapped in barbed wire and defaced with graffiti.

David Ortega is an O’odham who is tied both to the ways of his people and to the broader American culture. The dual affinity shows in the way he dresses: A feather often sprouts from the back of a black ball cap emblazoned in gold with the letters “USMC.” His ties to both cultures also show in his life experience.

Every year, Ortega says, gazing across the border at tribal lands stretching toward the southern horizon, he and other traditionalists make a four-day trek from the Maneger’s Dam Gate across the desert, over mountain ranges to a sacred spring in the Sonoran village of Quitovac.

Ortega says he served 10 years in the Marine Corps, including a stint in Lebanon during the early 1980s, when a car bomb blew up the Marine barracks in Beirut, killing more than 200. But now, Ortega says, he receives no veterans’ benefits because he was born at home in Mexico and doesn’t have U.S. citizenship.

For Ortega, a physical barrier dividing the O’odham’s traditional lands would be a sacrilege. He says the O’odham were not consulted prior to the creation of the current international boundary.

“They all just got together and said, ‘This is where we are going to cut it in half,’” Ortega says. “Who cares who lives there? Nobody even understood that there were people who lived here.”

In addition to cultural issues, the Border Patrol faces technical problems as it tries to cover the miles of open desert and mountain ranges on the O’odham Reservation. The mountains severely limit lateral movement along the border; the most formidable of these obstacles are the Baboquivari Mountains, which run in a north-south direction along the Tohono O’odham Nation’s eastern boundary.

Famous as home to Kitt Peak National Observatory, the Baboquivaris block the Border Patrol’s direct access to the international boundary. Narcotics and human smugglers take advantage of geography, frequently crossing the border on the eastern and western flanks of the mountains, Soto says.

Just west of the Baboquivari range is the San Miguel Gate, and beyond that nearly 60 miles of open range, where the only barrier to the border is the barbed-wire cattle fence. Smugglers take advantage of the desert terrain by stealing four-wheel-drive vehicles from urban areas, loading them with drugs and/or immigrants and making a Mad Max-like dash across the desert.

“If they destroy the vehicle, they don’t care. It’s not theirs. It’s stolen,” Soto says.

The Border Patrol hopes that vehicle barriers, which will cost about $1 million per mile, can help stop the flow of trafficking across the border. The barriers are made from old railroad tracks welded into an “X” shape and then affixed vertically in the ground.

Like the Tohono O’odham Nation, the Border Patrol opposes construction of a more substantial “secure” fence across much of the border, Soto says. Such a fence, he says, would cause serious environmental impacts on Indian lands. “Our proposal is for vehicle barriers to keep people from driving through, not a wall,” he says.

Some O’odham are skeptical the vehicle barriers will do much good. Tohono O’odham Police Sgt. Elton Begay says most of the traffickers bring stolen vehicles to locations on the U.S. side of the border and wait for smugglers to deliver their loads of drugs and immigrants.

“The vehicle barriers aren’t going to do too much good in stopping the trafficking,” Begay predicts.

Other tribal officials say the O’odham supported construction of the barriers primarily to stop cattle rustlers from crossing the border from Mexico and raiding O’odham ranches. “The ranchers are the ones who really pushed for the vehicle barriers,” says Toto, the tribal chairwoman’s executive assistant.

The wide divergence of views on the vehicle barriers is a reflection of how the Tohono O’odham Nation and the Border Patrol perceive one another’s operations, generally.

Border Patrol officials insist that they fully cooperate with the tribe before undertaking any formal actions on the reservation. “Everything is done to ensure that the citizens of the nation are as informed as possible as to what our intentions are,” Soto says. “We take their considerations and merge them with our operations and come to an understanding before anything is done on the Nation.”

Tribal officials and traditionalists say the Border Patrol fails to fully understand the cultural customs of the O’odham and continues to disrupt life on the reservation, particularly since the 9/11 terror attacks. “Abuse of the people increased,” says traditionalist leader Ofelia Rivas. “The Border Patrol would hold them at gunpoint and sometimes run them off the road.”

In an effort to reduce tensions, the Border Patrol is distributing a recently produced video to the approximately 1,700 officers assigned to the reservation; it describes the unique customs of the O’odham, such as all-night wakes that — as vehicles come and go from a home — can easily be mistaken for drug-dealing operations. Border Patrol officials are also meeting regularly with community members and explaining what O’odham can do to improve their relations with law enforcement. They emphasize simple solutions, such as turning on the dome lights in their cars if they are pulled over by Border Patrol officers at night.

Even if tensions between the O’odham and the Border Patrol remain, there are early indications that stepped-up enforcement — particularly the deployment of several hundred National Guard troops in June 2006 — is beginning to have an impact on smuggling through the reservation. In the last three months of 2006, the Border Patrol arrested 27,800 illegal immigrants in the Tucson Sector’s Western Desert District, which includes the Tohono O’odham Nation. In the same period of the previous year, 30,000 arrests were made.

Soto says the decline in arrests is an indication that smugglers are slowly being deterred from using the reservation as a conduit for illegal immigration. But as arrests for human trafficking have declined, drug seizures have skyrocketed. The dichotomy, Soto says, can be easily explained: Far more manpower is being deployed across the reservation to stem the influx of illegal drugs.

“The extra eyes and ears that the National Guard is providing us is helping,” he says.

During the last three months of 2005, Border Patrol officials seized 88,000 pounds of marijuana in the Western Desert District. Seizures jumped to 123,000 pounds in the last three months of 2006, Soto says.

Marijuana isn’t the only drug being smuggled. One of the biggest busts on tribal lands last year involved Arthur David Pablo, 55, of Sells. Pablo was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison last July after pleading guilty to conspiracy to possess with the intent to distribute 406 pounds of cocaine, said to have a street value of about $14 million.

Many of the seizures have occurred on the western half of the Tohono O’odham Nation, where smugglers have recently stepped up operations, particularly through the area around Maneger’s Dam Gate. The drug activity has become so great that tribal officials have decided to close the gate.

Soto credits the increased drug interdiction and decline in arrests of illegal immigrants to more Border Patrol officers and the deployment of the National Guard, but it’s unclear how long the Guard’s help will last. Soto says the current National Guard operation is scheduled to end in 2008.

“The Guard has been helping us for years,” he says. “They will continue to help us for years to come, but not in the numbers that are presently on the border.

“What will happen when they leave? We don’t know.”

Still, smuggling is slowly rending the already faltering heart of one of North America’s oldest surviving cultures. In 2004, Tohono O’odham police reported that 111,264 immigrants entered the reservation’s borders, with 84,010 arrested by either the police or Border Patrol. “If this was happening in Tucson, or any other metropolis, a state of emergency would be declared,” the tribe said in a written statement.

The tribe’s 71 officers have been overwhelmed with border enforcement duties that are properly the responsibility of the federal government. The police department spends an average of $3 million a year — or more than half its budget — responding to immigrant- and drug-smuggling incidents.

Smuggling has impacted nearly every O’odham family. Brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, aunts and uncles have been arrested for dipping into trafficking’s netherworld, or for getting tangled up in the urban-style street gangs that tribal police increasingly must deal with. There are at least 26 such gangs operating on the Nation, tribal police say; their graffiti can be seen on old adobes across the reservation.

Tribal chairwoman Vivian Juan-Saunders — who canceled two interviews scheduled with High Country News and did not respond to written questions submitted to her press secretary — has had two members of her family convicted of drug smuggling. Traditional leader Ofelia Rivas’ nephew, meanwhile, is seven years into an eight-year federal prison sentence for drug trafficking.

As its culture is being corroded by organized crime, the tribe’s desert landscape is being shredded. The O’odham — whose name means “the desert people” — have had their silence shattered and their solitude violated. Helicopters swoop low over the desert, floodlights shining on yet another monster truck packed with high-grade marijuana roaring down a dirt road on a high-stakes flight to suburbia. Wild vehicle chases end in crashes. There are shootouts.

And as hundreds of thousands of Mexicans try desperately to immigrate across the reservation, O’odham are regularly horrified to stumble across the twisted bodies of those who fail, dehydrated humans rotting under the 120-degree summer sun, ghosts where once there had been hope.

These are all now routine occurrences.

For traditionalists like David Ortega, trafficking has pushed the O’odham society to the brink of annihilation. Many of his people, he says, have lost touch with their historical teachings; at the same time, he notes, they are ill prepared to enter the mainstream American economy. Smuggling — which can garner a destitute O’odham a quick $3,000 to $5,000 for hustling drugs and/or immigrants just one time — is the best job opportunity many see, he says.

After more than a century of neglect, the federal government and tribal leaders finally have begun to address the poverty, lack of modern education, loss of traditional teachings and crippling job shortages on the Nation. But it’s a fledgling effort.

The casinos continue to provide crucial funds for education and job training. Gaming revenue, for example, financed the construction of the Tohono O’odham Community College, a widely acclaimed and fully accredited two-year college where about 300 O’odham attend classes.

And a recent water rights settlement with the federal government will bring 37,800 acre-feet of water to the tribe, increasing its annual surface water rights to 66,000 acre-feet. The “new” water comes from a portion of Arizona’s share of the Central Arizona Project, which diverts water from the Colorado River to central and southern Arizona.

The tribe will lease some of the water, substantially increasing its revenue. The CAP water will also allow a substantial boost in agricultural production on the reservation.

Though these are important steps, Ortega says that — with organized criminal smuggling syndicates rapidly corrupting tribe members — there needs to be far more money and effort put toward vastly improved education and job opportunities for O’odham youth.

And the improvements must come quickly.

“If these things are not done,” Ortega says, “we will be lost as a people.”


John Dougherty writes from Phoenix.