How the U.S.-Mexico border has split the Tohono O’odham

When it comes to the ‘wall,’ the Nation is divided.

 

If you’re driving the 70 miles from Tucson to Sells, Arizona, you might want to stop for a break at the Sells grocery store. It looks a lot like any other small-town American market. But the sign above the pizzas reads S-gewi haiku huk, not “frozen foods,” because this small town is the center of business and government for the Tohono O’odham Nation, and the signs are in O’odham Neogi, a language you’ve probably never heard of.

Keep heading south along the two-lane highway, and you’ll see a stunning desert landscape with a jagged mountain backdrop. In just 20 miles, though, you’ll have to stop again. Not for a break, but because the road ends here, at a big empty lot near a fence. Border Patrol agents are parked here, and you are not allowed to cross the border into Mexico.

Lately, the only entities allowed to cross freely are dogs. They don’t appear to have owners, but they don’t look too hungry: The Mexican ranchers south of the fence, the Tohono O’odham, who are American citizens, in the north, and the Border Patrol agents in between them somehow manage to keep the dogs fed.

For the dogs, life on the border is simple. For everyone else, it’s complicated.

Before Mexico, before the United States, before the Tohono O’odham were a federally recognized tribe, and long before the era of modern border security, the Tohono O’odham — desert people, they call themselves — lived in what is now southern Arizona and northern Sonora, Mexico. For thousands of years there was no border, and even after its creation, it had little impact on the tribe. But today, the tribe is divided. A security fence separates their ancestral lands and citizens, and the Border Patrol monitors their territory so closely that tribal members cannot cross freely to conduct business, attend religious or spiritual gatherings, or visit family and friends. Today, the tribal government spends $3 million annually on border security, and the tribal police force spends half its time on border-related issues, including illegal drugs and immigrants. Border freedom is a privilege reserved only for dogs.

Dogs gaze across the fence that runs along the border between the Tohono O’odham Nation in the United Sates and a ranch in Mexico. A sign nearby — in English, Spanish and the Tohono O’odham language — informs people they must be inspected before they cross.
Anthony Collins

During President Donald Trump’s campaign, when “the wall” was arguably his hottest issue, a brief media storm passed over the reservation. Reporters parachuted in and painted a simple picture, saying the tribe was opposed to the border wall and, therefore, largely against border security. The first part is true; the latter, less so. Popular opinion and the tribal government are nearly unified in their anti-wall stance: “Over my dead body we will build a wall,” the Tohono O’odham Vice Chairman Verlon Jose famously said. But the wall is only a small piece of the border puzzle. When it comes to O’odham approaches to border security, the opinions of people are as diverse as the desert is dry.

The older generation is reflective of many American baby boomers: more conservative, more willing to cooperate with the federal government, and with a track record of supporting and enhancing border security in their roles as government officials, law enforcement and community leaders. They want to protect their tribe’s youth — and by extension, the United States — from the dangers of illegal immigration and drug cartels. For years, the tribal government has actively cooperated with all relevant agencies to police illegal border activity, particularly since 9/11, when the federal government and the tribe built a vehicle barrier along the border.

But there is also the younger, activist generation: idealistic and educated about international Indigenous issues, eager to put tribal sovereignty above the needs of the federal government. They believe in “decolonizing,” and they are aggressively opposed to the militarization of their reservation. They value Indigenous nationhood over allegiance to America. Some critics dismiss them as conspiracy theorists.

Tribal Councilman Art Wilson, standing near a Border Patrol truck on the southern end of the Tohono O’odham Nation, says, “It’s complicated.”
Anthony Collins

And then, there are those in between, like Art Wilson, Tohono O’odham legislative councilman. “It’s complicated,” he said.

Like many in his generation, he appreciates the security that the U.S. Border Patrol and the fence offers, but he is upset by the increasingly clear separation between O’odham people, based on which side of the border they live on.

“I don’t want to be separated from our relatives in the south,” he said. “When we can’t gather with them, I really have seen, over the years, how that impacts our people’s involvement in ceremonies, and how it tears families apart.”

Wilson, whose tribal affiliation makes him a U.S. citizen, was born on the Mexican side of the border but grew up crossing it freely between home and school.

“When I was young, this fence wasn’t here,” he said. “We spoke mostly O’odham, and we always crossed back and forth from school to home.”

O’odham then not only identified as O’odham first but also lived, functioned and socialized as O’odham first. The distinction of American or Mexican was secondary. But in the 1990s, when Mexican drug cartels began to infiltrate the reservation, violence exploded. Today, tribal officials still consider drug activity to be at a crisis level and have been actively — and fairly successfully — working to control it.

According to the Tohono Oodham Department of Public Safety, migrant apprehensions on the reservation dropped by 84 percent from 2003 to 2016, thanks in large part to the tribe’s contribution of resources and efforts. During that time, the Tohono O’odham Police Department and U.S. Border Patrol worked together to seize a yearly average of about 300,000 pounds of illegal drugs on the reservation.

Integrated Fixed Towers, otherwise known as IFTs, are now the focus of conversation about the border for the Tohono O’odham. Described as a “virtual wall,” IFTs are solar-powered surveillance systems equipped with infrared and video technology to detect movement. According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the towers use surveillance cameras to help Border Patrol agents detect and respond more quickly to border incursions.

Right now, there are 52 IFTs up and running in southern Arizona. None, however, are on the Tohono O’odham Reservation. Both the tribal chairman and vice chairman support IFTs, as do many other leaders and citizens, but the nation’s young activists are staunchly opposed.

“We got a lot of press on the wall, but there’s a huge gap in coverage regarding the IFTs,” said Nellie David, a tribal member who is writing her dissertation on border security issues at the University of Arizona. “These towers are a huge violation of our rights.”

“Once they go up, we’ll be watched 24/7,” said David. “This is unprecedented surveillance toward an entire community, and it’s unconstitutional encroachment on our rights and privacy.”

Tohono O’odham community organizer Amy Juan opposes Border Patrol surveillance.
Anthony Collins

David and other opponents say they are also concerned about the IFTs’ environmental impacts. Even though an environmental assessment has been completed, activists contend that there isn’t enough data to ensure that, say, bird and bat migration patterns won’t be affected. And many of the towers would be built in areas considered sacred to many O’odham. (U.S. Customs and the Border Patrol did not respond to repeated requests for comment on IFTs.)

“We have sacred mountains where the community can’t even live because they’re so sacred — our medicine men are buried in those mountains,” said David. “And that’s one of the mountains where they plan to put some towers.”

“The (Tohono O’odham) Nation is afraid that if we don’t do our part as American citizens to protect America, then that puts us in danger as a tribe — especially with the Trump administration,” said Amy Juan, an anti-IFT activist who also works for the International Indian Treaty Council. “I understand the political game. Everybody’s hope is that if we approve the towers, we won’t have to deal with the wall. But at the end of the day, we might just end up with both.”

The day I visited the border, where the road from Sells ended, I stood near the fence with Art Wilson, listening to stories from his childhood. As we talked, a Border Patrol agent approached us and warned us, respectfully, that without permission from the Tohono O’odham government we would have to leave the area and take our cameras with us. Wilson showed the agent his tribal I.D. and the issue was settled, but it seemed odd to me that a Tohono O’odham tribal member in his own homeland would need to carry identification for American border agents.

Wilson appeared unbothered. But as we drove north along the rough, dirt road, I asked him what he would do to solve the problem.

“I want them to pick up that fence and move it south so that all of our O’odham people can be together.”

Chelsey Luger is a freelance journalist and a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa. 

High Country News Classifieds
  • PLANNED GIVING OFFICER
    National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), the nation's oldest and largest national parks nonprofit advocacy organization seeks a Planned Giving Officer. Do you find energy in...
  • NORTHERN NEW MEXICO PROJECT MANAGER
    Seeking qualified Northern New Mexico Project Manager to provide expertise, leadership and support to the organization by planning, cultivating, implementing and managing land conservation activities,...
  • REGIONAL TRAIL STEWARDSHIP COORDINATOR
    Are you passionate about connecting people to the outdoors? The Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) is looking for someone with trail maintenance and volunteer engagement...
  • TRAIL CREW MEMBER
    Position Title: Trail Crew Member Position Type: 6 month seasonal position, April 17-October 15, 2023 Location: Field-based; The RFOV office is in Carbondale, CO, and...
  • CEO BUFFALO NATIONS GRASSLANDS ALLIANCE
    Chief Executive Officer, Remote Exempt position for Buffalo Nations Grasslands Alliance is responsible for the planning and organization of BNGA's day-to-day operations
  • IDAHO DIRECTOR - WESTERN WATERSHEDS PROJECT
    Western Watersheds Project seeks an Idaho Director to continue and expand upon WWP's campaign to protect and restore public lands and wildlife in Idaho, with...
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT, NA'AH ILLAHEE FUND
    Na'ah Illahee Fund (NIF) is seeking a highly qualified Development Director to join our team in supporting and furthering our mission. This position will create...
  • DIRECTOR OF OPERATIONS, NA'AH ILLAHEE FUND
    Na'ah Illahee Fund (NIF) is seeking a highly qualified Operations Director to join our team. This position will provide critical organizational and systems support to...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (GSEP) is seeking a leader to join our dynamic team in the long-term protection of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (GSENM). We...
  • GRASSLAND RESEARCH COORDINATOR
    The Grassland Research Coordinator is a cooperative position with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that performs and participates in and coordinates data collection for...
  • HYDROELECTRIC PLANT
    1.3 MW FERC licensed hydroelectric station near Taylorsville CA. Property is 184 deeded acres surrounded by National Forrest.
  • "PROFILES IN COURAGE: STANDING AGAINST THE WYOMING WIND"
    13 stories of extraordinary courage including HCN founder Tom Bell, PRBRC director Lynn Dickey, Liz Cheney, People of Heart Mountain, the Wind River Indian Reservation...
  • GRANT WRITER
    JOB DESCRIPTION: This Work involves the responsibility of conducting research in the procurement of Federal, State, County, and private grant funding. Additional responsibilities include identifying...
  • MATADOR RANCH STEWARD
    The Matador Ranch Steward conducts annual stewardship projects at the Matador Ranch Preserve and occasionally supports stewardship projects elsewhere in Montana's Northern Great Plains. The...
  • COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT ASSISTANT
    The Idaho Conservation League is seeking a motivated individual to help build public support for key strategic initiatives in northern Idaho through public outreach and...
  • PROGRAM MANAGER
    Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness Foundation seeks a steward/educator to lead backcountry volunteer projects and community outreach. FT $36k-$40k, competitive time off. ALSO HIRING OPERATIONS MANAGER. More...
  • ASSISTANT RANCH OPERATIONS MANAGER
    WANTED: ASSISTANT RANCH OPERATIONS MANAGER ~ UTAH/COLORADO border ~ Looking to immediately hire an experienced and clean hardworker to join us on a beautiful, very...
  • ASPIRE COLORADO SUSTAINABLE BODY AND HOME CARE PRODUCTS
    Go Bulk! Go Natural! Our products are better for you and better for the environment. Say no to single-use plastic. Made in U.S.A., by a...
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Field seminars for adults in the natural and human history of the Colorado Plateau, with lodge and base camp options. Small groups, guest experts.
  • CORTEZ COLORADO LOT FOR SALE
    Historic tree-lined Montezuma Ave. Zoned Neighborhood Business. Build your dream house or business right in the heart of town. $74,000. Southwest Realty