Dissected Nations Oppose Wall and Militarization
by Brenda Norrell, IRC Americas Program
Indigenous peoples at the Border Summit of the Americas on Tohono O’odham tribal land opposed the construction of a border wall, which will dissect indigenous communities on ancestral lands split by the U.S.-Mexico border. They also issued a strong statement against the ongoing militarization of their homelands.
During the Border Summit, held Sept. 29-Oct. 1, organized by Tohono O’odham Mike Flores and facilitated by the International Indian Treaty Council and the American Indian Movement, indigenous peoples unanimously opposed the Secure Fence Act, passed by the Senate. The wall will divide the ancestral lands of many Indian nations, including the Kumeyaay in California, Cocopah and Tohono O’odham in Arizona, and the Kickapoo in Texas. The wall is expected to be completed by May 2008.
Describing it as “psychological oppression and terrorism,” the participants representing many tribes from the United States and Mexico also called for a halt to the militarization of their ancestral homelands and sacred places along the border.
The border wall divides ancestral lands, separates indigenous people from sacred places, and denies them the right to pass freely within their traditional lands. Heavy militarization of the border has led to desecration of the lands, harassment of indigenous members, and even death.
In violation of international treaties, indigenous nations were not consulted prior to the application of anti-immigrant measures on their land such as Operation Hold the Line and Operation Gatekeeper.
The Tohono O’odham tribal government has supported the U.S. government in denying immigrant rights and the rights of tribal members to aid immigrants. Tohono O’odham offered testimony on how their human rights are violated by the Border Patrol, immigration agents, and more recently the National Guard. The Tohono O’odham’s tribal land of 2.8 million acres is located on the Arizona border and traditional lands span the border into the northern Mexico state of Sonora.
Members of the Tohono O’odham Nation said the proposed border wall would be a barrier to traditional routes of passage for ceremonies and traditional practices. The wall would interfere with traditional ways for O’odham members living on both sides of the border who cross routinely for ceremonial, cultural, family, and health reasons. One Tohono O’odham father said increased border security has already made it impossible for his children to ride the bus to school because of harassment by border agents.
Bill Means of the International Indian Treaty Council noted that the U.S. government plans to build the southern border wall in violation of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, environmental laws, and other federal laws.
“This is a violation of indigenous peoples’ human rights and a violation of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples now being considered by the United Nations General Assembly,” Means asserted, noting that in 2005, Homeland Security waived all federal laws, including environmental laws, to complete the border fence in Southern California.
During the testimony, several indigenous representatives said the militarization and occupation of indigenous lands are in direct violation of indigenous peoples’ rights to economic, political, social, and cultural control of their lands.
One participant, Tohono O’odham Mike Wilson, also stated that his Nation has had no say in the state and federal programs implemented on its lands. He said he asked former Tohono O’odham Chairman Edward Manuel whether the Tohono O’Odham Legislative Council was consulted before the United States’ Operation Gatekeeper or Operation Hold the Line were launched. Those two operations forced migrants onto tribal land, where they often died in the desert.
According to Wilson, Chairman Manuel confirmed that the Tohono O’odham were never consulted.
Cross-border Indigenous Activism
Indian nations are now uniting to take action in defense of ancestral lands, burial sites, and the environment. Earlier, the Kumeyaay opposed the first phase of the border wall and said its construction would allow the U.S. government to “plow through” the burial places of their ancestors in Southern California. Members of the Kumeyaay Nation supported the Tohono O’odham in resisting the latest phase of wall-building.
Among those attending with a new vision of indigenous border solidarity was Mark Maracle, Mohawk, representing the Women Title Holders. Maracle presented Flores with two flags of solidarity and spoke of the need for unified action at the northern and southern borders.
He presented a statement of the Women Title Holders that said that native people can freely exercise their right to free transit at the northern border as established under the 1794 Jay Treaty. The statement read that under the treaty, as well as the colonial-era Two Row Wampum Agreement, members of the Haudenosaunee/Six Nations Iroquois people “at all times we are free to pass and repass by land or inland navigation [or by air] onto our territories, that we are free to carry on trade and commerce with each other, that we shall not pay any duty or import whatever, that we are free to hunt and fish anywhere on our vast territory, and that we shall have free passage over all toll roads and bridges.”
Native Nations Against the Wall
During the summit, Tohono O’odham described how Border Patrol intrude into the homes of elderly O’odham without permission, hold people at gunpoint and ask for papers, and throw garbage in sacred sites on their patrols. Tohono O’odham described harassment by Border Patrol, including being tailgated in the vehicles, spotlighted in their homes, and held at gunpoint while being asked for papers on tribal land.
“As far as I am concerned the United States Border Patrol is an occupying army. If we were truly a sovereign nation, we would not have an occupying army on sovereign land,” Wilson stated. He pointed out that the Border Patrol’s “occupying army” has a military camp two miles north of the international border on Tohono O’odham tribal land in Arizona.
Wilson said O’odham, too, are migrants and most have moved about looking for work during their lives. Many of those dying in the desert are indigenous peoples, from Chiapas, Guatemala, Honduras, and other countries in Central and South America. “Where is our moral outrage?” Wilson asked the gathering. “We collectively in the social justice community turn away and let our brothers and sisters die.”
Summit participants pointed out that the Tohono O’odham Nation law criminalizes transporting migrants, including a fine for the first offense and jail time for second offense. Means pointed out that in the event that a migrant was dying in the desert, an O’odham on tribal land would be charged with a crime for transporting the migrant to a hospital.
Angelita Ramon, Tohono O’odham, described how her son, 18-year-old Bennett Patricio, Jr., was run over and killed by the Border Patrol on April 9, 2001 in a deserted area of tribal land. Ramon, and Patricio’s stepfather Irvin Ramon, said they believe Patricio witnessed a possibly illicit transfer of items by Border Patrol agents and was intentionally run over. The family’s case against the Border Patrol is proceeding on federal appeal to the Ninth Circuit.
“I’m here to let everyone know about the Border Patrol and how they killed my son,” Angelita told the summit. She said the truth of what happened that night has still not been revealed.
Jimbo Simmons, member of the International Indian Treaty Council, said, “The Border Patrol is a death squad. They are operating like they do in Central and South America, because no one can hold them accountable.”
Manny Pino of Acoma Pueblo said indigenous people all along the border are affected by the militarization. “As indigenous people, we didn’t draw lines on the land,” Pino told the summit. “It was all our Earth Mother.”
Pino said the militarization of the border and the manipulation of truth follows in the pattern of the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act, which established systems of government that were “shoved down the throats” of Indian people.
Now, Pino said, the U.S. government is telling the Tohono O’odham Nation that if the tribe does not allow the military on their lands, their federal funding will be cut off.
Pino added that nationwide, some American Indian people are being caught up in racist attitudes toward migrants. This reflects a tactic that the U.S. government has long used to divide the people, he noted, citing the example of the so-called Navajo and Hopi land dispute.
He said that it is important for Indian people to recognize the real enemy. “It is George Bush, Homeland Security, the Patriot Act, and the people who want to tap our phone lines,” Pino concluded.
Reflecting the comments of many in the border area, Pino said a border wall would not stop the people from coming across. “The ‘Tortilla Curtain’ will be torn. The real challenge for indigenous peoples is to ‘decolonize’ the mind.”
One Man Makes a Difference
The Baboquivari District on Tohono O’odham lands has one of the highest rates of migrant deaths on the border. Mike Wilson, Tohono O’odham, has challenged the Tohono O’odham Nation to become “morally responsible,’ and take actions to prevent deaths on tribal lands.
Wilson began to put out water for migrants when they started to die in terrifying numbers in 2001. Since then, between 240 and 250 migrants have lost their lives each year in the Sonoran Desert. Of those, 70 to 90 have died on O’Odham lands. “Let me be very, very clear, in what I’m trying to do,” he said. “No one deserves to die in the Sonora Desert for want of a cup of water.”
Wilson does volunteer work with Humane Borders away from tribal land, but his actions on tribal land are as an individual. The Tohono O’odham tribal government has halted humanitarian groups from coming onto tribal land to render aid, he said. He urged that the tribal government be held accountable for its callous inaction. “We who were once oppressed, are ever increasingly becoming the oppressor.”
The Tohono O’odham tribal Attorney General’s Office and Superintendent of Public Safety earlier told Wilson to stop maintaining the water stations for migrants. Both offices threatened him with banishment as a tribal member. However, when asked about the banishment, Chairman Manuel responded, “You are O’odham, no one can banish you.”
Wilson appears in the film, Crossing Arizona, shown at the Border Summit, which includes his work of putting out water in gallon jugs and barrels on a weekly basis at stations in the desert. Wilson said he told one man in the desert that if he continued north, he would likely be dead within a few hours. The man said he would rather die in the desert than return to Mexico and watch his wife, who needs surgery, and his children, starve to death.
The reasons for Wilson’s actions go beyond altruism and touch on his fundamental beliefs and the experiences that led him to his activism. Over the past five years, he has witnessed migrants dying of thirst on tribal land, including a seven-year-old girl with blood in her urine who barely survived.
“All human life is sacred. When it comes to people dying in the desert, we are all equal.” When one undercover detective asked him whose authority he was acting in his efforts to save migrants’ lives, Wilson replied, “The man upstairs.”
Threats to a Traditional Way of Life
The impact of the border wall and militarization on indigenous communities were not the only threats that were denounced at the Summit. Pointing out that the fragile desert ecosystem and all of its creatures will be affected, Maracle said, “The environmentalists should be up in arms.”
Representatives of the Tarahumara people of northern Mexico also spoke out against the devastating effects of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Urging a halt to trade policies that are leading to unemployment throughout the Americas, the summit called for nullification of NAFTA.
The Border Summit also opposed propositions then pending in Arizona, including Prop 103 (English-only), Prop. 200 (voter identification), and Prop 300 (proof of citizenship for services).
The Border Summit called for removal of the existing Border Patrol detention center for migrants on Tohono O’odham tribal land near San Miguel, AZ. Tohono O’odham described how Border Patrol agents occupied sacred sites, including Baboquivari Peaks, the origin place of the Creator I’itoi.
Michelle Cook, Navajo law student, noted that the protection of burial places is vital. “If there are ancestral remains, they have to stop development. They have to repatriate those remains. However, it is the native peoples’ responsibility to make them accountable. We have to go out there and watch them to make the accountable.”
At the conclusion of the Border Summit, Jose Garcia, lieutenant governor of the O’odham in Mexico, said the most important aspect of the gathering was bringing O’odham people together with other indigenous peoples from both sides of the border to work to resolve issues. “It brought us together in unity.”
The testimony was aired live on radio in the Tucson area and on the Internet, with listeners responding around the world—including e-mails of appreciation from listeners in Alaska, the Dominican Republic, and Europe. The audio file archives will be available online at Earth Cycles.
Brenda Norrell has been a news reporter in Indian country for 23 years, working as a staff reporter for Navajo Times and Indian Country Today and as an AP correspondent during the 18 years she lived on the Navajo Nation. She is currently a freelance writer based in Tucson and a contributor to the IRC Americas Program.
This story first appeared Oct. 31 on the International Relations Center Americas Program website
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