TOHONO O’ODHAM NATION (CN) — Seven miles from the U.S.-Mexico border, in a wellness center in San Miguel village, Tohono O’odham Indians gather to exercise and, lately, to talk about the wall that President Donald Trump wants to build across 75 miles of reservation land.
“Pretty much everybody that I’ve talked to is against it,” said Joshua Garcia, the center’s health education specialist. “It’s just not right to have a wall there.”
For the Tohono O’odham, or Desert People, who have lived since time immemorial in this remote corner of the country’s second-largest Indian reservation, a border wall between them and the tribal members who happen to live in Mexico would be an affront to tribal sovereignty.
Leaders of the Tohono O’odham made their opposition to the wall official in a Feb. 7 resolution. Leaders have traveled to Washington, D.C. to seek support for their cause, and released a video, “There is no O’odham word for wall,” that details their stance.
“We believe that what is effective is continued cooperation and working together,” said Verlon Jose, vice chairman of the Tribal Council.
Tribal leaders have given their blessing to integrated fixed towers with radar and day and night cameras that soon will be installed on the reservation. But Jose and other council members say a wall would exacerbate the separation of tribal members already divided by a boundary, and hurt their culture and environment.
“Every stick and stone is sacred,” Jose said. “Every creature is sacred. Every creature has a significant part in our way of life.” With 2.8 million acres on the main reservation, the Tohono O’odham land is more than four times as big as Rhode Island, more than twice as big as Delaware. They are the only U.S. tribe that was never at war with the federal government and never ejected from their main homeland.
But their way of life has been deeply disrupted over the years. The Gadsden Purchase of 1853 demarcated the border that geographically split the tribe in two, causing myriad problems for the back-and-forth traveling of members. About 34,000 now live in the United States, another 2,000 in Mexico.
Eventually, as drug trafficking and illegal immigration into the country rose, the area where the Tohono O’odham once roamed free became a battlefield for smugglers and the federal government.
Tribal members were caught in the crossfire. Living on the nation has brought harassment from both agents and smugglers.
“The whole drug war – and now the war on terrorism – has really been a war on the O’odham,” said Robert Wiliams, a professor at the University of Arizona’s Indigenous Peoples Law and Policy Program.
Whether Trump through executive orders on immigration can legally build a wall on the tribal land is unclear, but Williams said that changes made to federal law in the name of border security give the government significant latitude.
“Congress has given the Department of Homeland Security wide authority to do whatever they want,” he said. “I think that’s what the nation’s concerned about.”
San Miguel Village
Inside the San Miguel wellness center, Garcia stands over a stove in the small kitchen, cooking a rib-eye steak he will eat with kale and avocado for lunch.
The center rises on the same saguaro-studded desert land of mountains and valleys that migrants and drug traffickers cut through after sneaking across the border on their journey north. Some of them stop at the center and ask if they can use a phone, but Garcia declines.
“I usually just give them water and tell them to stand by the road,” he said. “They’re not usually aggressive.”
He remembers more volatile times. Garcia, 34, grew up some 80 miles east in Tucson but frequently spent time with his late grandmother in Vamori. She, like many others, about 10 years ago was the victim of a home invasion as the illegal drug trade wreaked havoc on the nation.
The illicit activity has snared many a tribal member, particularly young people who see it as a way to make easy money, said Francisco Jose, a former vice chairman of the nation.
Life on the nation was more tranquil in the 1980s, when he spent four years in his elected post, he recalled. Border-related crime existed but wasn’t rampant.
That began to change in the early ’90s, when the federal government’s border enforcement operations in California and Texas pushed people to Arizona. It transformed the isolated reservation into a valued corridor for smuggling people and drugs.
Border Patrol agents became fixtures on the land and steel post fencing replaced the barbed wire that had marked the boundary for years. The sound of hovering helicopters and roaring ATVs routinely pierced the once-quiet desert homeland.
“We’ve allowed them to bring in the Border Patrol; we understand why,” said Francisco Jose, a distant relative of Verlon Jose. “I don’t know why they want a wall. They’re already spending millions of dollars for this army of Border Patrol and they’ve already put a fence up.”
The plans for a wall come as the flow of illegal immigration has dropped considerably in Arizona and elsewhere. (See statistics, below.) The former vice chairman said smuggling is still a problem in certain places, but he no longer feels the need to carry a gun when he runs cattle on the open range.
The nation consistently has expressed its opposition to a wall, saying it would harm its spiritual connection to its ancestral land. The Tohono O’odham are believed to be descendants of the prehistoric Hohokam, whose archaeological vestiges in Arizona show their mastery of agriculture. The O’odham continued to live off the land, growing tepary beans, corn and squash, eating fruits from wild plants and hunting deer, rabbit and javelina for meat.
Although his people’s diet has largely changed, Francisco Jose said respect for the land and the bountiful offerings that many people and wildlife still rely on, has not.
“You have to leave things alone, not put up a wall,” the 68-year-old said. “You have to leave the environment alone. You go with the natural flow of things.”
He stood in a dry riverbed that spans both sides of the border, emphasizing that soil erosion caused by heavy rains could be a problem for a wall. Along this stretch, near the San Miguel Gate, where members of the nation cross the border for religious and cultural celebrations, some vehicle barriers that mark the international boundary with thick metal posts show clear signs of erosion around their cement footing.
At the gate, a group of men struggle to transfer big water tanks from one truck to another as a Border Patrol agent watches nearby. Lately, tribal members have been having a difficult time using the gate, one of three on the nation, because a private landowner in Mexico wants to keep it closed.
“Our people existed in Mexico and here long before there was a border here,” Francisco Jose said, driving on a dirt road that parallels the boundary. “Things have changed.”
The younger Jose has publicly stated that the government will build a wall “over my dead body.”
His remarks may have emboldened some his constituents. After attending a recent meeting about the wall for members in Sells, the reservation’s administrative center, Manny Martinez said he and his kin would be ready to protest.
“They think that can easily come in here and start construction on this physical wall, but they don’t know the resistance that would be waiting for them,” he said.
BORDER PATROL ARRESTS
2000 – 1.6 million
2016 – 408,870
Tucson Sector (including the Tohono O’odham Nation)
2000 – 616,346
2016 – 64,891
*Fiscal year, Oct. 1-Sept. 30
The Coalición de Derechos Humanos, a Tucson-based human rights organization, documented 3,052 migrant deaths from 2000-2015 in Arizona, primarily Pima County. A significant number of bodies were recovered on the reservation.