Tribal Border Alliance Calls For Better Access to Native Lands

(CN) – Tribal leaders representing indigenous people who live along the United States borders wrapped up their two-day summit with a virtual press conference on Monday to announce progress in working to ensure unfettered access to tribal lands and cultures to their members on both sides of the border.

Both Arizona based Pascua Yaqui Tribe and Tohono O’odham Nation joined with the National Congress of American Indians to welcome tribal leaders and their designees to the 2019 Tribal Border Summit in Tucson to discuss their shared challenges.

The summit agenda focused on issues central to tribal citizen border crossings, including inspections of religious and cultural artifacts and the border impacts on language culture and resources and traditional customs.

Despite the government shutdown cancelling the attendance of officials from Department of Homeland Security and congressional representatives in districts with tribal border issues, according to Bailey Wood of the Tribal Border Alliance, representatives of more than 25 tribes continued their planned panel discussions with an eye to bring a formal proposal on how to better handle these challenges to Capitol Hill.  

“This is a unique opportunity in history when the [border] debate is front and center,” Francisco Valencia, council member of the Pascua Yaqui Tribe, said.  “Never have we had a better chance to present solutions,” he said, while emphasizing the need to work with federal officials to keep the nation safe while also ensuring access to indigenous people.  

While Congress and the president continue to battle over a border wall, formerly nomadic native people and migrating wildlife are caught between U.S. border policy and access to important lands outside of the country. 

Long before the United States existed, indigenous peoples moved freely from one place to another. Ancestral lands continue to play vital cultural and religious roles in addition to family members homes located on both sides of a border.

Formalized borders and continued construction of a southern border wall threaten to isolate people from these important familial and cultural centers, according to alliance members.

“There must be practical solutions to facilitate border crossings,” Valencia said. “I can count on one hand the elders we have access to. Members of our tribes must have access to one another. We must foster the next generation of elders unimpeded by borders,” he said.

Valencia stressed the loss of countless Native Americans in wars to defend the nation as evidence that tribes also want the safety of lands, water and people and to combat drugs and other unsafe activities from coming into the U.S., but he said he believes this can be done when federal agencies work in coordination with the tribes.

Edward Manuel, chairman of the Tohono O’odham Nation followed Valencia during the virtual press conference by listing several proposed solutions to help achieve the goal of maintaining relations between tribal members on both sides of the border.

Manuel said that a significant part of discussions during the summit focused on the need to work with federal officials to better facilitate border crossings. He pointed to a lack of standardized training among border agents and crossing locations as the cause of harassment of tribal members by agents. He also cited a particularly egregious incident when a historic and culturally significant tribal mask was torn apart by a poorly trained and insensitive agent while conducting a search for illegally smuggled substances.

“Regularly scheduled dialogue and annual Native American specific training will alleviate the lack of understanding and help protect artifacts,” Manuel said.  “Most border patrol agents I work with welcome this training. We want to work with feds to develop this program to better understand border crossing rights and create a respectful approach that is important for handling of native medicines, food and artifacts.”

Manuel said there are many informal relationships in place at border crossings where agents and tribal leaders work together, but going forward it is important to formalize in writing consistent practices that all points of entry practice.

Among the proposals are indigenous-only visas for temporary entrance to participate in cultural events and trained travel liaisons at entry points to insure respect to elders and assist with language translations for elders who speak in their native tongue.

Members of the Tribal Border Alliance plan to add to their discussion and finalize a draft proposal at scheduled meetings at the National Congress of the American Indians in mid-February in Washington, DC.

At that time they hope to take this proposal to Capitol Hill to secure commitment to recommendations as well as federal funding for training programs with Department of Homeland Security and others.

“If we work together, we can meet the needs of our tribal members and secure the safety of our nation,” Manual said. “The struggle is difficult but worth fighting for.”

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