The Border Crossed Us: The Tohono O’odham Nation’s Divide

Long before there were borders separating countries and even before Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492, indigenous people inhabited the Americas for thousands of years. These people were eventually divided by the creation of countries through European conquest.

Growing up and living in the U.S., I became intrigued by the differences between native people in the U.S. versus those in Mexico. Here, there are reservations, enrolled membership, and sovereign power. In Mexico, none of this exist for native communities. They inhabit certain areas and may receive federal aid from the government. One commonality that is hard to ignore is that all of these communities lived on these lands, without borders, more than 500 years ago and for thousands of years prior to that. One of these communities was the Tohono O’odham Nation, who’s homeland the Sonora Desert is caught between two countries with two distinct histories.[1] Today, they are fighting to keep from being divided on their own homeland and keep their people together as they have always been.

San Miguel Gate

The Tohono O’odham’s land base was known as Papagueria, an enormous area of land in the southwest that extends south to Sonora, Mexico, north to Central Arizona (north of Phoenix), west to the Gulf of California, and east to the San Pedro River.[2] As a result, the nation has the second largest holding of Native American land in the United States. Historically, the tribe was occupied by different foreign governments. Likely under Spanish rule after the conquistadors came over, then after the Independence of the Republic of Mexico, under Mexican rule.[3] In 1853, through the Gadsden Purchase or Treaty of La Mesilla, their land was divided between the U.S. and Mexico; each under the control of whatever country they were divided into.[4] To this day, many tribal members have family members on both sides of the border, with about 2,000 of the tribe’s 34,000 members living in Sonora, Mexico.[5] Mexican Tohono O’odham members travel through the San Miguel Gate, which allows them to get to Arizona and visited their family members, attend traditional tribal ceremonies, meet with the tribal council, or obtain access to medical services. This crossing has been an informal arrangement between the tribe and the U.S. government so that tribal members can remain together. The problems of being between two countries, however, persist.

As xenophobia becomes more apparent and rampant, especially with this administration, the negative effects of being on the Mexican side are clear. The anti-immigrant agenda of the Trump administration has called for measures to prevent more immigrants from crossing the border, one of these is the infamous wall he promised during this presidential campaign. A wall that would cross the Tohono O’odham land and would likely permanently divide its members. As a result, the tribe has been vocal about its opposition to the wall and promised to fight it at all costs. Many people are not aware that this anti-immigrant resentment, ironically, has directly affected native communities such as the Tohono O’odham.

All Tohono O’odham tribal members are U.S. citizens who can cross onto both sides of the reservation. But since Sept. 11th and an influx of people from the south, the Tohono O’odham are restricted to one entry point on the reservation or U.S. ports of entry hours away.[6] As a result, countless members have been detained and deported by U.S. Border Patrol over the years.[7] Many would think that is this not possible since they are in effect U.S. citizens. However, the racism is hard to ignore with many members being dark-skinned and having Spanish surnames; thereby, appearing as the type of person Border Patrol is trained to be on the lookout for and keep from entering the country.

While these members simply wish to travel through their own traditional lands, the federal government ignores this concern and instead argues that they are doing what is best for the country. It is clear, however, that what is best for these Natives is not included in this rhetoric. This is a sentiment that is felt by the Tohono O’odham who are not willing to back down and be ignored by the U.S. government regarding this important matter.

“Over my dead body will we build a wall,” Verlon Jose, vice chairman of the Tohono O’odham Nation expressed. “It’s like me going into your home and saying ‘You know what? I believe in order to protect your house we need some adjusting.’ And you’re going to say, ‘Wait a minute, who are you to come into my house and tell me how to protect my home?’ “ he says.[8] His words very much illustrate what has been happening since the Europeans arrived and forced natives off their lands. The U.S. government has had little trouble taking lands from other nations, but also has a history of not wanting to deal with the inhabitants that come with the territory. Prime examples of this are the Treaty of Guadalupe and the Mexicans living on those territories acquired by the U.S. and the status of the inhabitants of Puerto Rico since the U.S. took control of the island. Basically saying, “we want your land, we just don’t want your people.”

While the U.S. has recognized Indian sovereign power over the last century, the fight for many tribes, such as the Tohono O’odham for legitimate recognition as a sovereign state is not over. As history has shown, this sovereignty comes with a significant limitation: Congress. As professor of the University of Arizona’s Indigenous Peoples Law and Policy Program Rob Williams stated, “Congress can basically condemn Indian land as long as it pays fair market value.”[9] “Any tribe that would seek to resist — particularly congressional legislation that would take that land or appropriate that land for a wall, for example — would have very few avenues opened to it.”[10]

Because of this, tension between the tribe has risen to the point that the Mexican Tohono O’odham tribal members feel that the tribal council in the U.S. is not doing enough to protect them against this threat.[11] They feel that the tribal council is too worried about pushing the U.S. government too far and as a result they will lose federal funds.[12] It is interesting to see the dynamic of a tribe divided by the border. Whereas the tribal members in Mexico seem more worried about losing the ability to travel freely on their ancestral lands which span both countries, the U.S. tribal members seem more concerned with not losing their sovereignty. Each concern is valid. The tribe already feels like an outsider in the U.S. given the history of colonization and native genocide. Those living in Mexico feel even more marginalized since they not just traveling through their ancestral land, but “officially” travelling from Mexico to U.S. land. It is of little importance that their ancestors lived here long before the formation of these countries, what matters is that part of it is in the U.S. and therefore the government and administration’s interests trump those of the native people; no pun intended. Their interest right now is to keep immigrants out and if that means dividing the tribe, so be it. To the government, these tribal members are essentially unwanted immigrants even though they have been here before any border was created.

As Chairman Ned Norris Jr. stated: “[The Tohono O’odham] are older than the international boundary with Mexico and [they] had no role in creating the border.”[13] But even after hundreds of years, this border still affects every part of their daily lives. The reality of it is that the border is just another symbol of the effects of colonization and the effort of the European missionaries and conquests to annihilate those already living on this continent. It’s another way of saying that as long as you are not white, you are not American, and therefore you cannot possibly be from this country. It is just another way to ignore the fact that people were already here before Christopher Columbus got lost at sea and “discovered” America.

The Tohono O’odham, especially those on the Mexican side, are a prime example of the perception of native folks being foreigners in their own land. Discrimination and marginalization are still prevalent towards native folks who seek protect their land. Land that is theirs in name, is actually only conditionally theirs until the government decides that they are a nuisance to their interest. Thereby, belittling their ability to self-govern and further pushing the agenda that colonizers sought to accomplish of manifest destiny. While the Tohono O’odham struggles to stay united on both sides of the border, their division makes it easier for the government to push whatever plans they have for the border. Dividing a nation’s citizens is just one tactic that traditionally has been used to overtake territory without much resistance. In this case, it could very well be the downfall of this tribal nation.

Even though this issue touches on many different issues that affect the livelihood of this community, I don’t think it is a coincidence that it is not portrayed in the media very much. To highlight the magnitude of what is going on with the Tohono O’odham is to have to confront the past of America most do not want to confront or even acknowledge. A history of genocide, oppression, racism, and taking of lands that are the building blocks and foundations of not just the U.S., but all of the Americas. Presently, I find no clear solution to the dilemmas that the Tohono O’odham face being a nation within two nations and in the crossfire of this current administration. What I do hope to achieve, however, is have others be aware that the fight for tribes to reclaim their homeland continues more than 500 years after it started. The consequences of hundreds of years of second-class citizen treatment and discrimination are still heavily felt to this day and play a huge role in the way indigenous people fight for their rights; rights that are at the mercy of whatever government is in power.

Still, there is hope. Within the dark past native folks have faced, they have fought fiercely and won victories that have allowed them to preserve their culture and traditions for generations to come. They have fought against the perception of being an outsider or foreigner in their own land for centuries and continue to do so for the future of their tribes. That tenaciousness can be seen with many members of the Tohono O’odham today as they refuse to allow the border to keep them apart no matter the obstacles they must face. An example of this is seen with tribal member Ofelia Rivas, who wears a green bracelet with the word “autonomía,” braided on it, reminding the tribe that they are autonomous.[14] As she puts it:

“’We are connected to our homelands, whether it’s in Mexico or in the United States. That’s where we have our sacred burials, our ceremonies, our communities. No border is going to wipe that away.’”[15]

[1] Tohono O’odham History, Tohono O’odham Nation, (last visited May 4, 2018).

[2] History and Culture, Tohono O’odham Nation, (last visited May 4, 2018).

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] Dianna M. Náñez, A border tribe, and the wall that will divide it, USA Today (2017),!.

[6] Border Wall Would Cut Across Land Sacred To Native Tribe, Nat’l Pub. Radio, (last visited May 4, 2018).

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] Náñez, supra note 5.

[12] Id.

[13] Perla Trevizo, Beyond The Wall: Border fence cuts Tohono O’odham Nation in half, Tuscan (Jul. 11, 2016),

[14] Id.

[15] Id.