According to the Native American Environmental Protection Coalition (NAEPC), there are thirty Indigenous communities straddling the international boundary that divides the United Mexican States (Mexico) and the United States of America (USA). Most of these are on the US side, organized into reservations, which are self-governing under federal law. On the Mexican side, Indigenous communities inhabit ejidos, communally held lands, which are not organized into reservations. The US-Mexico border, which stretches 1,954 miles, was created after a two-year war, resulting in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (1848). Article V, moreover, stipulates the boundary from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico. In 1854, the southern boundary of New Mexico Territory, including Arizona, expanded with the Gadsden Purchase. Yet, where were Indigenous people when these lines were drawn? Indians are mentioned five times in the 1848 treaty (Articles X and XI), but not with regard to their political status in the annexed American territory. In fact, they were not even signatories. Consequently, Indigenous peoples today remain in the shadows of US-Mexican relations. This needs to change.
Julian Lim, in Porous Borders (2017), observes that “Indian policy and immigration policy… [are] interwoven, and the history of indigenous erasure from the borderlands is central to the history of industrialization and immigration in the borderlands.” In Unsettled Borders (2022), Felicity Amaya-Schaeffer admits a “glaring absence” in her work as a Xicana/Latinx scholar working in the field of “immigration and decolonial border issues,” in which, with few exceptions, scholars have “failed to consider the struggles of Native Americans against the state’s occupation of their land.” Consequently, Amaya-Schaeffer argues for centering Indigenous struggles in the discourse on the “ongoing settler colonial dispossession of Indigenous peoples and migrant-refugees” across the Transborder region.
But what rights do Indigenous nations retain in the aftermath of a history of conquest and colonization? What can we gain from critiquing Indigenous erasure and centering Indigenous struggles? From an Indigenous perspective, there is no border, meaning that the international boundary is seen for what it is: a colonial fiction. For the O’odham communities, whose jeved, or homeland, extends from the Akimel (Gila River) to Ge’e Shuhthagi (Puerto Peñasco), there is only the land that Jeved Makai, Earth Medicine Maker, created, on which I’itoi, Elder Brother, taught us our Himdag, our way of doing things. During the Trump Administration, the president utilized the provisions of the Real ID Act (2005) to expedite the construction of a reinforced barrier along the US side of the international line. Tohono O’odham led the opposition to the federally-mandated destruction of sites that held irreplaceable historical and cultural value. Tragically, Monument Hill, a part of Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument (ORPI) that is home to the remains of those who fought in historic battles between O’odham and Indé (Apache) warriors, was destroyed. A legal act with immoral consequences.
The entire width of ORPI was accorded a state-of-emergency exemption from an environmental impact study (EIS), absolving the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), moreover, from consulting with the Tohono O’odham Nation. Consistently, the DHS has turned a deaf ear to O’odham concerns about not just Monument Hill, but also A’al Waippia, Little Springs, also known as Quitobaquito Wells, both of which sit on National Park Service (NPS) land. A’al Waippia is especially sacred to the Hia Ced O’odham, whose ancestral homeland covers all of Organ Pipe, in addition to Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Reserve (CPNMR) and Barry M Goldwater Gunnery Range (BMGR). However, none of this land is set aside as a Hia Ced O’odham reservation. On the Mexican side, small-scale O’odham ejidos, with negligible political power, exist in Sonoyta and Quitovac. Fortunately, the Hia Ced O’odham got some attention from Congressman Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ), along with Tohono O’odham Nation leaders Edward Manuel and Verlon Jose. Nonetheless, the DHS has operated on the assumption that they were exempted from federal regulations requiring tribal consultation, let alone accommodating a non-federally acknowledged community. So, then, why does federal acknowledgment status matter?
When one looks at the list of federally acknowledged tribes on the US Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) web page, visitors find a state-by-state roster that is also viewable at the Federal Register, the US National Archives and Records Administration’s (NARA) daily journal. Arizona’s twenty-two federally-acknowledged reservations include four O’odham: Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, Gila River Indian Community, Ak Chin Indian Community, and Tohono O’odham Nation. Two of these, Salt River and Gila River, are shared with Piipaash (Maricopa), who are historically close allies. Hia Ced O’odham and Sobaipuri O’odham do not have reservations. The difference between federally acknowledged and non-acknowledged is significant when it comes to accessing rights and resources within the US federal system. A reservation, whether created by treaty or executive order, designates that land as “Indian country.” By definition, Indian country means:
(a) all land within the limits of any Indian reservation under the jurisdiction of the United States Government, notwithstanding the issuance of any patent, and, including rights-of-way running through the reservation, (b) all dependent Indian communities within the borders of the United States whether within the original or subsequently acquired territory thereof, and whether within or without the limits of a state, and (c) all Indian allotments, the Indian titles to which have not been extinguished, including rights-of-way running through the same.
In turn, a reservation can organize for self-governance, in which the organization charged with managing an “Indian tribe’s” affairs has the authority to administer “justice or plans to administer justice under its inherent authority or the authority of the United States and which is recognized as eligible for the special programs and services provided by the United States to Indian tribes because of their status as Indians.”
In the case of the Sobaipuri O’odham, they inhabit San Xavier del Bac, which, although originally established as a distinct reservation in 1874, was made a part of the “Papago Reservation” in 1917, when President Wilson extended the boundaries of the “Papago” territory to include the western half of Pima County, from Kitt Peak to Organ Pipe. San Xavier today is one of eleven districts within Tohono O’odham Nation. From the BIA point of view, the Sobaipuri O’odham have always been regarded as Tohono O’odham. Sobaipuri O’odham, to the contrary, know they are a discrete part of the O’odham Jeved, which Deni Seymour has done much to corroborate, such as in Where the Earth and Sky are Sewn Together (2011). With respect to the Hia Ced O’odham, the majority of the contemporary community is also a part of Tohono O’odham Nation; while others are enrolled in the other three O’odham reservations named above. I am enrolled in the Gila River Indian Community. In terms of scholarship, Carl Lumholtz, Bernard Fontana, Gary Nabhan, and myself have done the most to document Hia Ced O’odham culture and history. See, for example, my 2013 article in the Journal of the Southwest, “Hiding in the Shadows of History: Revitalizing Hia-Ced O’odham Peoplehood.”
The point of expositing on federal acknowledgement, reservations, and non-recognized tribes is to point out the bifurcation of homelands and communities into disparate political systems. More exactly, when the US-Mexico border was established, subsequently followed by the creation of reservations—Mexico use the ejido system, addressed below—the integrity of the O’odham Jeved, which, as noted, extends from north of the Gila River down to almost La Ciudad de Hermosillo, was violated. Below the border, there are O’odham communities, but they persist under the Mexican federal system, in which, since 2018, Indian affairs has been managed by the Instituto Nacional de los Pueblos Indígenas (INPI).
According to José Luis Zárate Valdez, the Tohono O’odham (Papágo) and O’ob (Pima Bajo) communities occupy six “municipios,” specifically Altar, Caborca, General Plutarco Elías Calles, Puerto Peñasco, Saric, and Yécora. Among these locations are ejidos, which “means a communal property regime under which the Ejido members individually possess specific parcels and as a group hold common land, which are incorporated through an executive action of the Mexican Federal Government and registered with the Mexican National Agrarian Registry (Registro Agrario Nacional).” An Indian ejido, furthermore, are “village lands communally held in the traditional Indian system of land tenure that combines communal ownership with individual use. The ejido consists of cultivated land, pastureland, other uncultivated lands, and the fundo legal (townsite). In most cases the cultivated land is divided into separate family holdings, which cannot be sold although they can be handed down to heirs.” Consequently, while each ejido is governed by a local council, ayuntamiento, it does not have a nation-to-nation relation to the Mexican federal government as do tribes in the US. Ejidos and the municipios in which they exist politically below states in the Mexican federal system. Having said that, the differences may be more a matter of degree than substantial structural differences. More to the point, Indigenous peoples on both sides of the border are colonized and thereby have to navigate political systems that most often stymy tribal self-determination, as opposed to supporting or empowering it. For example, Indigenous nations on both sides of the border have suffered at the hands of developers, with the support of local and federal governments, taking control of rivers—Colorado, Gila, Salt, Verde, Santa Cruz, Yaqui—not to mention the Gulf of California, for economic gain, leaving tribes to struggle to protect their water rights.
As communities whose lands and tribal members are controlled by the laws and policies under which each community exists (Mexico and the US), the issues confronting the O’odham—not to mention other Indigenous peoples—on both sides of the border are typically dealt with on a regional level, frequently without any regard for how the same issue, such as a border wall or immigration policy, is impacting their cousins on the other side. Consequently, what one does not see often enough is transnational coordination between leaders of Mexican and American Indigenous communities in common cause against border issues. In large part, this is because of a militarized border controlled by a bevy of laws and regulations, especially on the US side, which limits easy access for Indigenous peoples wanting to travel between both sides of the international divide. Indigenous travelers and migrants—including those from other parts of Mexico, such as Oaxaca and Yucatán, and Central America, namely Guatemala and Honduras—are subject to the oversight of Mexican and American federal agencies, in which Indigenous communities have little say over migration policies beyond what is available through the tribal consultation process.
There is also a language and cultural divide between Indigenous communities. While Indigenous border languages, such as O’odham and Yoeme, maintain a substantial number of speakers, the lingua franca is determined by which side of the border one’s community sits: English (US) or Spanish (Mexico). Language declination due to generations of American and Mexican colonialism has affected the levels of Indigenous language fluency that exists across the international line. Still, there is every reason to regard the Transborder region along the US-Mexico border as Indigenous land, complete with peoples that have shared cultures and histories, which ought to be recognized by the international community.
Christina Leza, on behalf of the Indigenous Alliance Without Borders/Alianza Indigena Sin Fronteras, notes that Transborder Indigenous rights are acknowledged in at least three major documents: United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and International Labor Organization (ILO) Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention 169. UNDRIP is emphatic about the right of Indigenous peoples to exist, complete with the fundamental right to self-determination at both the political and cultural levels; moreover, a given people’s participation in the overarching, which is to say colonial, political order should be by choice, not coercion. In which case, as per Article 10, Indigenous peoples “shall not be forcibly removed from their lands or territories. No relocation shall take place without the free, prior and informed consent of the indigenous peoples concerned and after agreement on just and fair compensation and, where possible, with the option of return.” The language in this article is relevant to any community pressured into migrating out of their homelands on the pretense of economic emergency.
The ICCPR statement concurs with UNDRIP on the rights to self-determination, in addition to which, as stated in Article 12, “No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of the right to enter his own country.” The significance of Article 12 to people’s living in homelands divided by the international border should be obvious. In turn, the ILO document asserts the importance of respecting the integrity and cultural values of Indigenous peoples effected by the actions of the nation-states purporting to control land and resources on both sides of the border. In Article 6, it states: “The consultations carried out in application of this Convention shall be undertaken, in good faith and in a form appropriate to the circumstances, with the objective of achieving agreement or consent to the proposed measures.” Toward this end, the ILO document further states, in Article 8: “In applying national laws and regulations to the peoples concerned, due regard shall be had to their customs or customary laws.” Of course, how any of these principles are applied to specific cases, if they are applied at all, is determined on an almost daily basis as developers find new opportunities, populations grow, migration continues unabated, and elected officials and their political parties worry about retaining power. In the end, what needs to be normalized is a regard for Indigenous lands and peoples.
As I am writing this essay, the State of Arizona is on the verge of the 2022 mid-term elections, in which Arizona voters will choose between candidates for the House and Senate, along with a bevy of state offices—most importantly, governor. Candidates for these offices have not shied away from making statements on US-Mexico border politics. In fact, there is clear evidence that candidates committed to the MAGA Republican agenda are using the border, which they portray in their advertisements as an immediate national crisis, to foment fear. They hope to sway voters away from the “open border” policies initiated by the Biden Administration, and blame Arizona Democrats for worsening the situation. But what about Indigenous peoples, the ones whose lands lay along the border, not to mention the ones migrating from southern Mexico and Central America? What if politicians, on both sides of the border, were expected to do something to support the Indigenous communities? My work as an O’odham-Mexican scholar and public intellectual is oriented toward this too frequently overlooked area of border policy.
As of fall semester 2023, I will begin a joint appointment with the School of Transborder Studies (STS) and the American Indian Studies Program (AIS). Recently, I was awarded a small grant from the ASU Office of the Provost to initiate an Institute for Transborder Indigenous Nations (ITIN). Housed in STS, the proposed institute’s goal is to create a community of scholars dedicated to the Indigenous peoples impacted by the US-Mexico border. In addition, as further funding allows, the institute will network with the political and community leaders of Transborder Indigenous nations, including numerous grassroots organizations, as it is their interests and concerns that will guide ITIN’s research agenda. Ideally, a professional association, peer-reviewed journal, and annual conference will complement these efforts. Ultimately, the brain-trust that develops will have an impact on border politics at the local, national, and international level. People in the US and Mexico should not have to wait until a border wall destroys a sacred site or, as recently happened, wait for a politician to disparage an immigrant Indigenous community as “a lot of little, short dark people” who are “so ugly,” before anyone pays attention. Given the immensity of the Transborder region, not to mention the size and diversity of the populations on both sides, it may seem unreasonable to expect many people to know about Indigenous peoples and issues, let alone care. What is not unreasonable is the expectation that our existence, our humanity, not mention our rights, be taken seriously whenever they arise.
David Martínez (Akimel O’odham/Hia Ced O’odham/Mexican), Professor of American Indian Studies, is the author of Dakota Philosopher: Charles Eastman and American Indian Thought (2009), editor of The American Indian Intellectual Tradition: An Anthology of Writings from 1772 to 1972 (2011), author of Life of the Indigenous Mind: Vine Deloria Jr and the Birth of the Red Power Movement (2019), and author of the forthcoming My Heart Is Bound Up With Them: How Carlos Montezuma Became the Voice of a Generation (2023). As a teacher and scholar, his areas of concentration are Indigenous intellectual history; O’odham culture, history, and politics; Transborder Indigenous nations; and, Indigenous art history and aesthetics. Currently, Martínez is working on his fifth book, titled Elder Brother’s Forgotten People: How the Hia Ced O’odham Survived an Epidemic to Claim a Place in Arizona’s Transborder History.