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The Tohono O’odham Nation: A Case for Sovereignty

Wednesday, March 23, 2016 21:50
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The border that separates the United States and Mexico has been the cause of many controversies and constant violence. When a wall of separation is created to notify where a certain territory begins and ends, whether they oppose each other or not, there are bound to be complications. One group that is literally in the middle of this border dispute is the Tohono O’odham, a native group who’s territory lies right on the border splitting Mexico and the United States; in other words, part of their territory lies within each country. Being part of two countries with their own set of laws results in friction with the codes and laws of the Tohono O’odham Nation, or any other tribal nation for that matter.

When thinking about the origins of Native Americans, it is not only to think about their roots, considering where they came from and how they inhabited the land that they did, but to remember that before there was ever a United States of America, there were already people inhabiting this land. They called this land there’s while settling and creating societies based upon their indigenous traditions. The people known as “Indians” were not of one, stereotypical group, but came from many cultures and spread all throughout the Americas. The Tohono O’odham, or the Desert People, lived in parts that now lie in both Mexico and the United States for over a thousand years. Linked with the Sonoran Desert, the Tohono adapted well to their land, setting up systems of farming and developing complex water systems for storage. They inhabited a vast area in the southwest, including Sonora, Mexico, Central Arizona, west of the Gulf of California, and east of the San Pedro River.

Since the early eighteenth century, Tohono territory has been occupied by foreign governments, being ruled by Mexico after their independence from Spain. The Treaty of Hidalgo was supposed to end the Mexican-American War in 1848, but clashes still pursued. This, however, did not change the condition of the Tohono under Mexican rule. “The Mexican Government demanded monetary compensation for Native American attacks in the region because, under the Treaty, the United States had agreed to protect Mexico from such attacks; however, the United States refused to comply, insisting that while they had agreed to protect Mexico from Native American attacks, they had not agreed to financially compensate for attacks that did occur.” Through the Gadsden Purchase of 1853, the Tohono territory was split almost in half between Mexico and the United States, becoming virtually one nation in two. The Purchase, finalized in 1854, allowed for the United States government to buy a 29,670 square mile portion of Mexico for $10 million, becoming New Mexico and Arizona.

The territory is currently split into four parts; the Tohono O’odham Nation (in Arizona), the Gila River Indian Community, the Akchin Indian Community, and the Prima Maricopa Indian Community. Although each section still speaks the O’odham language, they are said to have different dialects due to their separation. At first, the Tohono were not even aware that their land had been sold and border laws were not strictly enforced, members being able to cross freely over what could be considered an artificial border. That being said, this whole issue did not impact the people nearly as much as it does today, mainly due to tough immigration and drug enforcement. After overall enforcement toughened on the border in 1994, this particular area became a prime location for smuggling undocumented immigrants and drugs, forcing the border patrol to heavily guard this area; in other words, enforce more militarization.

Although the Tohono territory is fairly large with a lot of historic aspects, the Tohono O’odham Nation will be a primary topic of discussion due to its classification as a reservation set up by the United States government. There are four separate parts of the Nation, including the “main” reservation, Florence Village, San Xavier, and San Lucy. The reservation houses the government of the Tohono O’odham Nation: the Executive, Legislative, and Judicial, modeled after the US government, of course. It is also home their government programs, recreation centers, a health center, and Head Start preschools. The Nation is responsible for economic development and general welfare of their members. The most important practice that sustains the Nation is small business within the private sector. They also have a Credit and Finance program that enables them to start and expand their businesses. Although members try to make it where they can with what little they are given, in terms of money and ability, the heavy militarization surrounding this community has made it much more difficult. This is due to the crossing of undocumented persons illegal drug trade which, although separate subjects, go hand-in-hand with the subjugation of this territory.

Due to the Tohono territory’s position of expanding within two countries, it has been known to become a prime spot for the movement of people across the border. On account of this discovery, increased Border Patrol has made it much more difficult for immigrants to cross over without going through claimed territory, especially the Tohono O’odham Nation. “Stricter national security increasingly causes migrants to cross through the reservation, which attracts various actors onto the nation’s land, consequentially altering O’odham way of life as well as O’odham attitudes towards undocumented immigrants.” This move makes it much harder for members to carry-on with their daily lives of travel and conducting business. It was hard enough to do so outside of the reservation, they now face the same problem within their own community.

Bodies from people crossing over became a common sight for the reservation, a record 473 people dying from their journey from Mexico, 144 of them found along the border of Arizona, including the reservation. Even though many Americans, and possibly Native Americans, see illegal immigration very negatively, it is important to remember that these immigrants are escaping poverty, structural violence, and marginalization; these are the same issues that Natives in the past and presently on reservations are faced with due to the US government’s practices within and outside of the United States.

Part of a quote that comes to mind when venturing into this next subject presents a simple yet bold from Voltairine de Cleyre, “…The desperate act desperately.” It is widely known that when poverty strikes, people will do almost anything to keep themselves and their loved ones alive, even if that involves delving into something as dangerous as the illegal drug trade. The crossing of undocumented immigrants also makes a chaotic environment for drug smugglers to cross over, the Border Patrol doubling down on its enforcement, creating another reason why Nation members have mixed feelings about illegal immigration in general. Members themselves have been known to get involved with such activity, with climbing drug seizures on the reservation. Members, like their counterparts on the other side of the border, have taken to desperate measures in order to survive. In one year, the Border Patrol seized more than 130,000 pounds of marijuana on the reservation. “The $18.5 billion spent each year on border security has led to a decrease in the flow of border crossers and an increase in drug seizures — all of which is the result of more manpower, better technology and constant adjustments to every smuggling technique imaginable.” Despite this fact, the illegal drug trade fuels violence wherever it happens to take place, leaving Nation members in the cross-hairs from both sides of the border.

All of these subjects, territory, borders, commerce, poverty, and travel, lead up to one term that means either something or nothing when it comes to the rights of people and their land: sovereignty. A few meanings of sovereignty include “a country’s independent authority and the right to govern itself” and “freedom from external control.” According to the Tohono O’odham Nation’s website, they consider themselves a “sovereign nation.” This might be an opinionated view, but when your reservation is set up by the US government and, as it looks, US authorities are given free range to do as they please on it, including militarizing the border, are they truly sovereign? When history shows that the United States, as well as Mexican, government has continuously plundered Native Americans and stolen their land, is it possible to set up a “sovereign” community or nation within a country that has its own set of rules and may or may not recognize another’s?

The Nation’s position, and every other Indian reservation, has made it very difficult for them to go about with living their lives due to excess laws, the United States’ and their own, and the enforcement of those laws. Many people may not realize that the more laws there are, the more restrictions that apply to many things, including travel and commerce. The more restrictions there are on these types of things, the more impoverished and marginalized people become. When people lose the privilege of conducting trade, business, and travel, their sovereignty goes along with it, putting them in desperate positions to make a living; which is exactly why people cross the border to find what they can, whether it is low-wage work with no protections or the illegal drug trade.

The first step into solving the issues brought upon by these measures is to recognize that people and groups should be aloud to freely decide where and how they want to live. If this move toward progress is never realized by those with or without positions of power, the problems of poverty and violence will certainly continue. Sovereignty is not just about allowing communities to govern themselves separately from any outside interference, but of individuals within those communities and outside of them to live as they see fit, of course without infringing on the sovereignty of others.

It is apparent that, in the end, borders are simply meant to divide people based upon which set of laws governs a certain piece of land. It must have been hard for the Tohono O’odham, and other natives, to lose what rightfully belonged to them from the start. When facing coercive forces, many things must be given up in order to settle a situation and move on. The confusing aspect of being a country within two with different sets of rules is which set really holds true, the ones held in tradition for possibly thousands of years or the ones forced upon you at gun point. History shows that the powers that conquered the Americas through pillage and plunder most likely do not hold the interests of the native people in the highest regard. Whenever and however this problem will be solved must give consideration to the most important aspect in a land full of freedom and sovereignty; that is that no matter the amount of borders and authority lain upon a people and their land without their consent, there will always be a reason to stand up to such forces that dare come up with an excuse to do so.


Hendricks, Tyche. “On the Border.” Tohono-O-odham-the-2558506.php. 3 December 2005. Web 2 February 2016
Merriam-Webster. Web. 2 March 2016
Pitts, Byron and Lieberman, Dan. “In Efforts to Secure US-Mexico Border, Ariz. Native Americans Feel Caught in the Middle.” native-americans/story?id=19496394. 27 June 2013. Web. 8 February 2016
Tohono O’odham Legislative Branch. Web. 2 February 2016
Tohono O’odham Nation. 2014. Web. 2 February 2016
Filzen, Andrea. “Clash on the Border of the Tohono O’odham Nation.” Mexico-Arizona-Native-Americans. 22 February 2013. Web. 20 February 2016
U.S. Department of State. Gadsden Purchase, 1853-1854. 1860/gadsden-purchase. Web. 12 February 2016

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