Saturday July 24, 2001

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Tohono O’odham and Yaqui: “No More Walls
07/20/2004 - SAN XAVIER AZ

by Brenda Norrell

Tohono O’odham and Yaqui leaders told a United Nations representative that a proposed wall along the international border on O’odham ancestral land would bring further misery to indigenous peoples already suffering from the militarization of the border.

“They are planning to seal the border”, said Tohono O’odham Ophelia Rivas, organizer of the O’odham Voice Against the Wall Project, opposing a wall planned for construction through O’odham lands on the international border.

“We do not want this wall”, Rivas said at the Tohono O’odham elders center, as she welcomed Liberato C. Bautista, representative to the United Nations of the General Board of the Church and Society of the United Methodist Church.

Bautista, Filipino, said he came to support the struggle for self-determination and preservation of traditional ways. He said indigenous people have not been recognized by the nation states of the United Nations.

“We are issues, not yet people at the United Nations.”

O’odham from Mexico, Lt. Gov. Jose Garcia and Jose Matus, Yaqui ceremonial leader and border rights activist, said the Patriot Act and Homeland Security have increased the militarization of the border and made it more difficult for indigenous to cross the border to conduct ceremonies and for family reasons.

Matus said, “After 9/11, we had to deal with Homeland Security, the Patriot Act, the fight against terrorism and the fight against undocumented immigrants. On top of all this, we were affected by NAFTA and globalization.

“NAFTA displaced workers and shut down mom and pop operations.”

In Mexico, indigenous elders are concerned that young people are losing interest in their communities because they are forced to go to the United States to work to survive.

Then, they face the vigilantes, death in the desert and abuses by the Border Patrol.

Matus, director of the Indigenous Alliance Without Borders, said the border separates Kumeyaay, Cocopah, Gila River O’otham, Yavapai-Apache, Tohono O’odham, Pascua Yaqui and Kickapoo, from California to Texas from their relatives in Mexico.

Matus said when he attempts to bring ceremonial leaders from Rio Yaqui, Sonora, into Arizona, they are often halted because they lack birth certificates and other documents for visas. Many are self-employed and sell firewood or herd cattle.

When Matus attempted to cross the border at Juarez, Mexico, into El Paso, Texas, with a group of Raramuri (Tarahumara) they were halted by U.S. immigration officials. “The interviewer made the people sing and dance. You talk about humiliating, you talk about a lack of respect for our indigenous people”, Matus said.

O’odham Lt. Gov. Jose Garcia met with O’odham in four communities in Sonora, Mexico in July. “Their objection to the fence is it would cut off traditional routes. And they have not been consulted about building the fence.”

Garcia said people in Mexico need the government to create jobs so they do not have to cross the border to survive. “They are looking for sustenance for their families. The government in Mexico should develop work projects for the people, so the money that circulates from the businesses remains in Mexico.”

Garcia said his people are losing their land because of encroachment by squatters, ranchers, mining companies and cattle companies. He urged O’odham to develop better communications with the government of Mexico. Currently, when O’odham go to Mexico for help, they are told to go to their relatives in Arizona, the Tohono O’odham Nation. Then, when they ask for help in Arizona, they are told they are citizens of Mexico and to ask the government of Mexico for help.

“We are serious in asking for support to regain our lands lost to our people”, Garcia said.

Henry Ramon, former vice chairman of the Tohono O’odham Nation, said communications must be improved. “We have never had a part in making decisions. The people impacted have to have their say. We are right in the backyard of the United States and we are having these problems. It is sad.”

Ophelia Rivas said Tohono O’odham elders and community members organized the “O’odham Voice Against the Wall”. They raised their own funds to travel to the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues at the United Nations in New York in May.

“We want the international community to understand and hear us. We are still here and struggling to survive in our communities. We brought this international ear to hear what we have to say.”

The proposed Mexico-Arizona Border Fencing Project stretches 330 miles across the entire Arizona-Mexico border. If completed, the wall would include 74 miles of O’odham lands, which would be viewed by 145 remote surveillance cameras.

The first wall of railroad steel rails and steel sheets will have 400 high-security floodlights, lit 24 hours a day. A secondary wall will be of high-grade fencing material with razor-edged coils on top. In between the walls, U.S. military will build a paved road occupied by Homeland Security armed forces.

The U.S. Border Patrol points out that in Arizona, it will be bigger than the Berlin Wall.

Rivas said human rights abuses of indigenous along the border are at a crisis level. On June 5, an O’odham grandmother, mother and her son were threatened at gunpoint by two Border Patrol agents a mile north of the international border. They were traveling on a traditional route.

“They were told if they returned via the same route, ground and air forces would be called to detain and deport them.”

Rivas said O’odham have the inherent right to travel freely and safely through their traditional routes in O’odham territory. These rights are protected by the American Indian Religious Freedom Act and recognized by the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Declaration of Human Rights for Indigenous Peoples.

Brenda Norrell is a staff writer for Indian Country Today
and a Contributing Editor for the U.N. OBSERVER & International Report.

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