Crossing The Line

Native Americans Find Their Homeland Split By The U.S. Mexico Border

By Tim Vanderpool

NOT EVEN A groaning air conditioner pierces the irony, thick as several angry centuries' worth of dust and hanging over this Saturday morning parley in the shadows of Father Kino's mission. Around a mishmash of tables filling a cavernous room, the handful of desert people are hashing out their fate born of Spanish incursion, nurtured by Manifest Destiny, and recently reinforced by a Washington bureaucrat's pen.

Mostly Tohono O'odham and Yaquis, they've come hoping to soften an increasingly brittle border line, capriciously strung through their world 100 years back, and then called a fact.

For ensuing decades they have existed in quasi-sovereignty, more or less ignoring bi-national realities. But now, for these inhabitants of ancestral homelands stretching from Tucson's southern flanks deep into the Sonoran hillsides, spasmodic border crackdowns have metamorphosed into ongoing threats to their timeless migratory habits.

Currents The latest law-and-order boom, arriving in the form of swarming U.S. Border Patrol, Immigration and Naturalization Service and Customs agents--essentially an army of new faces ignorant of the region's ancient ways--is causing big complications.

And lately, the stories have become particularly troubling. A group of O'odham, traveling from their Mexican homes for medical help here on the Tohono O'odham Reservation, services accorded them as tribal members, are summarily stopped at the Lukeville crossing. They are marooned for hours. Some are turned back. Their driver, a tribal employee, is accused by INS officials of transporting illegals. She is harassed and nearly jailed.

An old Yaqui man, journeying from Sonora to Tucson's Pascua Yaqui Reservation for a religious holiday, is stopped at the Nogales port-of-entry. His paltry documents are seized, and relatives spend two days in a frontera motel struggling to get him across.

Such hassles have prompted this August meeting, officially called the First Border Indigenous Nations Strategy and Consultation on U.S./Mexico Cross-Border Problems.

"All indigenous people in Mexico are technically Mexican nationals," says José Matus, traditional leader of the Pascua Yaquis. "But tell that to a Yaqui or an O'odham, and they'll say, 'No, first I'm an Indian.'"

Matus rubs a brow beneath his black cowboy hat, and digs a thin thumb into his pocket. "That's the big issue here," he says. "As Indian people, we should have the right to come across. We shouldn't have to meet all the INS requirements."

Across the table, Joe Garcia nods in agreement. The round-faced, soft-spoken owner of Tucson's La Indita Restaurant and lieutenant governor of the O'odham in Mexico, says tribes should simply be recognized as single entities, regardless of what national turf they've landed on.

"We've suffered enough in the last 500 years," he says. "I think we have the right to move about as we please. Originally, this all was considered our country anyway."

The conferees cite a bellwether 1989 document, issued in Geneva by the International Labor Organization and referred to as ILO 169, as granting them free range. The agreement refers to indigenous peoples who inhabit areas "at the time of conquest or colonisation [sic], or the establishment of present state boundaries," and aims to protect them by "promoting the full realisation [sic] of the social, economic and cultural rights of these peoples with respect for their social and cultural identity, their customs and traditions and their institutions."

That's just one of many potential levers these folks have gleaned from ILO 169, an agreement Matus says the United States has consistently refused to sign.

Though Mexico is a signee, the situation of native people in that country is no better. Nine O'odham villages are huddled near the border in Sonora. Due to years of officially sanctioned encroachment by Mexican cattle ranchers, their land base has shrunk to less than 2,000 acres.

Yaquis in Mexico have faced the same threat, albeit with a different twist: Fierce warriors, they fought endless Mexican assaults from their mountain strongholds, and many escaped to sanctuary in Arizona. Today they exist in a scattering of settlements on the outskirts of Phoenix and Tucson. Some Yaquis also continue inhabiting their legendary eight pueblos along Sonora's Rio Yaqui, though their property is also under increasing threat.

Despite this contentious cross-border history, U.S. officials treat both indigenous groups south of the line simply as Mexican nationals. Nor are the two tribes alone in their plight. The Kickapoos of the Texas region, and the Cocopahs and Hia-Ced O'odham farther west, all face similar struggles.

Of them all, the Kickapoos alone have pulled something of a caveat, dating back to a complex 19th-century agreement reached with the U.S. Army. The upshot is that today their tribal identification card allows them to go back and forth nearly unfettered between countries, a status the other tribes now covet.

To date, however, there is no special status given to Native Americans along Arizona's international line, says INS spokesman Russell Ahr. "But we need to distinguish between two types of tribal members. If they're born in the U.S., they can declare it when they come across. They would need a passport, non-immigrant visa or a border crossing card."

Tribal members in Mexico don't have the same luxury, he says, adding that exceptions have been made only in "extraordinary circumstances," such as when a spiritual leader comes north to attend religious ceremonies.

Border Patrol spokesman Rob Daniels is more blunt, reflecting the cockiness of an agency enjoying a budgetary explosion. Tribal members are given "no special consideration," he says. "The best policy is a uniform policy."

At the same time, he says the Border Patrol resents tribes choosing to contact newspapers rather than directly airing their gripes with officials from his agency. And he accuses Matus, who also heads the border rights group Derechos Humanos, of "trespassing" on agency property a few months ago after misrepresenting himself as a member of the media.

At the time, Matus was filming Border Patrol activities for a documentary called Unity Crosses Borders. Part of that video consists of tailing Border Patrol agents as they detained suspected aliens.

"They just want to create a firestorm," Daniels says. "It's not something that's unable to be resolved in other ways."

Still, any such resolution will have to be reached at the congressional level. Maura Saavedra, spokeswoman for Rep. Ed Pastor, says her office has discussed the issue with O'odham representatives. "We've inquired about it," she says. "Right now we're waiting for the O'odham to get back to us."

Back at the morning meeting, former O'odham Tribal Council member Mike Flores remains skeptical of any quick fix. "We've seen how state and federal governments are adding to the problem by keeping people from traveling where they want to," he says. "I don't think governments see how global policies affect us right here in this community. Really, we're in a war just to carry on our life ways." TW

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