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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


February 7, 2004 - Issue 106


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Treaty Separated O'odham

by Jennifer Sterba - ARIZONA DAILY STAR

Border security policies, land encroachment in Mexico create tribal hardships

Ignored in the negotiations of the Gadsden Purchase were the people who had lived here longest - the Tohono O'odham.

The border created by the 1854 treaty divided the Indian nation, and efforts to secure that border separate its members, even its families.

Bills introduced by Arizona Congressmen Ed Pastor in 2001 and Raúl Grijalva in 2003 would have granted citizenship to thousands of Tohono O'odham living on both sides of the border. The bill would make tribal membership papers the equivalent of certificates of citizenship or state-issued birth certificates.

Neither bill made it to a hearing.

"What we're doing at this point is building a stronger case before we go back and reintroduce the bill," said Vivian Juan-Saunders, chairwoman of the Tohono O'odham Nation.

Believed to be among the oldest inhabitants of Southern Arizona, about 11,000 Tohono O'odham live on 4,453 square miles southwest of Tucson. Sells is the capital of the reservation. The community extends 90 miles south of the U.S. border. But the Mexican government does not recognize a separate O'odham community or reservation inside its boundaries.

"Encroachment of the O'odham lands in Mexico is a major concern right now," Juan-Saunders said. "Even at the time of the Gadsden Purchase, several of our people moved north because of the encroachment - because of the lack of protection of their land in Mexico."

Without the Gadsden Purchase, all the nation's lands would have been in Mexico and vulnerable.

An 1854 report by U.S. border commissioner and surveyor William H. Emory indicated a delegation of O'odham visited the survey team and inquired how the Gadsden Purchase would impact their community's land rights. Emory assured the delegation and put it in writing that the O'odham would have the same land rights afforded to them by Mexico.

By 1887, the Anglo farmers were diverting water off the Gila River for their own crop irrigation. That soon left the O'odham crops decimated.

By 1895, the U.S. government was rationing water to the O'odham, and the cultivators of 15,000 acres in 1859 were able to farm only 3,800 acres.

Once free to cross the border on their own land, the O'odham now must cross at Lukeville or Nogales.

"They've mandated that our people go through the official ports of entry," Juan Saunders said. The homeland security issues today "put us in the unique situation that now we must not only be concerned about the politics of the Tohono O'odham Nation, but also the U.S. and Mexico."

As a result of the border policy and the O'odham's lack of official birth records, O'odham who were born on the U.S. side but now reside in Mexico or born in Mexico to American parents cannot always prove their U.S. citizenship. Some O'odham living in Mexico can't visit family or community ceremonies on the U.S. side.

Juan-Saunders said Grijalva's office is continuing to gather more support for a renewed attempt to gain O'odham citizenship. The O'odham also will hire a lobbying group to look after their interests in Washington, D.C., she said.

"All we're asking for is a seat at the table with the new immigration laws that are being proposed," Juan-Saunders said. "The influx of illegal activity coming across the border is a result of our not being involved in those discussions."

Tohono O'odham Indian Reservation, AZ Map

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