Veronica Sam, a member of the Tohono O’odham nation in Arizona, rests next to a statuette of Saint Francis Javier in Magdalena de Kino, Mexico, on Oct. 4. (Matthew Corbisiero/AP)

For 75 miles, a swath of the Sonoran Desert in Arizona — specked with mountains and tall saguaros — straddles the border with Mexico. It is the Tohono O’odham Nation, a Native American reservation the size of Connecticut that for thousands of years extended south into Sonora, Mexico.

Border Patrol agents and a steel-post fence already make it difficult for the O’odham people to freely cross the border to visit relatives and traditional sacred sites in Mexico. But building a border wall, which President-elect Donald Trump has planned to do, would cement that division even further.

In light of Trump’s presidential win, Tohono O’odham Nation tribal leaders said they would refuse to support building a border wall on their land.

“Over my dead body will a wall be built,” Verlon Jose, the tribe’s vice chairman, said in an interview with local radio station KJZZ. Jose said he invites Trump to visit the reservation to see why a physical border wall would not be a good idea for the tribe or the country.

Without the tribe’s support, Trump could be forced to accept a 75-mile-wide gap in his wall.

Federal law requires the Bureau of Land Management to consult with tribal governments before making any changes to land use, as the Huffington Post noted. Trump’s only option for building a wall on the land would be through a stand-alone bill in Congress that would have to condemn the land and remove it from the trust for the Tohono O’odham nation, which is recognized by law as an autonomous tribal government.

Amy Juan, an O’odham tribe member and co-founder of the Tohono O’odham Hemajkam Rights Network, said a border wall would be “devastating,” not only for the tribe but for the animals, wildlife and water that flows across the border. It would make it even harder for tribe members to visit and care for burial sites in Mexico.

“The effects would be bigger than ourselves,” Juan said in an interview with The Washington Post. “As a people, as a community, it would be a literal separation from our home. Half of the traditional lands of our people lie in Mexico.”

Today, 28,000 members occupy Tohono O’odham land in southwestern Arizona, according to the tribe’s website. Nine O’odham communities in Mexico lie directly south of the 2.8 million-acre Tohono O’odham Nation. Much of the land is separated only by the border.


Tohono O’odham Nation Reservation (Google Maps)

Traditional Tohono O’odham land once extended south to Sonora, Mexico, north past Phoenix, west to the Gulf of California and east to the San Pedro River. But through the Gadsden Purchase of 1853, the land became divided between the United States and Mexico.

Decades ago, only a three-strand, barbed-wire fence existed on the border, and tribe members could cross easily into and out of the United States. But after the 2006 Secure Fence Act, which aimed to line the border with additional barriers, waist-high metal posts were built, the Arizona Daily Star reported. O’odham tribe members became accustomed to seeing Border Patrol checkpoints on their land and agents driving through it.

Some in the O’odham community initially welcomed the checkpoints as a way to address the drug cartels crossing the border illegally, but many in the O’odham community are now protesting what they see as a “militarization” of their home, Juan said.

“It really creates a culture of fear,” Juan said.

Like all Americans, tribe members must produce passports and border identification cards each time they enter the United States. According to the tribe’s website, Border Patrol has on numerous occasions detained and deported members of the Tohono O’odham Nation for crossing the border, “practicing migratory traditions essential to their religion, economy and culture,” the website read.

U.S. Customs has also prevented tribe members from transporting raw materials and goods, and has confiscated cultural and religious items such as feathers, pine leaves or sweet grass. These items are “essential for their spirituality, economy and traditional culture,” the website wrote.

Members no longer feel they can hunt on the reservation without triggering Border Patrol scrutiny, the Arizona Daily Star reported.

Juan, a high school teacher on the reservation, said she recently asked students to tell her the first thing that came to mind when they thought of the border. The students mentioned words like “harassment,” “checkpoints,” and “identity,” Juan said. She said it hurts her to see young people “questioned about who they are.”

“They don’t know what it’s like to not have Border Patrol, they don’t know what it’s like to not have to go through checkpoints,” she said.

Adding to concerns on the reservation, the Department of Homeland Security has proposed building 15 permanent, fixed towers along the border for 24-hour surveillance, Juan said. Community members like Juan are worried about the cultural and environmental impacts of such towers.

She said she also fears that a Trump presidency could lead to further militarization of her community. Juan is, however, encouraged that her tribal leaders — who are often fairly passive about dealing with the Department of Homeland Security — are taking a stand against the wall.

“We can now continue with our work with a little more hope and support,” she said.

Jose, the tribe’s vice chairman, said the Tohono O’odham Nation had always hoped to work with whoever would be elected president. But it was still too early to tell exactly how Trump’s administration would affect the tribe, he said.

“I do wish to work together with people so we can truly protect the homeland of this place they call the United States of America,” Jose told KJZZ. “Not only for our people but for the American people.”

Juan said she hopes the dialogue about the wall sheds light on the history and plight of her people, in a similar way that the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe protests have captured the nation’s attention.

“We were here before America was America,” Juan said. “We have always been here, before these lines were drawn, before these borders were created.”

“We are the roots of America,” she added.

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