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Celebrating Indigenous Peoples’ Day should mean honoring migrants’ rights

People must have a human right to migrate and to move across borders that historically crossed them

A Quiche indigenous woman stands facing a monument that pays homage to migrants from the town of Salcaja, at the entrance to the town in Guatemala on Jun 7. (Moises Castillo/AP)

Today, more than 100 cities, including Minneapolis, Los Angeles and Santa Fe, will commemorate Indigenous Peoples’ Day with celebrations of their vibrant, contemporary Native communities and their heritage.

This celebration of Indigenous Peoples’ Day rather than Columbus Day has been decades in the making. Throughout most of the 20th century, U.S. schoolchildren were taught that Christopher Columbus “discovered” America. However, in the 1990s a broad coalition of artists, activists, educators and Native Americans began to contest this narrative of European triumph. They advocated an end to the commemoration of Columbus’s arrival and atrocities that his expedition committed against Caribbean Indigenous peoples, and instead for recognition of the cultural and historical contributions of America’s Native peoples.

These are critically important steps in decolonizing this holiday, but we need to think bigger. The importance of Indigenous Peoples’ Day has always been rooted in the concept of visibility: reclaiming Native history and exposing historical injustices. This year we should recognize this holiday by demanding justice for Native people at the U.S. border.

This day of recognition is a critical component of the broader fight for justice in Native American communities. So many stories of our nation’s origins present Native peoples as elements of a distant past, as though they were destined to fade into extinction. The combination of these national narratives of Native disappearance, along with the ubiquitous and stereotypical portrayals of Native Americans means Indigenous people and communities are frequently rendered invisible.

The same thing has happened with Mayan, Lenca, Nahua-Pipil and other migrants from Central America. Narratives about their migration to the United States as “invasion” obscures the fact that many refugees and migrants from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and elsewhere are also Native Americans. As such, their connections and claims to this land predate many of our own.

For thousands of years before the creation of the United States and Mexico, Native people traded, traveled and lived across the lands where the international border between these two countries now stands. When the Spanish arrived on the Yucatán Peninsula in the early 16th century, Aztec trade routes extended as far south as Nicaragua today and north into what is now New Mexico, connecting the peoples across this region. In the 17th and 18th centuries, Caddo, Comanche and Apache people built towns and economies that spread across the lands of southern Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Sonora, Chihuahua and Coahuila.

It was not until 1848, at the close of the Mexican-American war, that the modern U.S. and Mexico border was created. This imperial border, negotiated by the two states, cut right through the homelands of existing Native nations. As the United States acquired an enormous section of what had been Mexico, it did so at the expense of indigenous communities and by disrupting centuries-long relationships linking indigenous people, lands and neighbors.

The United States only hardened the U.S.-Mexico border in the 20th century with the creation of the Border Patrol in 1924, intent on controlling and restricting migration, mostly from Mexico. Subsequent mass deportations, including during the Great Depression, and later during “Operation Wetback” during the 1950s, reinforced the border further.

Many Native nations have refused to recognize the United States’ northern and southern borders, however, and have argued that they split existing nations apart and ignore land claims that preexisted the United States.

In the north, they met some success. For centuries, Mohawks have fought U.S. and Canadian attempts to patrol, militarize and enforce the border that bisects their homelands along the St. Lawrence and St. Regis rivers. In the 1790s, the United States was forced to recognize the rights of Native people to migrate because of its position of military weakness and political vulnerability. The United States had to negotiate both with Native nations, such as the Iroquois, and the British. Many Mohawk people today reject both U.S. and Canadian citizenship and travel instead on Iroquois passports, insisting on moving freely within their ancestral lands. The rights of indigenous peoples whose nations are currently encompassed by Canada (First Nations) actually have explicit rights to cross this border to work, visit or live in the United States.

However, there is no comparable law or treaty that recognizes similar rights for southern indigenous migrants. While the United States had negotiated a treaty in the north from a position of relative weakness, by the mid-19th century the United States had vastly expanded its military might, and was in the process of a genocidal campaign to remove and exterminate indigenous peoples from lands in the Southeast and Southwest. Additionally, the development of new racial logics that excluded both indigenous and Spanish-speaking people from participation in the American state and justified their dispossessions helped create the artificial divide between indigenous peoples north and south of the 1848 border.

Despite U.S. claims to have completely conquered indigenous lands, the continued existence of Native nations along the southern border and their persistence as Native nations on their original homelands challenges federal claims to exclusive territory and jurisdiction in this area.

Southern Native nations nonetheless continue to challenge the southern border and migration policies. For example, the Tohono O’odham, whose lands and communities straddle the U.S.-Mexico border between Arizona and Sonora, have vehemently opposed the proposed extension of the border wall through their territories. The Tohono O’odham lived on these lands for thousands of years before the birth of the United States, and the proposed expansion of the border wall constitutes a direct assault on their sovereignty in their homelands. In 2017, as the Trump administration ratcheted up its efforts, Verlon Jose, the vice chairman of Tohono O’odham, powerfully rejected the federal governments’ claims to exert their borders over his peoples’ homelands. As he put it, “Only over my dead body will a wall be built.”

Already far too many indigenous bodies have been sacrificed along the increasingly militarized U.S.-Mexico border. Between 2003 and 2018, 97 migrants died either in the custody of or at the hands of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP). Since 1994, an estimated 8,300 people have died attempting to cross the border, and as the federal government has ramped up immigration enforcement in recent years these crossings have become more dangerous.

These dangers fall disproportionately on indigenous people, who often face little choice but to migrate to escape state-sanctioned violence and enduring discrimination in their countries. Just last year, Claudia Gómez González, an indigenous woman from the highlands of Guatemala, who had glossy black hair and a shy smile, was shot and killed by a CBP agent as she stood in a vacant lot in Rio Bravo. In December 2018, 7-year-old Jakelin Caal Maquin, whose primary language was Q’eqhi, a Mayan dialect, died of dehydration and septic shock in U.S. custody. In May, 16-year-old Hernandez Vasquez, who was Maya Achi, became the fifth child to die in U.S. custody since December 2018.

To truly honor contemporary indigenous people and dismantle the imperial legacy of Columbus, we should recognize people’s human right to migrate and to move across borders they historically crossed. People should not be detained in cages for seeking a better life, and they deserve justice. Therefore, in addition to supporting local celebrations of Native heritage and culture, we should also be supporting organizations that support the rights of indigenous migrants and refugees, such as RAICES and New Sanctuary Coalition, and calling our representatives to demand political reform to protect all migrants and refugees.

This year, let’s do something meaningful for the indigenous peoples of the Americas.