Migrants, Natives, Border Patrol, and Plants: Impossibly Complex Histories and Relationships

Image: O’odham symbol of the universal journey of life often referred to as the Path of Knowledge, the Path of Life, or the Man in the Maze.  Depicted at the top is I’itoi, the Creator.
 The interworkings of the minds of BSP this weekend (like most) probably look like a lot of overlapping and interplaying layers… or perhaps more appropriate is the spiral imagery that characterized so much of our travels during the last month or so.  An entire semester could easily be devoted to the issues we have been thinking about this weekend. Yesterday we visited the Tohono O’odham Nation and spoke with tribal member Bernard at the Tohono O’odham Nation Cultural Center and Museum. We also visited one section of the U.S.–Mexico border that cuts through the reservation. Today, we visited the lovely home and garden of Laurie Melrood and Blake Gentry, where we learned from Laurie about desert plants and their many uses, and from Blake about the long, complicated, and contested history of the O’odham.
 During Bernard’s presentation, we learned that the term “O’odham people” is actually redundant – “O’odham” means “people” in the native language, and “Tohono” means desert, together forming “the desert people” or “people of the desert.” There are other groups of O’odham as well, including “river people” and “sand people.” He told us about how the Tohono O’odham, living in the desert, had historically been a semi-nomadic people, inhabiting a winter village in the mountains where there would be water, and a summer village in the lowlands, during the monsoon seasons that would help produce the harvest. He told us that pre 1800, this was the way of life, and that life was fairly harmonious.
 However, things began to change with the arrival of the Spanish and particularly in the mid-1800s with the Gadsen Purchase. Obelisks were placed along O’odham land to indicate the U.S.-Mexico border, and in 1917 the nation was established as is. With Spanish horses, the O’odham became a ranching society. As a result, a fence was placed along the border for the first time on O’odham land, which was understood by the Nation as a separation of livestock, to ease the friction between Mexican and O’odham ranchers, rather than a separation of people; there were always open gates for the passage of people.
 Then Bernard told us about how things were when he was a teenager, some 30 years ago. Immigrants started coming through Nation land in higher numbers, asking for food and water. They started bringing with them illegal substances. It became something of a business, with the emergence of paid coyote guides. The increase of migrants in this area is a direct result, as we’ve learned, of heightened border security, such as policies like Operation Gatekeeper, in highly crossed areas in Texas, New Mexico, and California. This is called a funnel effect: policies that do not deter migration, but rather funnel it into different areas, specifically those that are more dangerous, even lethal, and those that belong to indigenous peoples.
This had a great effect on the O’odham Nation. They began to contract customs agents to guard the border on the Nation; there were incidents of tribal members (Nation councilmen) killed by migrants smuggling drugs; trash and clutter began to accumulate on Nation land, left along the way by migrants. Following the events of 9/11, security became even tighter on the Nation.  Border Patrol agents were stationed on the land, and checkpoints were placed at every exit or entrance into Nation land. There is also evidence of violence between Border Patrol and O’odham. Bernard told us that this Monday, Border Patrol agents shot two tribal members.
However, there is not a clearly defined relationship between Border Patrol and O’odham, or between migrants and O’odham. While there is misunderstanding between Border Patrol and O’odham, and while the placement of the border interferes with traditional O’odham pilgrimages, many O’odham are glad to have the presence of Border Patrol on the reservation. For example, we learned from Bernard that recently, “on the other side of the fence,” 7 men were killed in a cartel confrontation. He told us, “the presence of Border Patrol is keeping that activity on the other side of the border,” keeping it from greatly affecting the Nation. Similarly, although O’odham, as indigenous and marginalized people, share a similar history with the migrants entering through their land, there is less empathy than one might expect (or, less than BSP might expect, coming from our specific experiences and learning his semester). For example, the Nation made an administrative decision not to allow humanitarian aid-like water stations on their land, because they did not want to aid illegal activity. There was also an emphasis during our visit of the presence of criminal migrants – those smuggling illegal substances. Due in part to the devastating levels of unemployment and poverty on the reservation, many youth are attracted to this potential (and dangerous) source of income – the business of migration. I’m afraid these relationships are so layered and nuanced that we could not grasp the full extent of them during our visit – and it would be impossible to fully convey them in a single blog post.
 We then made the short drive to the border, where we saw what is referred to as “the gate,” which is literally a gate in the border fence, staffed by Border Patrol 24/7. This gate is not an official port of entry, and only Tohono O’odham with specially made tribal I.D.s may pass through it. For years O’odham had disregarded the national boundary running through their land – it had no significance for them, and would prevent them from making the yearly pilgrimages that had always been a part of traditional O’odham life, for ceremonial purposes and to visit with family. Now, the border situation has been complicated to such an extent that, Bernard informed us, many O’odham elders have stopped making the pilgrimage each year, confused by the changing policies and requirements. The border has directly and significantly altered traditional O’odham life.
While at the border we had the opportunity to speak with the Border Patrol agent on duty at the gate. This was a much different experience than the one we had at the Tucson sector Border Patrol station. This agent had been working with Border Patrol for seven years, and was also involved with the Air Force, the Army, and the National Guard. He was also studying to become a Pastor. In contrast with what we hard at the station (“when I put on this uniform, I no longer have opinions or feelings”), the agent told us that he was always the same person, regardless of what role he may be performing or what uniform he may be wearing. He is the most compassionate Border Patrol agent we have met: “sometimes your heart kinda goes out” to the migrants, he said. I can only speak for myself, because I think others in the group were made uncomfortable by perceived contradictions between his more militaristic profession and his pastoral aspirations, but I felt it valuable to meet and speak with a Border Patrol agent who was willing to share with us a more compassionate and human side of himself. Of course, this makes it no less painful to see a militarized border placed within Native land and affecting Native life.
Today, we learned about a kingdom that pays no heed to such nation-state borders: the kingdom Plantae. We ate mesquite pancakes with eggs scrambled with cholla and nopalito and drank tea out of eco-product cups in Laurie’s beautiful garden while she shared with us her knowledge of medicinal desert plants. We learned that all desert plants are anti-diabetic, cholla fruit tastes like Kiwi, desert tobacco is toxic, rocks help water disperse to nourish plants, desert broom is good for stomach ailments and headaches, and 50-75 years is the time it takes for saguaros to begin growing a branch. Even beyond medicinal uses, we can learn a lot from plants – plants remind us that the world is greater than us, and greater than borders. The way Laurie phrased it, “we make mistakes, but plants don’t, at least not in the same ways.” Her personal philosophy in gardening is that “there are no weeds.” If only we all had the same philosophy about people.
After our breakfast and our garden tour, Blake spoke with us about O’odham history to fill in the gaps from yesterday. To attempt such a lecture is quite a challenge, because of the vastness, contention, and complicated nature of the traditionally oral native history.  Blake gave us a lot of information, and was barely able to scratch the surface. He told us about irrigation and different modalities of survival in the desert, and the risks associated with dependence on agriculture in such an environment. He told us about the treatment of land titles following the Treaty of Guadalupe, and the resulting loss of indigenous land.  He told us about the O’odham knowledge of baks (or waks), referring to what are called seeps in english: rivers that flow below the ground, often crucial for survival in desert terrain. He told us about the horrors of Nuñoz del Beltran, a Spanish conquistador. He told us that less than twenty percent of their aboriginal land has been left for the O’odham. And he explained to us the significance of the cultural evolution of Tohono O’odham as desert people – and that because of it, the culture imposed on them in today’s world makes no sense to the Nation, who do not accept it intellectually or politically. This final point made me think about other indigenous populations we learned from in Guatemala and Chiapas. For instance, it echoes the sentiments of el sueño guatemalteco and the Zapatistas that there is no place for them in today’s capitalist world.
I was also reminded of the dream for un mundo donde quepan muchos mundos (a world in which many worlds fit) during the last two days. In a human rights class that I took a couple semesters ago at Oberlin, one relativist dilemma that we discussed was that cultural interpretations of the meaning of “human” might vary. I thought about this when we learned that O’odham means “people,” and that the term that the Cherokee tribe refers to themselves as means “people” as well, or even “the real people.” We learned about similar terms in my class at Oberlin, and I remember finding it strange that certain cultures might so explicitly consider themselves to be more “people” or “human” than others (although it is clear that dehumanization is rampant in our own capitalist world). Now, equipped with the knowledge of otros mundos and a (limited) history of the O’odham, perhaps I can understand this as meaning different humans rather than more or less human, and I can more easily see that, for some, human rights refer not to a universal declaration of standards to uphold, but rather el derecho de ser como somos, or the right to be as we are, and to live autonomously, with sovereignty and dignity.

— submitted by Nuria Alishio-Caballero

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