Where Skin Color is the Dividing Line


The racially-charged political climate in Arizona, and how this affects Indigenous Peoples, was the focus of the Southern Border Indigenous Peoples Roundtable Symposium. O’odham from both the United States and Mexico described the reality of living in the militarized borderzone, while O’odham and O’otham described battling their own tribal councils in Arizona, controlled and manipulated by the United States government.

Targeted by racial profiling, new legislation such as SB 1070 is traumatizing an entire generation of young people along the border. Meanwhile, US policy continues to push migrants deeper into the desert to die. More of those dying in the Sonoran Desert are women, and more are Indigenous Peoples from Guatemala, Chiapas and Oaxaca, farmers who speak only their Native languages.

Julian Rivas, Tohono O‘odham in Mexico, described life in the militarization of the US/Mexico border. Rivas said he was stopped by the US Border Patrol, with search dogs, three times on his way to the panel. Questioning why O’odham in their homeland are constantly harassed and their rights violated, he questioned where is the true sovereignty. “We say we are Tohono O’odham, but that doesn’t matter. It is the color of your skin.”

“I feel safer in Mexico than here,” said Rivas at the roundtable, sponsored by the Indigenous Alliance without Borders/Alianza Indigena Sin Fronteras, and broadcast live on the web.

Rivas said he sits at the table with the Zapatistas in Chiapas, pushing for human rights. He said Zapatistas understand the need to push for the true return of traditional rights in their homelands.

Speaking on the oppression at the border, Rivas said during the panel today, “Homeland Security is labeling everyone as terrorists.”

“The tribe on this side has not said anything on our behalf,” Rivas said, referring to the Tohono O’odham Nation in Sells, Arizona. Rivas said the Tohono O’odham elected leaders are not promoting human rights, but are instead controlled by the BIA’s strings.

Rivas’ talk was preceded by Shannon Rivers, Gila River Indian Community, who spoke on the need for the US to adopt the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

“As of today, the United States has not endorsed the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples,” said Rivers, who serves as Global Indigenous Peoples Caucus Co-chair on the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. Rivers pointed out that the US is now the only country in the world failing to act on the Declaration.

Speaking on Indigenous Peoples border rights, Rivers pointed out that Article 36 of the UN Declaration states: “Indigenous peoples, in particular those divided by international borders, have the right to maintain and develop contacts, relations and cooperation, including activities for spiritual, cultural, political, economic and social purposes, with their own members as well as other peoples across borders.”

In 2007, the United Nations adopted the Declaration. However, four countries did not: the US, Canada, New Zealand and Australia. New Zealand and Australia later moved to adopt the Declaration. Although Canada endorsed the Declaration in November, it was a provisional endorsement.

Rather than adopt the Declaration, Canada endorsed it. Rivers said Canada maintains that it has jurisdiction over Indigenous Peoples and they are subject to the laws of Canada.

“That brings into question the right of self determination, the rights of economic development, the rights of trade, right of free trade and the right of free and prior consent,” Rivers said of Canada’s conditional endorsement.

The US is currently reviewing the Declaration. Currently at issue is whether the United States and Canada will continue to dictate to Indigenous Nations, he said.

“The Declaration is a non-legal binding document. What that means is it has no legal teeth,” Rivers said. He said there are many policies, such as the Native American Freedom Act, Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, and others, that American Indians still are struggling to have the United States act upon and enforce.

Although NAGPRA was established, Native people still have funeral and sacred items, items of spiritual and cultural significance, that have not been returned. He said museums around the world took items from Indigenous communities and medicine people, at a time when no laws were in place to prevent this vandalism and theft.

“We need those items returned,” Rivers said.

Native Americans know the return of these items can bring about healing and assist people who are suffering because of the loss of these items. The return of human remains, and proper burial, is high on the priority of Indigenous Peoples.

Because NAGPRA has not been fully enforced, Native people have suffered.

Rivers said what is at stake is self-determination, cultural issues, economic development and border issues. Since 9/11, various laws have been created that waive tribal, state and federal laws, including laws to erect a wall that not only impacts Indigenous Peoples, but the environment.

The border wall impacts traditional ceremonies, because traditional people gather plants in the region for traditional ceremonies.

During the panel presentation, Rivers pointed out that Native people are asked to make cultural gestures, even “bless” fast food restaurants, but are not invited to the table by policy makers. Rivers said Indigenous Peoples are asked to “bless” fast food places such as MacDonalds which engage in practices that violate the rights of Indigenous Peoples.

“Too often Indigenous Peoples are sought out to conduct cultural gestures: Blessings of restaurants and casinos and photo ops at state, county and national events. But when it comes to making real changes and true and frank discussions about serious issues, Indigenous Peoples are rarely invited to the table,” he said.

Rivers urged Indian people to halt the cultural gestures, which continue colonization and genocide.

Meanwhile, in Canada, the government released this statement when it endorsed the Declaration, minimizing the impact of the Declaration: “The Declaration is an aspirational document which speaks to the individual and collective rights of Indigenous peoples, taking into account their specific cultural, social and economic circumstances. Although the Declaration is a non-legally binding document that does not reflect customary international law nor change Canadian laws, our endorsement gives us the opportunity to reiterate our commitment to continue working in partnership with Aboriginal peoples in creating a better Canada.”

During the border rights panel, Jose Matus, Yaqui and director of the Indigenous Alliance without Borders, organizer of the event, said traditional leaders should be recognized by the US government. Matus is a ceremonial leader responsible for bringing Yaqui ceremonial leaders across the border for the purpose of conducting ceremonies. Matus deals constantly with the issues of border crossing, the high cost of visas and border immigration agents.

Matus said all people need to come together to protect the spiritual and cultural rights of Indigenous Peoples and to assist in the battle for civil rights in the face of racism.

Kat Rodriguez of Derechos Humanos said Arizona is now known as the most racist state in the United States, but this is nothing new. Arizona has a long history of abuse of migrants, with a long history of the presence of Minutemen and other groups.

Referring to the anti-migrant climate in Arizona, Rodriguez said, “We are looking at this as an attack on our children and an attack on our future.”

Derechos Humanos is now assisting with the recovery of remains. Now primarily, Pima County recovers remains, because the majority of migrant bodies are reduced to remains by the weather and animals.

“You’re not finding bodies, you are finding remains,” Rodriguez said, describing the sad details of searching for clues to finding missing relatives for loved ones back home in Mexico.

She said there are many people dying in Mexico that no one hears about.

“Many of the people are Indigenous Peoples from Indigenous communities,” she said of the increase in migrants from Guatemala, Oaxaca and Chiapas. She said Spanish is not their first language and most are farmers, who have spent their lives growing their own food.

Rodriguez said people should have the right to remain in their homeland, not forced out because of trade policies, economic policies, hunger and violence.

“People have a right to survive in their home communities.”

Rodriguez said too often only an urn of ashes can be returned to families in Mexico. “Even the dead have rights.”

She said it is not by chance that so many migrants are dying in the Sonoran Desert of southern Arizona. The US has funneled migrants into Arizona intentionally and by US policy.

Migrants are people who have no voice.

“Who is going to advocate for them? This is a human rights crisis. Thousands of people have died.”

Rodriguez said it is too often misrepresented.

“Immigration is not a problem, it is an issue. It is an issue we have not dealt with.”

“What Arizona is dealing with are the effects: racism, xenophobia and death,” she said.

Sarah Gonzales, Racial Justice Director at the YMCA, championed the youths who are taking on the struggle against racism in their communities. At the YWCA, programs focus on the elimination of racism.

Gonzales described the racism and trauma that local youths are dealing with.

Vicarious trauma is the trauma felt by youths who live with the daily reality that a family member might be deported, or in detention. Young people and their families are living with anxiety and trauma, some fearing leaving their homes. One doctor termed it, “the pre-deportation syndrome.”

She said youths are stepping up and organizing protests. Many are suffering for the first time the racism stemming from new legislation, such as Arizona SB 1070. Some are experiencing for the first time being spit on.

Artforms are now a focus for the frustration at the YWCA, where youths talk about SB 1070 and how it impacts them. Youths are producing videos, recycling sculpture and using slam poetry as outlets for the frustration.

“Slam poetry is born out of emotion,” Gonzales said. “It resonates with them.” During recent programs, youths came to believe that as young people, they have something to say.

The art expressions led to a platform where youths could vocalize their feelings. Congressman Raul Grijalva was among those who came and listened.

Gonzales said legislation, media and personal experiences are playing a role in shaping youths and their voices.

“There is a lot of power in the youth voice,“ Gonzales said.

Tohono O’odham in the audience pointed out their struggle with the elected Tohono O’odham government as they struggle to maintain the sacred Baboquivari Mountain.

Columnist and professor Roberto Rodriguez thanked the panel and pointed out that Indigenous Peoples have not been the focus of policy makers on immigration. Rodriguez, organizer of the upcoming conference on Hate, Censorship and Forbidden Curricula, Dec. 2 — 4 in Tucson, also pointed out that “most of the experts on Arizona are not from Arizona.”

One O’otham from Gila River in the audience said the US-established tribal governments are there to “divide and conquer,” established by corporations. She said it is time to charge the tribal governments with fraud and exploitation of the culture and resources.

BRENDA NORRELL has been a news reporter covering Indian country and Mexico for 27 years. She edits Censored News. Brenda can be reached at brendanorrell@gmail.com