Archive for October 1st, 2017

Tohono O’odham Nation: A border tribe, and the wall that will divide it

Posted on 01. Oct, 2017 by .


The earthy smell of mesquite fills the air on a Saturday in late March.

The sun hangs high and the clouds low over a desolate stretch of the border that divides Arizona from Mexico, that divides the Tohono O’odham Nation in two.

It is a quiet morning, except for the rhythmic scraping of Julian Rivas’ shovel against dirt.

“I’m digging a hole,” he says.Screen Shot 2017-10-01 at 11.44.27 AM

The San Miguel Gate — Wo’osan Gate in the O’odham language — is a few long strides away, an unremarkable opening in the metal posts that jut from the parched earth.

“For the flags,” he says, turning dirt with the shovel.

There will be nine flags, each representing a traditional community of the Tohono O’odham, the desert people, in Mexico. The people who will gather to talk about unity and division.

The Tohono O’odham Nation — the tribe is the second-largest in the U.S., by land holdings — sits on an estimated 2.7 million acres in southern Arizona’s Sonoran Desert. Ancestral lands stretch across the border into the Mexican state of Sonora.

About 2,000 of the tribe’s 34,000 members live in Sonora, according to tribal officials. They were cut off from the rest of the nation by the 62-mile international boundary and have found themselves increasingly isolated from their people in Arizona.

The Tohono O’odham people consider the San Miguel Gate a traditional passage of their ancestors.

Today, it connects family members who live on both sides of the border. It is used by tribal members who travel for sacred pilgrimages and ceremonies in Mexico, as well as those living in Mexico who travel to the U.S. for tribal services, to sell or buy goods, or to visit the hospital in Sells, the capital of the Tohono O’odham Nation.

At the San Miguel Gate, Rivas can legally cross the border into the U.S. Most Americans and Mexicans cannot. A tribal ID serves as a passport of sorts for members to travel back and forth.

The informal arrangement dates back decades and secures access to ancestral lands for a tribe whose people are quick to explain that they did not get a say when the U.S. mapped the boundaries of their land, or when American and Mexican diplomats negotiated the border 163 years ago.

No one knows what would happen if the fence and the gates are replaced by a wall, the one President Donald Trump has vowed to build on America’s border.

On Tohono O’odham land.

When the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was ratified in 1848, the border placed most Tohono O’odham land in Mexico.

In 1854, under Mexican President Antonio López de Santa Anna and President Franklin Pierce, the U.S. paid Mexico $10 million for 29,670 square miles of land.

The Gadsden Purchase agreement sketched a new border that split the tribe’s land, leaving part in the U.S. and part in Mexico.

Mexico does not recognize the sovereignty of indigenous land. Tohono O’odham in Mexico were still accounted for when the tribe became federally recognized in the United States and ratified a constitution that defines tribal membership based on blood, not country of origin.

Tribal members living in Mexico were given the same rights as those in the U.S., regardless of citizenship status.

Those rights remain but with each transition in tribal and U.S. leadership, with each shift in immigration and border policies, tribal members say it has become more difficult for those living in Mexico to secure their rights.

Many fear Trump’s proposed wall will trigger a historic final act, a severing of all tribal ties with Mexico.

On this Saturday, tribal members from both sides of the international border are gathering to protest the wall, to call attention to their plight, to stop another barrier on their land.

Julian Rivas is standing near his truck, the flags now fluttering in the breeze.

His sisters arrive.

Thomasa Rivas, who lives in Tucson, came with her daughter. Ofelia Rivas traveled from her home on tribal lands.

Ofelia’s long skirt fans out over the dirt. For years now, she has been a vocal activist against any form of border-patrol surveillance on tribal land.

She says her home, in the small border village of Ali Jegk, where her mother is from, would be destroyed by Trump’s wall.

“It will be in my backyard — the wall, and all its political policies along with it,” she says.

She says this battle is about more than politics.

“It violates all life,” she says. “How’s it going to affect our plants … our animals that migrate through the region.”

Screen Shot 2017-10-01 at 11.45.35 AMOfelia tilts her head to the left, and her long hair moves with the wind.

“Will the wind have to get permission?” she asks. “And the water?”

Thomasa is soft-spoken, even when she is angry.

“These are our traditions,” she says. “We have to keep them alive, and pass them on to our children.”

Thomasa is preparing for a July ceremony called the Vikita, in Mexico, where tribal members pray for the earth and everyone and everything on it.

A woman walks from the U.S. side of the border through the opening in the gate. Faith Ramon scowls as she clutches a flier she says Tohono O’odham police handed to people driving to the gate.

It said that non-tribal members traveling without permission were “trespassing and may face civil and criminal penalties.”

Ramon was stopped by a tribal police officer. Tribal leaders said the protesters didn’t have permission to gather at the gate.

“I told them they can’t tell me where I can and can’t go on my land,” she says.

Tohono O’odham leaders from Mexico behind the protest have been critical of the tribal council, calling for greater support for the rights of members living in Mexico and a stronger stance against the wall.

Nearby, Miguel Estevan leans against a fence post and absentmindedly digs his boot in the dirt. He has a habit of stopping mid-sentence to gather his thoughts.

He says the tribal council is worried about pushing the U.S. government too far, so far that they will lose federal funds.

The wall would make traveling across the border seem impossible, he says. Now, his dad lives less than 15 minutes from the San Miguel Gate. If a wall seals the crossing, any tribal member living near the gate would have to travel hundreds of miles to the nearest official port of entry.

“My father and mother live where their parents lived. They are O’odham and should be able to travel anywhere on their native lands,” he says.

Many years ago, Estevan’s dad, Ramon Valenzuela, left Tohono O’odham land to join the Navy. He hasn’t left since. Valenzuela pulls his tribal ID from his wallet. He resents being asked for his ID in a place where his family has lived for generations. 

He says some agents get to know tribal members and treat them with respect. Others do not. If he sees a new agent, he pretends to speak Spanish or O’odham only.

“I want to know how they’re treating our members who can’t speak English,” he says.

Estevan says he is not worried about a wall. He taps his hand against a fence post.

“We will never let anyone build a wall here,” he says.

As the protest continues, a Mexican tribal elder, standing under the flags, speaks in Spanish and O’odham.

“This is our land,” says Alicia Chuhuhua, 80. “We want it without walls.”

When U.S. diplomats first mapped the border, they considered the area uninhabitable and paid little attention to the Desert People.

But interest increased on each mile of the border as the U.S. tightened its immigration policies and its border crime and security procedures.

In the 1990s, the U.S. heightened security in urban areas. Smugglers turned to the less-monitored tribal lands.

In the mid-2000s, to stem drug smugglers, the tribal council approved a resolution to seek federal funding to build a vehicle barrier that would still allow wildlife and people to pass through.

The measure drew vehement opposition from some tribal members angry over any policy that would dig up sacred earth and serve as a barrier between their ancestral lands.

After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, then-President George W. Bush signed the 2006 Secure Fence Act, calling for 700 miles of fencing. On Tohono O’odham land, barbed-wire fencing was replaced by a line of thick metal posts.

No one knows if Trump’s border wall will someday stretch the full 62 miles across the Tohono O’odham people’s land. No one knows whether there will be a door in that wall only for Tohono O’odham people.

Four months have passed since the border wall protest at the San Miguel Gate.

Hopping into a full-size SUV, Verlon Jose, the tribal vice chairman, warns that dehydration sets in quickly for people not used to the scorching desert weather in July.

Jose has become the face of the Tohono O’odham’s fight against the wall. He made media headlines last year when he said: “Over my dead body will a wall be built.”

He has said that tribes are ready after what he and others experienced at Standing Rock, battling an oil pipeline in North Dakota. He warned that a wall on Tohono O’odham land would draw indigenous people from across the world for a fight that would eclipse Standing Rock.

The White House says the president has the authority to build a border wall under the Secure Fence Act of 2006, but many see the wall as an assault on the tribe’s rights as a sovereign nation. The National Congress of American Indians has opposed the wall.

Federally-recognized tribes have certain property rights under U.S. laws and treaties. Additionally, a lesser-known 2007 U.N. declaration established broad protections of indigenous people’s rights.

“You talk about the border issues,” he says, “two things I think are a solution: True immigration reform and for America to kick its drug habit. ”

Just because the tribe opposes a wall, he says, doesn’t mean they don’t secure their land. In recent years, they’ve invested more than $3 million annually of their own tribal funds to secure the U.S.-Mexico border and stemmed human trafficking and drug smuggling through partnerships with Border Patrol and their own policing, he says.

Jose calls Trump’s wall bad policy, a waste of taxpayer dollars. Criminals, he said, will find a way over or under the wall.

“I would say this is not only a Tohono O’odham issue, this is not only an international issue between Mexico and the U.S., this is a world issue,” he says. “The Great Wall of China, the Berlin Wall and many other walls that were built out there to corral human beings — I believe, at this time, the people are going to say that we are going to accept no more of those things.”

Jose is a pro at navigating the rugged dirt roads along the border in his SUV.

He parks near a wash. A storm has washed out a U.S border fence. He says he has told Border Patrol officials the fences won’t hold in the torrents. He still can’t believe politicians would even consider spending money on a wall that will erode.

Jose has family in Mexico, grew up on both sides of the border and has made pilgrimages through the traditional routes in the desert for ceremonies.Screen Shot 2017-10-01 at 11.44.16 AM

He tells people opposed to the wall that they must remember what they’ve learned from the elders.

“We carry the spirit of thousands of warriors. Dominant societies have tried to kill the spirit of our people,” he says. “We will survive.”

He drives into the rocky foothills of the Baboquivari Mountains and looks down at the distant sacred sites in Mexico. Soon he will be with his people in a small Mexican village for the Vikita ceremony.

He turns toward El Pinacate and sings a traditional song in his native tongue about the sacred peaks in Mexico.

“The song that I was singing, as I look to the south here,” he says, “it talks about the Pinacate Mountains … a place where our creator also calls home.”

It’s the third weekend in July, and the Vikita ceremony is only a few days away.

Some people travel the traditional passages to Vikita. Others, like Thomasa Rivas, drive through the Lukeville Port of Entry to first pray at the “Big Waters,” the words she uses when she talks about the ocean at Puerto Peñasco, Sonora, also known as Rocky Point.

There, she will pray before traveling to the natural spring and pond of Quitovac, one of the most sacred sites for the Tohono O’odham people. Only tribal members are supposed to attend this ceremony.

Rivas remembers when there was a traditional trail from her village to Quitovac. It was a day’s walk and the way most people made the journey. Now that passage is closed.

Vikita is the first ceremony Rivas thought of when she imagined a 30-foot wall cutting them off from the traditional passages.

She also thought of her children and grandchildren and her father, who is buried in the Mexican village of San Francisquito. She thought of the tribe’s Mexican ranching families that still live near the traditional passages.

On Friday, by the beach in Puerto Peñasco, Rivas’ daughters and grandson are by her side as she steps onto the sand. They walk to the ocean where they can pray in private. At the water’s edge, she opens a case with bird feathers.

Her family holds hands as the salt water washes over their bare feet. About 15 minutes later, they finish.

Rivas is standing in the sand, searching for words.

“If there was a wall here, we would really feel that disconnection, just spiritually, even mentally,” she says.

“I can’t even fathom the words for this because it is going to change our lives. It is going to change who we are. The world will change, too.”

It’s a humid Thursday in early August. Monsoon storms have hammered Estevan’s family home near the San Miguel Gate.

Estevan is in Caborca, Sonora, an hours-long drive from his home on desert roads without signage or pavement. This place is known for the petroglyphs etched by the Hohokam, the Tohono O’odham people’s ancestors. It is the closest major city in Mexico to his home near the border.

His mother and father are back home. He brought the baskets his mom weaves to sell at a store in Caborca that deals in indigenous art.

In the months since the protest at the San Miguel Gate, Estevan has lost faith in tribal leaders and has turned his attention to Mexican leaders. They’re listening, he says.

His family received a grant for indigenous people from the Mexican government. The money will pay for a windmill. For the first time ever, his family will have power for running water.

“It will change our lives,” he says.

And the wall?

What many non-tribal members don’t understand, he says, is that Tohono O’odham people believe their connections to their ancestors keep their people’s future alive.

Estevan remembers going to school and learning traditional tribal songs. Lately, he has been learning more songs.

“When I sing, my voice is loud,” he says.

He sings in O’odham. His deep bass voice carries across the yard. He remembers what his school teacher told them about singing and praying.

“Our teacher would say, kick up the dirt,” he said. “How do expect to be heard if you don’t kick up the dirt?”

He sings another O’odham song.

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Amicus Brief Update

Posted on 01. Oct, 2017 by .


Click here for new version of the brief

Click here to read Law 360’s coverage of the Brief

Message regarding Amicus Brief to Franciscans for Justice:

I am very happy to share with you the amicus brief we filed at the United States Supreme Court recently to express the opposition of yours and 38 other faith-based, interfaith and interreligious organizations to the Executive Order banning entrance to our country by the nationals of six predominantly Muslim nations and all refugees. As you will see by paging through the statements of interest in the opening pages of the brief, this effort brought together a broad array of voices from many religious perspectives to make a powerful and united statement of opposition to the policies implemented by the Executive Order.  I think you will enjoy reading the coverage of our brief that appeared in Law 360, an online legal publication, which is attached as well.

It has been an honor and a privilege for Morrison & Foerster to represent you in opposing this ban. We hope to be of similar service in the future.




Senior Pro Bono Counsel | Morrison & Foerster LLP


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UN: We’ll Give Trump’s Peace Efforts a Chance

Posted on 01. Oct, 2017 by .

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas told the UN General Assembly on Wednesday that Israel was evading its responsibility to end the occupation.
“While we call to end the occupation, Israel incites and pretends there’s no Palestinian partner for peace,” Abbas said, addressing the UN General Assembly hours after U.S. President Donald Trump told him that now might be the Palestinians’  “best shot ever” to achieve peace.
Abbas said the United Nations bore a legal, political, moral and humanitarian obligation to end the occupation, adding that Israel knew that the occupation bred incitement and violence.
“Draining the swamp of Israeli occupation would greatly affect the fight on terror,” he said, adding that ending the occupation would deprive terror groups of a key rallying cry.

“We called on Israel’s prime minister to sit with us to negotiate. He rejected this offer,” Abbas said, adding that “Israeli policies stir religious animosity and may lead to a violent religious conflict.”

Abbas told the General Assembly that Jerusalem was an occupied city, saying that Israel’s decisions there were null and void and illegal. He added that “we cannot allow Israeli occupation to continue without cost.”
According to Abbas, “our problem is with the Israeli occupation and not with Judaism as a religion.” He pondered if “the world can accept an apartheid regime in the 21st century” and asked: “Has the international community surrendered to the fact that Israel is a country above the law?”
Abbas criticized Britain for “failing to rectify the grave injustice it inflicted on the Palestinians when it issued the Balfour Declaration in 1917.”
He urged countries that have not yet recognized the State of Palestine to do, noting that “Israel has no borders. How can you recognize a state with no borders?”
Abbas also called for a blacklist of companies operating in Israeli settlements, similar to terrorist blacklists.
He also saluted “our glorious martyrs and our courageous prisoners in Israeli jails.”
Earlier, Trump noted that Israeli-Palestinian peace was considered the “toughest deal of all” to achieve, but vowed to devote “everything within my heart and within my soul to get that deal made.”
Trump said Saudi Arabia and other Arab states were making efforts to advance the peace process. “Who knows, stranger things have happened, but we have a good chance,” he said, adding: “No promises, obviously.”
Abbas praised Trump and his team, saying that its efforts had given him  the confidence that “we are on the verge of real peace.”
Read full article here
Read the full text of the speech here.

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SOA Watch Border Encuentro

Posted on 01. Oct, 2017 by .


From SOA Watch:

From November 10-12, after 26 years of protest at the gates of Ft. Benning to call for a closure of the notorious School of the Americas (renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation – WHINSEC), human rights activists, torture survivors, anti-war veterans, students, families, union workers, artists and educators will converge in Eloy-Tucson-Ambos Nogales for the SOA Watch Border EncuentroRegister HERE!


We are excited to announce just a few of the confirmed speakers and performers who will join us at the US/Mexico border to challenge US imperialism and racism. As a grassroots movement, we seek to uplift the voices of those most directly impacted by state violence and to inspire resistance to the racist US policies forcing migration and threatening our migrant and immigrant communities.


For this year’s Encuentro, we are working to ensure that activists and artists from across the Americas join us on stage and in forums. Help us honor and recognize their work to share stories, transform trauma, and nourish resistance by making a donation to support their participation in the 2017 Border Encuentro!



Contact Candice for any questions about donations.

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