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Wicazo Sa Review 17.1 (2002) 159-181

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The Border Crossed Us
Border Crossing Issues of the Indigenous Peoples of the Americas

Eileen M. Luna-Firebaugh

For many years, the Tohono O'odham Nation in Arizona has transported tribal members from Mexico to the United States through traditional border crossings for medical treatment. The nation is the only one in the United States that grants full enrollment to its people who are citizens of Mexico. Thus, Mexican citizens who are enrolled members are legally entitled to access health and other services provided by the tribe to all its members.

Since the recent militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border, these routine visits have become more rare and more dangerous. Frequently now, the tribal employees who provide the transportation for Mexican O'odham Nation members have been stopped and harassed by U.S. Border Patrol agents. These agents, operating on the lands of the O'odham Nation, have made the nation's elders and others who suffer from tuberculosis, diabetes, and other life-threatening diseases return to Mexico if they lack U.S. documents. This insistence on official U.S. documentation, rather than recognizing Tohono O'odham Nation membership identification, strikes at the heart of Indian sovereignty and is the focus of this article.

While traditionally it is common for nation-states such as Canada, the United States, and Mexico to protect their borders, the requirement that official documentation be proffered for simple, short-term visits has not been required for most citizens of the North American continent. [End Page 159] This enlightened policy has been replicated in Europe with the European Commonwealth. However, with the hysteria that has resulted from the "Drug War" and the widespread fear of "illegal immigrants," the United States has militarized its northern and southern borders. This militarization has resulted in inconvenience for all border crossers, but has made border crossing by the continent's indigenous extremely problematic.

Enhanced and restrictive border crossing procedures are an assault on indigenous sovereignty as well as an assault on the cultural integrity of native societies. The laws of Canada, the United States, and Mexico restrict contacts between the indigenous as citizens of their nations, and as members of families, clans, and religious groups that predate the colonization of the North American continent. The new laws (and regulations) also increase the level of danger for the indigenous. Those who continue to use traditional border crossing areas are in danger of being shot by U.S. Border Patrol personnel, U.S. military, or vigilante citizen groups. For a young Texas shepherd named Ezequiel, U.S. military personnel who opened fire while he tended his goatherd along the Texas-Mexico border cut life short. His death, and the deaths of others, is a result of the increased militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border.

The treaties and agreements that set the international boundaries between the nation-states of the North American continent were negotiated and signed only by the colonizers. The indigenous of these border regions, whose lands these borders transect, were not consulted, nor were they signatories to any treaty or agreement. This stands in clear opposition to their rights as nations who were, at that time, fully sovereign, and whose status as sovereign was recognized in later treaties between them and the colonizers. In addition, the fact that some indigenous nations are mentioned in the colonizers' treaties and some are not, or that some indigenous nations later negotiated separate treaties or agreements to protect their right to access their traditional lands on either side of the borders, has contributed to a patchwork approach to border crossing rights. While in some cases treaties or agreements have largely resolved the problem for some indigenous groups, the general failure of the colonizing governments to allow indigenous input into the resolution of border issues has furthered the assault on the sovereignty of indigenous nations of the North American continent.

The laws that require declaration of citizenship or official documents issued by the colonizing powers are a denigration...