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  • Indigenous Identities on the U.S.-Mexico Border
  • Christina Leza (bio)


When the existing U.S.-Mexico border was established, the homelands of numerous indigenous peoples were split, dividing the populations of once-whole indigenous communities. The creation of the political border has resulted in physical and ideological barriers dividing traditionally united peoples on the U.S.-Mexico border, impacting notions of local indigenous identity within their communities. For indigenous peoples on the U.S.-Mexico border, the border impacts perceptions of self and "Other" as shifting beliefs and attitudes regarding the border shape identity construction among indigenous border residents. This essay addresses the complexity of identity construction and representation for U.S.-Mexico border indigenous peoples, with a focus on U.S. indigenous community members. I argue that indigenous individuals with U.S. citizenship and belonging to indigenous nations with cultural ties to Mexico experience a complex process of identity construction that may involve shifting perceptions of self in relationship to nationality, ethnicity, and politics. While U.S. members of border indigenous nations primarily identify by community or tribal affiliation, border peoples may also identify as "Native American," "Native," "Indigenous," "Indígena," "Indian," "American Indian," "American," or "Mexican" depending on social context and personal life experience. As Tohono O'odham Nation member Ramon Valenzuela states, "I am O'odham first, and American or Mexican second or third" (Archibold 2006). I further argue that conflations of race and nationality among border indigenous [End Page 914] community members result in indigenous intra-community racism, while indigenous languages and other traditional community practices represent "family" ties across the U.S-Mexico border divide.

Indigenous peoples on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border construct their identities through nationalistic narratives about what constitutes an indigenous person as well a citizen of both a particular indigenous and settler nation. While indigenous peoples may hold distinct notions of themselves as citizens of their own Native nations, different in many ways from the larger nation-state citizenship, widespread narratives about what constitutes a "Native American" or "Indígena" in nationalistic terms significantly impact the individual identity narratives of U.S.-Mexico border indigenous persons. Discourse about what constitutes a Yaqui (Yoeme), an O'odham, or any indigenous person intertwines with daily social practices important to identity performance. These practices are necessarily different on either side of the border due to different economic and material conditions, influence of the dominant national cultures, differences in dominant educational systems, and various other factors. Due to these differences in daily practice and the way such practices intersect with indigenous identity discourses, U.S.-Mexico border indigenous persons may experience difficulty in conceptualizing cultural relatives across the international divide in terms of community self rather than "Other." Despite shared traditional practices that continue to unite indigenous peoples across the physical border, border enforcement has created both physical and ideological barriers to unity.

Many aspects of an indigenous person's intersectional identity (racial and tribal ancestry, local community history, class, gender, age, education, social network, religious affiliation, etc.) ultimately shape their perceptions of cultural relatives across the international border as well as their representations of self. Among the U.S.-Mexico border indigenous community members included in this study, several factors stand out as significant to indigenous identity formation and representation in relationship to "Mexican" culture within the border region. One factor is the significant historical presence of the Chicano movement. Another factor is an ethnic flexibility that seems possible, particularly for mixed-heritage youth, in border communities largely populated by Latinos. The particular history of an indigenous people's presence and movement across the U.S.-Mexico borderlands is of critical importance as is an individual community member's particular politics and set of social relationships. [End Page 915]

Research for this essay was conducted in close collaboration with the Alianza Indígena Sin Fronteras / Indigenous Alliance Without Borders (AISF), a collaboration that began in February 2006. Based in Tucson, Arizona, this organization advocates for rights of mobility across the U.S.-Mexico border for indigenous peoples who have traditionally inhabited and crossed the border region for social, ceremonial, and cultural purposes. Its members are also advocates of...


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pp. 914-936
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