- The Washington Times - Friday, July 11, 2008

The Tohono O’odham Nation, the second largest Indian reservation recognized by the U.S. with territory and members on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border, is calling for a halt in the construction of a fence along the Southwest border.

“As original people of the territory, the Tohono O’odham have lived on and cared for that land long before such a boundary even existed; before there was a U.S. or a Mexico,” Ofelia Rivas, a representative of the Indian tribe, said Thursday in Washington.

“Now, however, the construction of the border wall along the entire U.S.–Mexican border is splitting border communities and indigenous nations alike, including the Tohono O’odham,” Ms. Rivas said during a press conference.

The Tohono O’odham Reservation, whose 24,000 members live on 2.8 million acres on both sides of the Arizona border south of Tucson, is comparable in size to the state of Connecticut. It said the proposed border fence would “destroy the Tohono O’odham way of life, its traditions and religious practices,” along with the “many rights sworn to the O’odham people that are being violated.”

“This wall and the construction of this wall has destroyed our communities, our burial sites and ancient O’odham routes throughout our lands,” Ms. Rivas said. “The entire international border has divided and displaced our people.

“The wall also is severely affecting the animals. We now see mountain lions going into areas where people live because of the wall,” she said.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff has said his goal is to have actual fencing along 370 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border and barriers that would allow foot traffic but prevent vehicles on another 300 miles before the end of President Bush’s term, which ends in January. Mr. Chertoff has waived dozens of federal laws and regulations to build the fence.

But Tohono O’odham elders and traditionalists maintain their legacy through oral history, conducting natural ceremonies that include offerings to the land and sea. They also use many of the region’s plants and environmental resources as a source of food and medicine. Many of these sacred ceremonies take place in Mexico.

Ms. Rivas said the right of the Tohono O’odham people to travel freely and safely over traditional routes in their territory had been guaranteed under U.S., Mexican and International Law. She said the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978 acknowledges the rights of the O’odham people that the fence violates.

“By restricting the mobility of the O’odham people, the wall prevents the free practice of their religion and their cultural traditions. Further, rights granted by the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Declaration of Human Rights for Indigenous Peoples, and the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man are also being ignored due to a waiver issued by the Department of Homeland Security,” she said.

“Under this document, the president claims the power to waive any and all environmental and federal Indian laws in order to build the wall in the name of national security,” she said.

Ms. Rivas also said the construction has increased the military presence within the O’odham territory, further affecting their lives and communities.

“This wall has militarized our entire lands,” she said. “We, as original people, are now required to answer to United States armed forces as to our nationality on our own lands.”

Ms. Rivas said that once she was asked at gunpoint to produce identification to establish her right to be on the lands where she was born and where her ancestors lived since before Columbus arrived.

Ms. Rivas is in Washington with members of many different indigenous nations and allies who walked from San Francisco to Washington in what was billed as “The People’s Walk” to protest the fence.