O'odham: Surviving apartheid on the illegal border
By Brenda Norrell
Photo by Brenda Norrell: Angie Ramon, Tohono O'odham, prepares squash for 'Apartheid in America.'
TUCSON - Tohono O'odham living on the border joined with activist Ward Churchill to speak out on "Apartheid in America, Surviving Occupation in O'odham Lands," in Tucson on Nov. 13. Ofelia Rivas and her brother Julian Rivas, O'odham living on the US/Mexico border, spoke of the impact and desecration of colonization and border militarization.
Ofelia Rivas said O'odham were never included in the dialogue determining the delineation of the US/Mexico border in the 1800s or the construction of the border wall.
"We were not at that table when they made that international border. We were not considered human," she told the crowd of several hundred people.
Responding to questions from supporters seeking ways to help, Ofelia said, "Can you take that border down for us? Can you restore our way of life? Can you give the language back to our young people who have gone though the boarding school experience or those who went through relocation? Can you give those back to us?" she asked.
"In the beginning, when the world was made, we were here. We were made from this earth."
She said when O'odham elders, the ancestors passed away, they became part of this earth since the beginning of time. "Our ancestors are every part of this land, not just our ancestors, but all the Indigenous Peoples of this world."
Ofelia said she was inspired by the young people who came to learn because they care.
Describing the ongoing struggle of O'odham she said, "We are considered not human today. They can kill us, they can abuse us." Now, the sacred routes have been closed that O'odham have followed since the beginning of time for ceremonies and to make offerings to the land.
"That is the way we live, that is our balance here as human beings."
O'odham continue to struggle every single day because border policies make lives so difficult. Each day O'odham are confronted with the choice to compromise in order to survive and become part of the system. It is a system that makes O'odham "unhuman," she said.
Ofelia said many look at the desert and speak only of the heat. But here, she said there is the beauty of the cactus, beauty of animals, beauty of the water that once flowed and the beauty of the original people of this land. She told those who want to make social change, the place to begin is to view O'odham as human beings. She said O'odham who happen to be born at home, in what is now another country, now need permission to travel.
When O'odham cross the border to visit their families and for ceremonies, O'odham undergo demeaning treatment on a daily basis from border agents because of this illegal border.
"They didn't ask us to put that international border there," said Ofelia, founder of the O'odham VOICE Against the Wall.
When confronted by US Border Patrol agents, she said she uses her O'odham language to establish her right of passage. Still, the US Border Patrol has held a gun to her head and to the heads of O'odham elders. Her brother Julian was shot at crossing the border.
Ofelia said she tells young people to say prayers that the hearts of the human race will be changed. She said people need to remember their songs to give back the blessings to Mother Earth and live in harmony with the water, land and people.
Ofelia said the Tohono O'odham chairman held a ceremony recently in Washington for a card that gives permission for O'odham to travel on their own lands.
"I have a problem with that," she said of the O'odham border card.
"As original people, we've always had permission from the Creator to travel on our own lands and that is the only permission we need."
Ofelia asked for help in monitoring laws being passed in Washington. Currently, the lands of Indigenous Peoples have been contaminated by many forms of pollution, including atom bomb testing.
She pointed out that the US waived 37 laws to build the vehicle barrier on O'odham lands. The US dug up O'odham ancestors to build this vehicle barrier.
Julian Rivas said O'odham are continuing in the path of resistance fighters like Leonard Peltier. "Indigenous Peoples have a tie to the land, a tie to their beliefs. Their comfort zone is the earth. As non indigenous people, you create your own comfort zone."
Speaking on Indigenous resistance, Julian said "We do it, we don't just talk about it."
Julian said he continues to cross the border even though his pickup truck has been shot at and has bullet holes in it.
"That's our way of life in resistance."
Julian said after 9/11 there were many changes at the border which affected the O'odham way of life. "They blocked off some of our traditional routes and it instilled a lot of fear in the people." O'odham became fearful of crossing the border, which they have done since time immemorial, going back and forth in their homelands. Now, the militarization of the border involves at least seven enforcement agencies.
Still, traditional O'odham leaders in Mexico have been at the bargaining table with the Zapatistas in Mexico in order to bring further recognition to Indigenous Peoples in Mexico.
"We have no means of funding."
Julian said O'odham along the border have applied to the Tohono O'odham Nation government in Sells, Arizona, for funds, but have received none.
"There is nothing coming out for that. We have to do our own fund raisers for the work we are doing."
"We do follow a traditional order," he said of the O'odham leadership in Mexico. He said that neither the Tohono O'odham Nation nor the Mexico government can dictate to the O'odham in Mexico. The O'odham traditional form of government is not written down, but it is known to the O'odham.
Julian said O'odham in Mexico have fought a toxic waste dump planned for their ceremonial community of Quitovac in Sonora, Mexico. O'odham in Mexico first learned about the toxic dump from people in Mexico. Although the Tohono O'odham Nation government knew about it earlier, the nation was not concerned with it, he said.
Activist groups across the Southwest helped traditional O'odham in Sonora fight this toxic dump, he said.
Julian said when 9/11 occurred Homeland Security brought in expensive vehicles to run over everything in the O'odham homeland, desecrating the land and sacred area. "They build roads wherever they want to."
"Because of 9/11, everyone with brown skin is labeled a terrorist."
Julian said the Tohono O'odham Nation government speaks of sovereignty, but it is not demonstrating sovereignty.
"It is always strings being pulled from somewhere else."
"We survived 500 plus years of that. With this resistance, we're going to last another 500 plus years," he said.
Welcoming guest speaker Ward Churchill, Ofelia Rivas said Churchill has proven to be sympathetic and compassionate about what is happening on the border to Native lands.
During questions, Churchill said it should be the O'odham people who determine an action plan for the border. Churchill said video cameras could be used to curb the level of violence by vigilantes at the border. He said people can follow the Minutemen and other civilian border patrols around with video cameras, as the Black Panthers once did in Oakland. After the Panthers followed Oakland police around with video cameras, police brutality dropped more than 50 percent in six months.
Churchill encouraged Tucson area residents to establish "neighborly" relationships with O'odham to work toward change. He said there is no script for instant social change.
"The process is called ‘a struggle' for a reason."
During his talk, Churchill spoke of Leonard Peltier and Indigenous land rights. He described apartheid formulated in South Africa, which was strict segregation and flagrantly racist. He said people were outraged in the United States about apartheid, but it was adapted from Jim Crow. Jim Crow in the Deep South was an antecedent to apartheid in South Africa.
For Native people, colonizers brought mainstreaming.
"Mainstreaming means assimilation."
Churchill spoke of different forms of colonialism in South Africa, US, Poland and Germany. He spoke of how colonialism affected Native people, pointing out the short life expectancy for Native men as living conditions deteriorated and colonization increased.
Churchill described settler state colonizers and the struggle for decolonization which began in the 1940s.
Speaking of boundaries and walls, Churchill described the wall in Palestine and on O'odham land. Today in the US, O'odham have to go through "checkpoints," just like Palestinians. Churchill compared the lethal actions of Israel toward Palestinians to the US Border Patrol's lethal actions toward O'odham.
He said the dehumanizing of Palestinians is manifest in a similar fashion in the US. This dehumanizing of Indians is apparent in movies like the Oscar winning western "Unforgiven."
Further, he spoke of racial profiling in the US, the popularity of Rush Limbaugh and vigilantes at borders.
Angie Ramon spoke of her son, Bennett Patricio, Jr., who was run over and killed by the US Border Patrol. Bennett was walking home through the desert at 3 a.m. when he was run over. Ramon believes, based on the evidence, that her son was intentionally run over and killed after he walked upon Border Patrol agents involved in a drug transfer. Ramon described her struggle for justice and asked why the US Border Patrol left her son crushed on the highway for so long without transporting him to a hospital.
"I know he must have still been alive," she said, describing how his fingers were still twitching as he lay dying on the highway.
She said both the US Border Patrol and the Tohono O'odham police know what really happened.
Ramon said the Tohono O'odham Nation government has not helped her financially with the case, which she took alone to the Ninth Circuit. She said the tribal government receives funds from the US Border Patrol.
During the event, the crowd enjoyed traditional O'odham tepary beans, baked squash and fry bread, cooked by Ramon and her family.
The event was a fundraiser for the O'odham Solidarity Project.
--Watch videos of this gathering, with additional O'odham interviews by Earthcycles and Censored News: http://www.livestream.com/earthcycles