During the public discussion regarding the Central America immigrant caravan, much of the rhetoric of intolerance activists was (still is) ill-informed. 

For example, one of the familiar catchphrases repeated often is “Arizona’s open border with Mexico must have a wall to keep immigrants from crossing.”

Likewise, the recent government shutdown debacle was based on the same level of scare tactics and misinformation as to why the Arizona segment of the border is open and doesn’t have a wall.    

The truth is that the contiguous desert between Arizona and Sonora, Mexico is in reality another country — The Tohono O’odham Nation. Said another way, “open borders” here means freedom. That is, the O’odham can move about in freedom within the desert. Although maps do show the typical U.S.-Mexico border demarcation line between Arizona and Sonora, there is no standard border. Sounds odd, right?  

Unsurprisingly, the majority of the U.S. population, most elected officials, and news persons are unaware of this border incongruity. In fact, they would be surprised to know that after the U.S.-Mexico War (1846-48), the U.S. didn’t even want southern Arizona (Tucson). U.S. surveyors deliberately drew the borderline farther north, near present-day Phoenix.  

Everything changed when the transcontinental railroad came along. Then, the U.S. appetite for the region grew. Soon, Mexico was persuaded to sell the Gadsden Purchase (Venta de la Mesilla) in 1854 to the U.S. for ten million dollars. Why did Mexico sell?  

First, the Republic of Mexico had just lost more than half of its sovereignty to the U.S. only six years earlier (1848). 

Secondly, Mexico’s decision was pragmatic and based on two concerns: (l) U.S. railway investors were strongly lobbying the U.S. government to acquire the land; and (2) there was a good chance the U.S. would take the territory by force if Mexico didn’t agree to give it up.

Consequently, the U.S. bought southern Arizona, with the condition that O’odham and related indigenous residents would be classified as “one-people-two-countries”, thereby granting free access throughout their Sonora Desert homeland to travel from the southern to the northern part of the desert and vice versa. Ever since and as late as the 1990s, steps were taken to do the right thing and give O’odham families U.S. citizenship.  

Unfortunately, after September 11, 2001 (9/11), intolerant politicians and anti-immigrant fanatics, bloated by bigotry, were quick to link the terms migrant and immigrant with the word “terrorist”. That error fanned the anti-immigrant flames enveloping public opinion, severely disturbing the Sonora Desert way of life. Bowing to the hatred, the U.S. government abandoned all intent to fulfill promises made to the O’odham people after the Gadsden Purchase. 

In introducing my O’odham brethren, with all due respect, below is a sincere attempt to enlighten readers on the Tohono O’odham Nation, our neighbor on the southern border.  

What is the reason behind the Tohono O’odham Nation? Their web site (http://www.tonation-nsn.gov/) contains a clear message as to their mission:  “… We want to open a window to our world to educate others about our history, culture, governance, and other aspects of the Nation that otherwise may not be readily available.’’  

Thus, through their mission statement, the O’odham identify their main goal, which is to educate mainstream U.S. society as to the unique nature of their homeland. 

Where is The Nation located? The Sonora Desert is their home. Spreading out over southern California, Baja California, Arizona, and Sonora, it covers an area of 100,000 square miles.  

Likewise, the Chihuahua Desert, east of the Sonora and covering 140,000 square miles, also straddles the U.S. and Mexico, and is similarly a Native American homeland. Both deserts are used by First Americans to live, hunt, and satisfy spiritual needs by performing religious rituals on both sides of the border (see more below).  

How old is the Nation? Although there are several schools of thought regarding their origin, there is evidence that O’odham (Desert People) ancestors have lived in Arizona and throughout the region as far as the Pacific Ocean for thousands of years.  

An intriguing aspect of this account adds credibility to their long lineage. It’s the possibility that “Aztlán”, the mighty Aztec civilization’s homeland, was located somewhere within these boundaries. Besides being cited in Aztecs’ origin traditions, many tribes in the western part of the U.S. speak Uto-Aztecan language dialects.  

What about the Nation’s organization? There are eleven districts. Each district is operated by a chairman, secretary, and treasurer. The Nation’s website lists a reservation population of nearly 30,000, with extended family living throughout the U.S. In population and geographic size, it ranks as the second largest reservation in Arizona. Its land base consisting of four non-contiguous segments contains 2.8 million acres and 4,460 square miles (about the size of the state of Connecticut).   

What about shared religious sites? On the U.S. side, Tucson, Arizona is home to San Xavier del Bac in the Tohono O’odham territory established by Father Kino in 1692. Fondly called “The White Dove of the Desert”, the mission is most revered by Catholic believers on both sides of the border. Incidentally, Father Kino is the first to record the name Tucson in Spanish in 1699, a Native American word, meaning “at the foot of the black mountain”. 

On the Mexico side, Magdalena de Kino, Sonora was founded by Father Kino in 1687. Father Kino died in 1711 and is buried in a crypt near the mission he founded. Both locations, as well as many stand-alone chapels established by Father Kino, hold special religious significance and are migratory destinations of seasonal journeys conducted by O’odham pilgrims living in the U.S. and Mexico.

That brings us to the key point that many members of U.S. mainstream society are either unable to understand and/or refuse to accept: O’odham people are migrants (not immigrants) when crossing through their desert homeland spanning the U.S.-Mexico border.          

Having faced antagonistic abuse for many generations, the Tohono O’odham represent the stoic resiliency of First Americans throughout America.  

The list of appalling offenses is long – from the trickery involved in the “purchase” of Manhattan Island, exile of Great Lakes region tribes; General Andrew Jackson’s brutal 1830 Indian Removal Act (Trail of Tears), the taking of Northeast, Midwest, Plains, Southeast, Southwest, Rockies, and Northwest lands; recent opening of public lands to oil/gas drilling/pipeline companies and disrespecting sacred burial grounds; the list goes on.  

Sadly, another reality ignored by mainstream U.S. society is that families separated since 1848 (throughout the U.S.-Mexico border, from Brownsville to San Diego) have to endure their family separation on a daily basis. 

The outrage continues. Heartlessly using Homeland Defense as an excuse, U.S. officials at all levels have revived 19th century treatment of O’odham people. Plus, U.S. border patrol/customs agents humiliate and harass O’odham families because some don’t have birth certificates. (Being people of the desert, births are often unrecorded.)   

In summary, I am under no illusion that this article will improve the way mainstream white society treats Native Americans. No doubt change will come. That’s why I continue to write and educate others about long-ignored details of early Texas and Southwest history. Hopefully, readers will be inspired to get involved, triggering upward justice and equality from the grass roots. 

Lastly, the term “American people” is used by politicians to refer to mainstream society citizens. Let’s not forget that Native Americans were the first American People. They deserve the dignity and respect that comes with the title, yet we as a nation have failed to involve them as full citizens. “Give to every human being every right that you claim for yourself” (Thomas Paine).

Editor’s Note: A dancer in a powwow contest at the annual Tohono O’odham Nation Rodeo & Fair. (Photo: Sarah Jarvis/Cronkite News)