Tohono O'odham David Martinez|Public ASU photo

ASU Professor David Martinez with the Gila River Indian Community, and cousin to the Hia Ced O’odham, provides more insight into the border wall conflict with the Trump administration.

When my Hia Ced O’odham relatives and I last went down to Quitobaquito Cemetery to tend our ancestors’ gravesites in April 2013, I was genuinely shocked at having to have an armed Border Patrol escort. Unfortunately, this is nothing new. The Hia Ced O’odham possess little power at protecting their ancestors, including from the political tension that has arisen along the border over the past three years. 

The Hia Ced O’odham are directly impacted by the Trump administration’s border wall. They are, however, often only fleetingly mentioned in the many news reports covering the conflict. 

How can the reports truly highlight the pain, however, of the federal government destroying the history of an almost extinct tribe?

In a recent story published by Cronkite News on the topic, Hia Ced Hemajkam Chairwoman Christina Andrews was quoted: “Every time I see it (the wall), it pains my heart.” 

Chairwoman Andrews was especially distressed by construction near the Quitobaquito Springs, which is home to Al Arivaipia, the Hia Ced O’odham’s ancestral cemetery. When this story ran, the Trump administration had just issued a waiver that exempted ongoing construction from environmental regulations, in addition to parts of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA).

Jurisdiction — be it in terms of policing, the justice system, or immigration policy — is a pressing issue for tribes in Southern Arizona, both on and off the reservation. Such is the case for tribes straddling the US-Mexico border. 

A major presence along the international border is the Tohono O’odham Nation (TON), which sits between Tucson and Organ Pipe National Monument. As a sovereign nation and federally acknowledged tribe, TON maintains a government-to-government relation with the US, which is responsible for protecting tribal members and their reservation land. While Congress and the President possess the authority for setting immigration policy in the federal system, the US Department of Interior ostensibly must abide by its consultation policy. 

President Obama’s Executive Order 13175, issued on Nov. 5, 2009, affirms the aforementioned government-to-government relationship with tribes. It also obliges federal agencies to “involve the appropriate level of decision maker in a consultation process.” 

Translation: Federal agencies must maintain ongoing communication with tribal authorities.

Since its 1937 constitution, Tohono O’odham Nation (TON) has been a recognized and fully articulated government. In addition to its three branches of government, there are a range of TON offices — from accounting to veterans affairs — prepared to handle all of the issues and concerns of the people. 

Those issues include dealing with the federal government regarding the repatriation of ancestral remains and artifacts and protecting the community from trans-border criminal activity, including undocumented migrant border crossings, drug and human trafficking, and gangs. Just because TON is a small nation (4,460 square miles and a population of 28,000) compared to the US does not mean that TON should ever be left out of any discussion impacting its rights and well-being. Just as cities, states, not to mention other nations, expect to be informed and consulted before the US takes any action on their territory, affecting their citizens, so too does TON expect the same consideration.

So, where do the Hia Ced O’odham fit into this scheme? They face an even greater challenge than the TON in that they are not a federally recognized tribe. One of the reasons for this dates back to 1851, when Hia Ced O’odham suffered from a yellow fever epidemic. The Hia Ced O’odham were compelled to leave the lands that stretched from the Ajo Mountains to Yuma and down to Puerto Peñasco for refuge among their Tohono O’odham relatives. Some families moved to the mining town of Ajo, while others moved west to Dome. 

Because of this diaspora, the Hia Ced O’odham were overlooked in 1917 when President Wilson established the “Papago Reservation” by executive order. In 1937, the reservation was divided into 11 districts per the above-mentioned constitution, in which Hia Ced O’odham were overlooked. Consequently, as an unrecognized tribe, the Hia Ced O’odham exist in a political hinterland where their rights are not clearly affirmed within the federal system.

The Hia Ced O’odham are nevertheless acknowledged by other O’odham as a discrete part of the O’odham, complete with their own dialect and homeland. At one point in 2012, the Hia Ced O’odham were accorded a twelfth reservation district in TON. The district was disestablished in 2015 after a referendum vote instigated by a legal dispute. 

That said, the integrity of Hia Ced O’odham identity remains strong. After generations of being regarded as a virtually extinct and liminal part of the O’odham community, the Hia Ced O’odham want to assert their political sovereignty and complete with the inherent rights of other federally recognized tribes, such as self-governance and preserving their cultural heritage. The Hia Ced O’odham recently organized an LLC, the Hia Ced Hemajkam, which is working toward becoming the 574th federally recognized tribe in the US. 

Fortunately, because of the kinship relation between the Hia Ced O’odham and TON, when TON was notified about the desecration to the land, so too were the Hia Ced O’odham. Consequently, the ancestral remains from Organ Pipe National Monument are being duly repatriated to the Tohono O’odham, who in turn have consulted with their Hia Ced O’odham cousins about the appropriate location for the reburial.

Still, the rule of law can do nothing to ameliorate the pain that Chairwoman Andrews spoke of: the agony people feel when violated by the authority figures who promised to protect them. 

Such is the nature of the federal-tribal trust relationship. More to the point, the Hia Ced O’odham are suffering the effects of a Homeland Security Act (2002) that inadequately explains the role of tribal consultation, making it difficult for federally recognized tribes and unrecognized groups like the Hia Ced O’odham to maintain their sovereignty.

Also, as many who support President Trump’s immigration policy will state, the wall is “necessary” because Trump promised his supporters that he would build one, such as Arizona House Majority leader Warren Petersen, Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Prescott, and Senator Martha McSally. It goes without saying, the ones enduring the consequences, meaning the Indians, are not counted among those to whom the president must keep his word.