Tohono O’odham and Latinos: an unfinished relationship

This Native American tribe helps the Border Patrol but opposes the Wall

In 2004, while I worked as one of the news editors of the newspaper La Opinión, of which a decade later I became its editorial director, and to better understand the situation on our southern border, I participated in a week-long fellowship. It was led by the well-known author and journalist Marc Cooper and organized for reporters from the country’s main media outlets by the School of Journalism at USC. There were about twenty participants from publications in English and two in Spanish.

A Border Tour

The tour included border points in the Mexican states of Baja California and Sonora as well as California and Arizona. One of the most interesting sections in the latter was the one carried out in the territory of the Tohono O’odham Nation.

The Tohono O’odham are a Native American nation that rejected the military expeditions of the Spanish and centuries later, were one of the few not to sign an agreement with the United States government. Despite this, it is a nation recognized by the federal government, with its own government.

Their name means “the people of the desert,” because they reside mostly in the Sonoran Desert. They number about 36,000 members. They have their own language, O’odham Neogi, a Uto-Aztec dialect. Its territory formerly occupied part of these states, but was reduced to a fraction of what they had in the past.

Their numbers are also dwindling. According to the Census, it has fallen by 3.6% between 2011 and 2015, and by 5.6% between 2000 and 2010.

Many of the surnames of the Tohono on both sides of the border are Hispanic proper names. But they are Native Americans, who vigorously defend their territory, their rights and their culture. I interviewed in 2004 at the tribe’s headquarters, among others, the leader of the group – the first woman elected to that position in its history – Vivian Juan-Saunders, and its police chief at that time, Richard Saunders, a married couple.

Wide open border

In those days there was no physical separation between Mexico and the United States. The border was a fence  made of logs that only served to mark the terrain. 

People crossed as if the international border did not exist. As for the members of the nation, the federal government guarantees that they do so at any time, at will.

The distinction between “American” Tohono and “Mexican” Tohono was created when the United States and Mexico divided the territory under the Gadsden Acquisition Agreement in 1853 by which the former country obtained Arizona and New Mexico. The majority lives in the US and about 2,000 in small towns by the border in Mexico.  That day, some of those who identified themselves as Tohono O’odham people living in Mexico were crossing.

I interviewed a couple of them. They were interested in filing a complain, not against the governments, but against their brothers in the north. They discriminate against us, they ignore us, they treat us like second-class citizens, they said. They spoke Spanish and did not know English. “They exploit us,” they added.

These tohonos have been exposed to Mexican and Latin culture in general. Although they look Latino in everything, although they say they are not, their difference from members on this side of the border is palpable.  

The situation today

Almost 20 years have passed since that journey.

Tribal members continue to cross the border at will, especially the Mexican Tohono O’odham who come to work in the United States. But now the Border Patrol is checking them. They ask for documents, they make them wait, they take photos of them. Sometimes they make arrests. Repeatedly they were deported before their right to cross and stay in the country could be established.

Now, modern security fences separate their ancestral lands and their citizens from either side.

The change began after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2011. Since then the federal government has restricted crossings by members of the nation to a single point of entry inside the reservation territory, or to any official port of entry in USA, for reasons of national security and the war against drug trafficking, which has gradually devastated the lives of the inhabitants. Some of them fell into the networks of drug traffickers and worked for them. Many more have been victims and are addicts. Others, are still indifferent.

The border became more and more opaque.

They oppose undocumented immigration

In a talk with a group of journalists in their capital Sells, the tribe’s leaders complained about the illegal immigration that crosses their territory. They described instances of assaults, of physical attacks. They spoke of the community’s fear and that their police force is inadequate and insufficient. Those who behave like this, they said, are the “illegals.” 

Those who assaulted them, they said, could be drug traffickers, common criminals, or immigrants.

Twenty years later, the problem worsened. “Some of my employees have had their homes broken into. Immigrants break into their refrigerators because they are starving after a long trip. Destroying homes and leaving dirty clothes has a negative impact on the environment,” Gary Olson, a waste maintenance manager for the O’odham government, said last year.

Finally, earlier this month, Verlon José, the tribal chief elected a year ago, participated as a minority witness (Democrat) in a session of the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations in the House Natural Resources Committee .

They oppose the wall

There he presented the position of his group. Undocumented immigration, he stated, causes serious harm to the population. But the wall is not better, he explained, referring to the one that former President Trump promised to build to block the passage of immigrants. Any problems between the Tohono and immigrants “are overshadowed by the problems arising from the construction of the border wall intended to stop migration.”

The wall is located on federal government lands adjacent to the tribe’s lands. The Tohono O’odham have no legal recourse to oppose its construction, neither during the Trump presidency nor now that President Biden has announced the resumption of construction.

“The wall,” Chief José added, “interferes with the flow of scarce and vital water resources that plants and wildlife depend on… Our tribal members depend on these plants for food, medicinal and cultural purposes.”

“This wall has been an utter failure at deterring illegal immigrants and drug traffickers,” as it can easily be crossed “by climbing over it, tunneling under it, or cutting through it”, he said.

This has happened, he claims, thousands of times in recent years along the wall.

Finally, Chief José concluded, “the construction of the wall on federal lands to the east and west of our Reservation has already disturbed and even destroyed human remains, sacred sites, cultural sites and resources of religious and cultural importance, and tribal archaeological resources, and there is no way to repair or restore this damage for us”.

They are not Latinos

The Tohono, then, for the most part do not consider themselves Latino. In fact, research from Northern Arizona University comissioned by the Department of Planning and Economic Development of the Tohono O’odham Nation Tribe explains that “in terms of ethnicity, less than a tenth (8.2 %) of Tohono O’odham tribe members identify as Hispanic or Latino. This is lower than in the neighboring county where one-third (35.7%) identify as Hispanic or Latino and lower than in Arizona where 30.3 percent identify as Hispanic or Latino.”

On the other hand, 85.7% of them identify as American Indians.

For the Tohono O’odham, the situation along their 62-mile border is a serious problem, and not just because of migration. Drug penetration is a constant, real threat. For a couple of decades already, its police officers have been cooperating with US law enforcement agencies in the fight against drug trafficking. As part of their presentation to journalists at the 2004 meeting, they showed us a van that they had intercepted that same day and which was loaded with marijuana.

It is tragic that a large part of their police activity, in the very hot months, focuses on the recovery of the bodies of migrants who die trying to cross the border on their way north.

“The Nation is responsible for the recovery and disposition of immigrants who have died in our Reservation. Since 2003, our nation’s law enforcement agencies have spent nearly $6 million on more than 1,500 migrant death investigations and recoveries without any federal funding or assistance,” José told Congress.

To deal with illegal crossings, the tribe has created a militarized unit, the Shadow Wolves, an armed and uniformed group that tracks and detains immigrants and drug traffickers. In 2022, the Lobos were incorporated into the ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) staff.  

Despite the complaint that the Tohono of Mexico personally expressed to me, the leaders of the tribe said that they consider them members in everything. This is an important reason in his opposition to the construction of the wall. The wall separates the O’odham, it separates members of the same family, participants in their ceremonies and cultural and political events.

The border crosses them

It’s just that they were here before the border. The border crosses them, and not vice versa.

In the middle of the desert, they have an affinity with the immigrants who come crossing. Even if they are not fully aware of it. Like them, they suffer from poverty, marginalization and government indifference. And another devastating statistic: 34.5% of the tribe’s households are single mothers, three times more than in the surrounding counties, but less than in Latino households in the United States, where it is close to half.

To protect their lands, their relationship with the federal government, the Tohono allied themselves with the federal government and are part of the apparatus for controlling illegal immigration at the border. Their relationship with the Latino community – with which they share so much – is limited.

This article was supported in whole or in part by funds provided by the State of California, administered by the California State Library and the Latino Media Collaborative.


  • Gabriel Lerner

    Founder and co-editor of Latino Los Angeles. Editor Emeritus of La Opinion, former Editor-in-Chief. Born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, is a journalist, columnist, blogger, poet, novelist, and short story writer. Was the editorial director of Huffington Post Voces. Editor-in-chief of the weekly Tiempo in Israel. Is the father of three grown children and lives with Celia and with Rosie, Almendra and Yinyit in Los Angeles.

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