As I noted last week, I’m focusing on reflections from a recent Border Summit during Advent. This week, I want to focus on the voices of two Native American tribal leaders who spoke to us about the particular realities of life on the US-Mexico border for people whose historical territory has been arbitrarily divided by nation states that disregard prior native claims to this desert landscape.
Tohono O’odham means “Desert People” and they have inhabited the Sonoran Desert for centuries. They used to travel between summer and winter homes, but the division of their land between the US and Mexico with the 1853 Gadsden Purchase resulted in the gradual but very real shift in welfare of the split nation. At this point, most O’odham people have moved to Arizona, where the US provided them with (relatively) more support and protection since they had allied with US forces against the Apaches.
Today, the O’odham continue to believe in and rely upon US forces, in the form of the Border Patrol. Idella Stanley spoke of how, many years ago, there was a small group of migrant workers who used to travel through her family’s land, heading north to work in US fields. They would share dinner, spend the night, talk again over breakfast, and depart north. At the end of the harvest season, they would return and spend another night on the way south, bringing home needed funds to their families in Mexico.
Now, all that has changed. Drug and people traffickers come through their land now, and the O’odham people fear for the health and well-being of elders living alone in border territory. They are grateful for the Border Patrol officers who will (at least eventually) respond to requests for assistance, or check in on the elderly on their routes. Today, native food is limited because the border walls prevent annual animal migrations. Rather than serving desperate migrants in their homes, the O’odham people send migrants to the local church.
The second speaker, Francisco Valencia, is a leader in the Pascua Yaqui tribe, which also has roots on both sides of the US-Mexico border. He spoke of the difficulties his people have in regularly crossing the border for tribal ceremonies because immigration officials have destroyed ceremonial regalia (gourd rattles, headdresses, etc.) to see if contraband is hidden inside. One element of their regalia, cocoon rattles, used to be harvested along the Santa Cruz River, which, as I mentioned a few months ago, was declared dead seventy years ago due to groundwater depletion. Now the Yaqui have to travel deep into Mexico to find their rattles, and then have great difficulty bringing them back across the border unbroken.
Border officials also don’t know what to do with traditional medicines which are harvested in Mexico and brought north for family members. Valencia believes border walls drive crime onto the reservations, because his people see working with the drug smugglers and coyotes (the nickname for the people smugglers) as easy money. These choices bring further challenges to the tribe.
So, what does all this have to do with Advent? Every Advent, many oppressed peoples await Christ’s return as liberator. Certainly the Native Americans on the southern US border could be justified in watching eagerly for the arrival of a Messiah who would relieve them of their oppression (by the US government) and set them free to live once again on land without divisive human borders. Sound familiar? It’s the story of Israel, too.
As you reflect on this complex situation, how are you called to pray?