YouTube video

The Tohono O’odham nation sits on the US-Mexico border. Tribal member, activist, and scholar Nellie Jo David describes the threats to the Native American nation, including surveillance and physical harassment

Story Transcript

MARC STEINER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Marc Steiner. Great to have you all with us.

As many of you know, we interviewed Will Parrish about his article on the Israeli defense contractor Elbit Systems, that designed and is running some of the most sophisticated surveillance systems on our border with Mexico. This experiment, this contract, is on Tohono O’odham Nation land. The reality is, it’s not only dangerous to our future civil liberties and freedom in this country, but once again becomes an invasive threatening presence on Native land. The Tohono O’odham people have lived on what is now the border for thousands of years. It spans US and Mexico, and the border surveillance are dividing this nation – are having a huge negative effect on those people.

Featured in the article was Nellie Jo David. She joins us today. Nellie Jo David is a Tohono O’odham environmental activist. She’s part of the O’odham Anti-Border Collective and she holds a Juris Doctorate specifically in Indigenous law and policy from Michigan State University, and is now working on her dissertation on border security issues at the University of Arizona. Nellie Jo, welcome. Good to have you with us.

NELLIE JO DAVID: Good to be here.

MARC STEINER: We talked a lot in our previous interviews about the effect of these surveillance systems, how pervasive they are, the fact this Israeli company’s doing it and honed all of its skills between the Palestinian-Israeli border wall, and what the dangers on civil liberties are. But there’s a bunch of parts here I think we really need to explore in depth that you talked about in this article. So talk about – take us a step backwards for a moment before we dive into what’s happening this moment. And just the history, briefly the history of the Tohono O’odham people on the border where part of the nation is living in the United States, part of the nation lives in Mexico, and the state of that, and how that affects the conflict going on between the United States and immigrants at the moment.

NELLIE JO DAVID: Yeah, absolutely. Having that history, and it’s a recent history, the Gadsden Purchase was finalized in 1854 and Tohono O’odham Nation as a whole wasn’t finalized until the early 1900s— and we’re talking the government structure we’re seeing today. Prior to that we had a traditional government structure, and we retained autonomy over our traditional homelands. That was definitely impacted and interrupted by the formation of the border back in the mid-1800s and then along that time until today.

In our lifetime— I’m in my mid 30s— we’ve seen a drastic change. I saw even early in my life growing up in the ’90s in Ajo, Arizona, traditionally Hia C-ed O’odham land right outside of the Tohono O’odham reservation, we saw the effects of prevention through deterrence. Prevention through deterrence, of course, being started in 1994 along with the creation of NAFTA. With all of that we saw an influx of undocumented peoples needing water, needing survival, trying to get by. And so since that time, we’ve been providing humanitarian aid and water as a community to folks that are in need. Of course, as we know that there are a lot of people who are against giving humanitarian aid, but it is in our culture to take care of each other and to take care of human beings. That’s what all the Hia C-ed O’odham and all that Tohono O’odham that I grew up, with grew up doing.

MARC STEINER: One of the things you were quoted as talking about was how this kind of pervasive militarization of the border and what’s happened with this surveillance has affected the cultural fabric of your people, the Tohono O’odham people. Talk a bit about that. What does that mean?

NELLIE JO DAVID: It means so many things because I would say that it interrupts just about every aspect of our lives. Every community along within the hundred mile radius, the border patrol believes that they have the right to monitor everybody and give constant surveillance. Surveillance is an added element. Some people have cameras and surveillance apparatuses targeted into their homes. It impacts ceremony. One thing that O’odham often are known culturally for is running,  and those runs are very spiritual. They mean a lot to O’odham people. When there’s surveillance going on when these ceremonies and runs are taking place, and we have to do these – have documentation at the border and that causes a hang up, it loses some of that meaning that our people have always carried since time and memorial.

In addition, the part that we saw that’s as a reservation, that’s only a fraction of Tohono O’odham, Hia C-ed O’odham, Akimel O’odham land. It spans a lot larger than that. It goes as far north as the Salt River up on Akimel O’odham territory. It goes as far East as Yuma, as far south as Caborca and the sea, and as far west as the San Pedro River outside of Tucson. It’s a huge landscape. Much of it is in the prevention through deterrence corridor. We not only deal with having to have – mourn the loss of so many deaths, we are also occupied. Border patrol has increased about 500% since 9/11. They have set up a base in my hometown or near my hometown in which they have a heavy artillery vehicles. They have set up their homes in the middle of my hometown. We’ve seen a drastic, drastic change just in my short lifetime because of the effects of the border.

On top of that, after 9/11 we saw the increase of checkpoints. We cannot enter or leave our lands without going through a checkpoint and being questioned on who we are and where we’re from. It’s ironic because a lot of the people doing the questioning are outsiders to our homeland, and yet the people that are originally from there are often harassed and questioned the most.

MARC STEINER: What you just described, when you talk about your hometown, your hometown is on the res itself on the Tohono O’odham land?

NELLIE JO DAVID: No, my hometown is Ajo and it’s right outside the Tohono O’odham reservation. It’s to the west of the Tohono O’odham reservation. It’s north of Oregon Pipe Cactus National Monument where they are currently building, constructing a wall as we speak.

MARC STEINER: Are they constructing a wall across the Tohono O’odham land as well?

NELLIE JO DAVID: As far as I know, that piece is being foregoed. What they’re currently doing on the nation is they’re installing the Elbit surveillance towers, the virtual wall.

Currently there are vehicle barriers and those barriers when they were installed in 2006, were a desecration because they involved the unburying of O’odham ancestors and basically digging up graves. The Native American Graves [Protection] and Repatriation Act was waived, as well as a number of other laws. There have been structures on the Nation that are comprised. Right now current construction is on originally Hia C-ed O’odham territory, in what’s now known as Oregon Pipe National Monument and there’s a spring nearby. They’re currently drilling wells within a five-mile radius. They’re drilling for each well. There’s a big concern because this is a sacred site for Hia C-ed O’odham peoples. That’s something that the Tohono O’odham Nation has recognized in books and in history or in the documentation with anthropologists. They say that Hia C-ed O’odham are extinct. Obviously I’m one of them, and so I’m living here today.

MARC STEINER: You don’t look instinct to me.

NELLIE JO DAVID: There’s still a lot of Hia C-ed O’odham within the town of Ajo. It’s not on the reservation, but there are many Hia C-ed O’odham in town who have ancestral ties and have relatives that have lived on what’s considered park service land until very recently. One of the problems and these issues is it’s unseated territory, but it’s recognized as a national park or monument. They’re also putting towers there and they’re putting a wall through. I believe they’re starting there because it’s easier for them to start on park service land than have to deal with the relationship, the federal relationship that the US has with tribes who are supposed to have sovereign rights. But of course, that is very much infringed upon by the border patrol and by having wall construction on our ancestral territory.

MARC STEINER: I think the former vice chairman of your nation was quoted in the article as saying something like that native land is sovereign until it’s not— in terms of the invasive nature of what’s happening with the border patrol and surveillance on the land. I’m curious if you could just in conclusion, talk a bit about what the resistance is from people on your reservation, people in the Indian nations around there, and what form that takes and how you see this playing out.

NELLIE JO DAVID: Well, I’m in slight disagreement with that statement. I mean, I see where it comes from because the border patrol definitely acts as if they have the jurisdiction and they act as if it’s their land, but I think our leadership needs to take a stronger stand in claiming that sovereignty and fighting back in the form of lawsuits. Unfortunately, that’s very difficult because of the nature of what the law is and how reservation systems are seen under the eye of the federal  government.

What’s happened with our nation is over time, all this hysteria and xenophobia has led to demands made by Department of Homeland Security for cooperation. The Nation is already struggling with poverty, with the effects of the drug war, with the effects of colonization and assimilation, and all that encompasses the occupation of our homeland. On top of that, we’ve lost our ancestral way of farming. Before there was a border there, we were farmers. And we still are farmers, but it’s a lot more difficult to navigate with the land and do ancestral farming when there’s a border that interferes with the water and interferes with how we’re doing the farming.

Getting back to that question of claiming our sovereignty, I think we have a long way to go because the occupation has been so devastating. The encroachment has had an effect on every member of the Nation. We often forget that we should have that inherent right. We should have that right to govern our own land. But because of programs like Operation Stonegarden under FEMA, which gives a large allocation to cooperate, sometimes the federal bureaucracy isn’t given a choice. You either cooperate with the border patrol or they might withhold funds or not be so supportive of programs with the Nation.

We’ve seen evidence of that when O’odham have tried to speak out for their rights. There’s just this big pushback where people that are leadership say, whether it be the vice chair or the chairman or council, they might want to say something about the border patrol. But if they were to do so, they would risk that relationship that they have with the Department of Homeland Security. That puts us all at odds with each other because it’s an internal struggle where the Nation is forced to cooperate with DHS. They have no choice because they’re the ones that control the funding, but yet the people have no outlet for human rights.

Border patrol have been violating O’odham human rights for a very long time, and O’odham them have had no outlet because they claim that they can do what they want. They claim that, “Well, for all intents and purposes, it’s a high trafficking area so we have the right to do roving patrols. We have the right to put our checkpoints. We have the right to have this constant surveillance and I’ll be damned with the Constitution.” The ACLU has a joke of a constitution-free zone and that is a good, I think that’s a good description because it does feel like we don’t have rights. I think that’s where the vice chairman was coming from, but the criticism of that is that as O’odham people, we need to exercise our rights. We can’t just lay over and allow them to take our rights, as they have been doing.

MARC STEINER: Nellie Jo David, this has been a fascinating discussion. I think we’ve learned a great deal talking with you. There’s just this one quick question as we close out, just for our viewers to understand. When you say the O’odham Nation, you’re talking about the Tohono O’odham Nation? Is that another way of saying it, just to be clear?



NELLIE JO DAVID: That is the federally recognized government relationship. It currently—It’s a complicated relationship because O’odham in Mexico are recognized as part of our tribe, but federal funding is only relative to the piece of allotted or not, I shouldn’t say allotted, reservation land. Sorry.

MARC STEINER: I know what you mean. The land north of the border. It’s in the United States physically is what you’re talking about, right?


MARC STEINER: Nellie Jo, this has been a really a great conversation. Nellie Jo David is an environmental activist, a member of the Tohono O’odham Nation, working on her PhD, and thank you so much. We look forward to staying in touch with you in terms of following the resistance and the struggle going on on Tohono land on the border. Thank you once again for taking the time to join us today.

NELLIE JO DAVID: Thank you for having me.

MARC STEINER: My pleasure. And I’m Marc Steiner here for The Real News Network. We will stay on top of this. Take care.

Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

Nellie Jo David is an organizer focusing on Indigenous human rights and autonomy on the imposed U.S./Mexico borderlands intersecting the Tohono O'odham Nation. Nellie is from Ajo, Arizona, traditionally Hia-Ced O'odham territory, just west of the Tohono O'odham reservation and north of Mexico. She works on migrant justice issues and protecting the rights of Indigenous peoples and wildlife along the border.