Unfinished Business in Indian Country

An excerpt from Todd Miller's book Border Patrol Nation exposes the Tohono O’odham community's perseverence in the face of the increasing militarization on its ancestral lands.

June 9, 2014

(Jeffrey D. Hendricks / Feral Futures Photography)

Last month, a report revealed that 97 percent of complaints of abuse submitted to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) resulted in “No Action Taken.” The immense push for transparency and accountability in the U.S. Border Patrol that followed compelled the CBP to release a review of its own use-of-force practices and adopt a new policy handbook to revise its abusive practices. Although an improvement, further analysis is necessary to understand the more complex issues in the opaque world of the U.S. Border Patrol. Todd Miller—who has been researching and reporting on the border for 15 years—exposes this world in his book Border Patrol Nation: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Homeland Security (City Lights, 2014).

One of the major questions Miller tackles is the expansion of the U.S. Border Patrol and the militarization of the border through its Forward Operating Bases, the same ones used in Iraq and Afghanistan. They are clear indicators of the stance the U.S. is taking on the border: It is more than surveillance, but “a wartime posture that regards borders as frontlines.” Importantly, Miller reveals how the U.S. Border Patrol extends its reach to northern states such as Michigan and New York, proving this war is now a national reality, without a specific geographic location.

While the logic of border security attempts to mark insiders from outsiders, good from bad, the excerpt below from Miller’s chapter “Unfinished Business in Indian Country” accounts for the various forms of racial oppression along the border, complicating these categories. Focusing on the Tohono O’odham Nation, whose land spans the U.S.-Mexico border, Miller describes how the tribe resists the increasing occupation of these lands by U.S. Border Patrol and their barrier building operations, which one chairman described as “a bulldozer in your family graveyard, turning up bones.” Below, Miller recounts an interaction between U.S. Border Patrol agents and a member of Tohono O’odham, symbolic of the policies of surveillance and hostility that alienate not only those outside the border but also those within it.



When we stop the car, David Garcia opens the door, steps out, and walks straight to the metal border gate that officially separates the United States and Mexico. Garcia, an elder of almost sixty, has long graying hair that reaches to his shoulders. Without a word, the former Tohono O’odham tribal councilman opens the gate. He does this as if it were his automatic impulse. There is nobody on the other side waiting to come in, nor are we planning to cross into Mexico ourselves. Garcia opens it simply as if the barrier didn’t belong, as if it were artificial and imposed, something to breach, something to open, something to resist.

Garcia stands in front of the open gate with Mexico’s mountainous Sonoran Desert spread out behind him. There are the same gorgeous saguaros, arms extending upward to the sun, that one finds on the U.S. side of the divide. There are the same ocotillos, and cholla cacti whose spiny segments often puncture the shoes—and flesh—of people attempting to enter the United States unnoticed by traveling vast distances across the desert on foot.

With the border gate open to the world, I know it is only a matter of time before the Border Patrol comes to investigate the area and close it.

We are in an isolated area near Papago Farms in late June, in the south western corner of the Tohono O’odham Nation in southern Arizona, the second-largest Indian reservation in the United States in sheer land mass. Though only a fraction of the Tohono O’odham’s original land, today the nation’s territory is the size of the state of Connecticut.

Up the rutted road about a mile from where Garcia and I stand is a Border Patrol Forward Operating Base. The base is more than just a center for mission communications and surveillance; it’s a strategic presence demonstrating that the U.S. government is in a wartime posture that regards borders as front lines, whether or not they run through sacred Indian land or ruffle the locals’ feathers. The Pentagon commonly used Forward Operating Bases in Iraq and Afghanistan as secure military positions to facilitate tactical operations in remote regions, essential for “gaining, maintaining, and expanding,” as the Border Patrol’s Ramiro Cordero told the New York Times. Such bases are now commonplace along the U.S.-Mexico border, and there are two on Tohono O’odham territory. Never before has there been such a widespread presence of U.S. federal forces on the Tohono land.

Garcia is challenging the meaning of the closed gate. As many Tohono O’odham do in subtle ways every day on the reservation, he is also challenging those who impose and enforce that meaning: the U.S. Border Patrol. The border gate is between the vehicle barriers constructed by CBP after the Secure Fence Act of 2006, which called for 650 miles of fencing constructed along the 2,000-mile southern border. Set in concrete, the vehicle barriers are closely spaced posts spanning the seventy-five miles of border the Tohono Nation shares with Mexico. “Imagine a bulldozer parking on your family graveyard, turning up bones,” nation chairman Ned Norris Jr. said describing the barrier construction in 2008. “This is our reality.”

With the opened gate provoking them, Border Patrol agents will be coming for us soon, but I see nothing but the heat waves coming up from the land under a scorching late-morning sun. Forecasters are predicting a 110-degree day, the hottest of the year. Even five minutes in this heat is enough to push us back into the air-conditioned car. One week later, it will be very close to here that agents will discover the remains of five people. This is one of those places, as mentioned earlier, that is supposed to be so isolated and dangerous that, according to Border Patrol strategy, nobody would dare to cross here.

We see the Border Patrol coming for us when we get back on the dirt road and head north. It is almost comical. There in the distance is the Homeland Security vehicle driving fast and kicking up a cloud of dust. The vehicle is coming toward us from the Forward Operating Base, backed by the bases’ large antenna under a large sky and the empty desert behind it. Focusing on the scene, it was as if we could be anywhere—anywhere in the world that the United States attempts to occupy and control. However, we just look at the distant vehicle in silence; there is nothing we really need to say. We both know what is about to happen. The rumbling green-and-white SUV comes closer and closer. When it is thirty feet away, it skids to a dramatic stop with its sirens blaring. Two Border Patrol agents dressed in their quintessential green uniforms jump out of the SUV and rush at us.

“They don’t have to do that,” Garcia says, un-amused, as I stop the car.

One agent circles around to the back of the car to call in the license plate. The other approaches the window. When I roll down the window, I can see that the agent is far from calm. There is adrenaline snapping in the air. I wonder if the agent, his dark hair in a military flattop, is a combat vet who fought in Afghanistan or Iraq. Many of the new recruits are, and I assume he is too. He looks and acts like a soldier, but I can’t be sure.

“What are you doing?” he asks us. His question is command-like, infused with the suspicion that we’ve done something wrong. His face, leaning into the car, is slightly red, as if he has been running, and round. Despite his authoritarian tone, he seems to be forcing a smile, squeezing out politeness.

“We went to look at the border,” I reply.
“Why?” he asks without a pause.
“To report what’s happening,” I say, then add, “I’m a journalist from New York” (at the time I was living in New York City), hoping that would explain it.

Instead he leans into the vehicle, even more suspicious, as if that gave him a clue to some sort of unlawfulness.

“How do you know each other?”
 “Through a friend,” I reply.
 “Oh, yeah, do you have a lot of friends in New York City?” the agent asks Garcia. His tone is laced with sarcasm, and this is the first time that he directly addresses the Tohono O’odham man who is in his home Chukut Kuk district, a place where his ancestors have lived for more than a thousand years. We are less than twenty miles away from where Garcia grew up, his family’s land where they used to plant watermelon, squash, corn, and wheat, like most other Tohono O’odham people. This was well before armed federal forces, in the form of the Border Patrol, installed and occupied permanent bases on the reservation.

Garcia’s expressions and body language suggest that he has been dealing with the Border Patrol for far too long. And he has. As a former tribal councilmember, Garcia has had numerous dealings with Homeland Security. At one point he took it upon himself to go out to the borderline to monitor the men in green, much to the chagrin of the agents. Alone he would tail them in an old, beat-up car. However, as a former councilmember who is actively critical, Garcia is an anomaly. As with any other group of people, among the Tohono O’odham there is not one clear opinion regarding the Border Patrol. But the nation’s official position, from its legislative council, has been one of collaboration. The tribal council has formally approved many Homeland Security projects, from more surveillance towers to more agents.

Like most Tohono O’odham, Garcia has been insulted by the Border Patrol before. This time the agent once again steps over a line by implying that the Tohono O’odham elder could not have friends in New York City. But Garcia gives him the benefit of the doubt and asks, “What?” just in case he didn’t hear the agent correctly.

Instead of acknowledging Garcia’s question, the agent orders him to produce some ID. Garcia pulls out his tribal membership card. The agent looks from the photo to Garcia several times, making a point of his doubt and suspicion.

“It’s me,” Garcia says, now visibly impatient.
“What is your citizenship?” the agent asks.
“Tohono O’odham,” Garcia responds. This could get good, I think to myself. But the agent doesn’t bite. He releases Garcia from his gaze and instructs me to state my citizenship. I tell him that I am a citizen of the United States.

“And who is this friend?” the agent asks, again. But this time I sense more in his voice than mere disbelief that we have a mutual friend. At first I can’t tell what it is, but his tone and mannerisms—simmering with aggression and suspicion—seem to be another example of what everyday life can be like for the Tohono O’odham Nation when the U.S. Border Patrol imposes its authority. And this is what I have come here to learn.

Perhaps it is naive on my part to think that the agent would treat us better once he saw that Garcia was Tohono O’odham and that we are on his sovereign ancestral land. For one thing, even though I am a professional journalist, I am prohibited (by the Tohono O’odham Nation) from traveling off-road on the reservation without the accompaniment of a member of the nation.

However, the agent does not treat us any better. If anything, his suspicion deepens. Racial profiling seems to be in play: a Native and non-Native out in the middle of nowhere, but so close to the border, need to be examined closely. That the U.S. government recognizes the Tohono O’odham Nation as a “distinct, independent political” community with a highly qualified sense of sovereignty seems to mean little to this agent. He doesn’t appear to be aware that another body of laws, voted on by the O’odham and its legislative council, govern the land where he is standing. Or maybe it just doesn’t matter to him.

According to the U.S. government, the international border that exists on Native American land is at many points “vulnerable” to unauthorized entry. In the post-9/11 era, this sloppy, porous patch of border, in the government’s eyes, is a full-fledged national security threat.

However, what I will learn is something that isn’t explicitly stated in publicly accessible government documents: it isn’t just the people who are searching for work or smuggling narcotics, but also the Tohono O’odham themselves who seem to be considered “foreign.” This “messy” but ancient world of familial, social, political, economic, and spiritual cross-border community flies in the face of the black-and-white, good-and-bad nature of border security. The tone of the federal agent’s voice makes everything crystal clear. He is in control, and he is just one of hundreds there to use borders, gates, guns, and a grid of global surveillance to enforce the hard fact that the United States of America trumps Tohono O’odham sovereignty and security—and anyone else’s for that matter—like it or not.

The indigenous elder opened the border gate for a reason. Garcia was born on this land and is connected to this land, as was his father and his father’s father and his father’s father’s father, going back centuries. The ancestral connection to the land, and the profound sense of dignity and autonomy with which it infuses the living Tohono O’odham community, arm it with something that is perhaps more powerful than any occupying force that has attempted to dominate these parts: perseverance.


Todd Miller has worked on both sides of the border for BorderLinks in Tucson, Arizona, and Witness for Peace in Oaxaca, Mexico. He now writes on border and immigration issues for NACLA Report on the Americas and its blog "Border Wars" among other places.

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