“We didn’t cross the border, the border crossed us.” That’s the message from communities who live with the troubled legacy of colonialism today—the descendants of Native peoples who have survived in defiance of the national divides that strafe their lands and run counter to their cultural inheritance.
At the Tribal Border Summit, an annual gathering of Indigenous communities hailing from all corners of the Western Hemisphere, from the tip of the Northwest Arctic to the Rio Grande, representatives of North America’s Native communities discussed how to move freely in a world of borders. And although they are pressing their respective state governments for reforms to how borders are policed by national authorities, their larger vision seeks to carve out new legal avenues and territorial rights from some of the world’s most unforgiving border regimes.
The summit, which was hosted by the, Pascua Yaqui Tribe, the Tohono O’odham Nation and the National Congress of American Indians in Tucson in late January, focused the impacts of border security on traditional border-crossing rights, which has been a core part of family life and ancestral cultural and religious practices. The nations and tribes represented at the summit are situated astride all US borders—not only the southwestern edge but also Canada to the north, and Russia, along the Alaska Peninsula. Roughly 40 tribes’ territories today straddle the border directly, but many Indigenous communities have traditions of crossing borders freely, with members in age-old settlements that fan out across modern legal boundaries.
It was at this nexus of ancient tradition and progressive migration politics that the summit cultivated an unconventional conversation about social and cultural rights beyond borders. The gathering was not a radical intervention; rather, it was a transnational civic forum aimed at developing democratic, practical solutions to the need to maintain the cultural integrity of sovereign Indigenous communities.
The obsession with Trump’s “wall” in Washington also seeped into the summit’s discussions. Tribal members have criticized the White House plans to construct the border barrier, reflecting the stance of a National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) resolution opposing the unilateral imposition of a wall without tribes’ consent. Such a move, according to the resolution, would threaten territorial rights, “further divide historic tribal lands and communities,” “militarize the lands on the southern boundary,” and “disturb or destroy tribal archeological, sacred sites, and human remains.”
The wall debate has brought Native leaders into alliance with pro-migrant groups, under the banner of human rights and self-determination for both tribes and migrant diasporas. An unprecedented September 2017 meeting between immigrant advocates and tribal representatives in Washington, DC, focused on the humanitarian implications of physical border barriers and “preserving our respective languages, histories, stories and songs as the wellspring of our cultural identities.”
But the summit was more about the dignity of the borderlands’ first inhabitants than about the direct harms wrought by border policies today. The central issue is Native people’s “underlying desire to facilitate border crossing,” says Bailey Wood, a spokesperson for the summit. He observes that “border crossings at all the borders have gotten much, much, much more stringent [for tribal members] over the past 10 or 15 years.”
The summit, in collaboration with NCAI, laid out several key demands to support border-crossing rights and related social and cultural protections. The 25 participating tribes called for a streamlined system of identification for transborder Native communities, as well as firmer guidelines for border patrol to prevent mistreatment of people and sensitive sites. Indigenous nations also determine their own policies on border crossings by migrants, pointedly asserting their independence from federal policies.
The cultural friction at the southern border has only been aggravated by the heightened security tensions in the region. Representatives at the summit cited periodic conflicts with Homeland Security, including the “unwillingness of border agents to accept tribal government-issued identification documents, excessive interrogation and harassment, denial of entry for minor offenses, and the improper handling of sacred or cultural items.” Wood pointed out that for many tribal elders, “their native tongue is their only language, so it’s important to have translators at the border that can ask the right questions in the right way.”
Edward Manuel, of the Tohono O’odham Nation (which straddles the border between the United States and Mexico), recalled an incident in which “a sacred ceremonial deer mask [was] forcefully ripped apart” when border agents tried to “search” the item as if it were contraband.
The issue of border securitization is also leading to ecological crisis. While a wall would be the most extreme environmental assault on the landscape, the southwestern-border region has already been deeply degraded by habitat loss and human encroachment. The NCAI resolution stressed the ecological threat of artificial barriers that could, on top of inhibiting human travel, also “prevent wildlife from conducting migrations essential for survival and general life, health and existence.”
In the long term, Indigenous nations are seeking a comprehensive framework to cover sovereign rights that do not align with arbitrarily drawn nation-state borders. Plans are underway to develop a tribal crossing card to streamline legal passage for members—the qualifications for such a card would be determined by tribes themselves, in contrast to the federal government’s antiquated, draconian “blood quantum” rules for tribal identification.
For Francisco Valencia, a Council Member of the Pascua Yaqui nation, tribal sovereignty and territorial integrity—interlinked across US and Mexican lands—are inseparable. At a press briefing, he described the need to “defend our inherent right to mobility”: “Like many Native Americans across the Americas, the Pascua Yaqui people were nomads in a world with no borders, traveling the seasons following the hunt and carrying our tradition and culture by word of mouth. The stories of our people are passed down from generation to generation…. Members of our tribes must have access to one another. Anything short of that stifles our religious freedom and [undermines] our sovereignty.”
As the elder generation passes on, Valencia noted, “To foster the next generation of elders, young people must learn from both sides. We must not let cultural transfers be impeded by borders.”
Under Trump, the crude Beltway politics of the border have been politicized and contested primarily in the realm of the Capitol and White House. But this year’s tribal summit showed how the border continues to shape the lived experience of many communities that are struggling to preserve faith, family, and culture the way that they always have for centuries, indivisible by ideology, time, or geography.