Seven people sat in a circle and began to pound on a drum more than two feet wide. The chant started with one voice, loud and deep, soon joined by six others. It was a Tohono O’odham remembrance prayer in honor of the lives affected by the tribe’s interactions with the United States Border Patrol.
The ritual was part of a vigil Wednesday night at the Tohono Plaza mall on the Tohono O’odham reservation in Sells. It was a means of praying for the members of the community who had lost their lives in the desert and of protesting what they characterized as the militarization of the border.
The event was organized by the Tohono O’odham Hemajkam Rights Network, also known as Tohrn, which joined a coalition of six other regional community groups in southern Arizona taking part in protests as part of the Border Community Day of Action for Demilitarization.
Those who attended the two-hour vigil talked about what they said was harassment or racial profiling by Border Patrol officials. They remembered Bennett Patricio Jr., an 18-year-old who was run over by a Border Patrol agent in 2002 as he was lying in the middle of a dark highway on the reservation. A court ruled that the agent was not liable for the “tragic accident.”
Tribe members discussed the changes that had taken place on their reservation over the decades and centuries. Traditional O’odham land once extended south to Sonora, Mexico, north past Phoenix, west to the Gulf of California and east to the San Pedro River. The land became divided when the United States-Mexico border was established, and O’odham members must now show passports or border identification cards to enter the United States.
“We have never been powerless,” said Amy Juan, the main organizer of the vigil and a member of Tohrn. “This has always been our home. We were here before the U.S. was the U.S. We were here before Mexico was Mexico. We were here before the line was drawn.”
Eleven Border Patrol stations are in the Tucson area, according to the Department of Homeland Security. In addition, two forward operating bases — modular Border Patrol buildings — are on the Tohono O’odham Reservation, with one in the San Miguel Community in the Chukut Kuk District and one at Papago Farms in the Pisinemo District, Ms. Juan said.
Members of the O’odham community have grown accustomed to seeing Border Patrol agents driving through their land. During the vigil at least 10 Border Patrol vehicles drove past.
Richard Pablo, an O’odham elder and a performer in the traditional drumming group, began Wednesday’s vigil with a prayer. And he recounted a time when his land was not occupied by Border Patrol.
“Before, we used to move naturally with the water and the elements,” Mr. Pablo said. Now, he said, his community members feel as though they are constantly monitored.
The checkpoints were initially welcomed as a way to address the drug cartels crossing the border illegally. But Mr. Pablo said the agents had become too widespread across their land.
He said he had been stopped multiple times at gunpoint on his way back from visiting his relatives, who live about 20 miles across the border in Mexico. The increased patrolling, he said, has inhibited his tribe members from carrying out certain traditional ceremonies. O’odham people are afraid to hunt and gather as they used to.
“They’re not watching the border, they’re watching us,” Mr. Pablo said. “That’s what goes through my mind.”
The vigil was also attended by a group of representatives from No More Deaths, a ministry dedicated to stopping the deaths of migrants in the desert. The group had recently participated in a sit-in demonstration at the Arivaca Road checkpoint in Amado, Ariz., organized by the group People Helping People in the Border Zone. The protesters aimed to shut down the Border Patrol checkpoint, and although that did not happen, Geena Jackson, a member of No More Deaths, said it was a very successful day.
Other border community protests in the region included forums, performances, art shows, marches and vigils in Ajo, Bisbee, Tucson and Patagonia.
During the last part of the vigil in Sells, participants passed out candles and stood in a circle, taking a moment of silence to once again remember the lives that had been lost at the border.
One of the attendees, Jason Johns, told the group about a time when his truck was stopped and searched by Border Patrol. The agent’s dog smelled drugs, he said. The agent found a medicine box containing frankincense, which O’odham tribe members use in traditional cleansing ceremonies in sweat lodges, Mr. Johns said.
Mr. Johns said he told the agent not to touch the substances. Due in part to Mr. Johns’s remarks, the agents handcuffed him on the side of the road in the middle of rush hour. He was taken to the Pima County Sheriff’s Department office and was later given a citation for driving with a suspended license.
“It’s gotta stop,” Mr. Johns said. “It’s gotta stop.”
On a shuttle bus to Tucson, Mr. Johns said, he saw a Border Patrol agent asking to see a man’s state citizenship. The man kept responding, “Tohono O’odham,” and did not seem able to provide the necessary identification.
Mr. Johns said he felt for the man. His people should be allowed to travel freely through the land they came from, he said.
“We’re native people,” Mr. Johns said. “We’re Tohono O’odham. What else more do you want us to say?”