|Friday, October 19, 2007
O'odham: Awakening at the Zapatistas' Encuentro
O’odham Return from Gathering with Mexico’s Indigenous and Subcomandante
By Brenda Norrell
Special to The Narco News Bulletin
TUCSON -- When more than 500 Indian delegates gathered in
Vicam Pueblo in Rio Yaqui, Mexico, at the Gathering of
Indigenous Peoples of América, the power of a global spiritual
force was present and released, said Ofelia Rivas, an O’odham
woman living on the border of the United States and Mexico.
“It is not a local movement, it is not just the Zapatistas. It is the
Indigenous People of the world creating this movement,” Rivas
said during an interview.
“I felt a sense that this is an awakening of the people.
“There was a sense of unity, of continuing the struggle, although
people still have problems. We were in unity talking about them
together. I really felt it was a grassroots effort.”
Rivas said among the powerful cultural presentations was that of
the Indigenous Peoples from Michoacan. “That was really moving
to me,” she said, recalling a Tzotzil friend from Chiapas telling her,
“When things get serious, we dance.”
Rivas said the traditional authorities of Vicam Pueblo offered the ultimate respect. “It was amazing to see the
traditional Yaqui leaders attentively and patiently listening to the stories.”
Rivas said it was important for the people from the United States and Canada to share their sufferings. She said
often, people in other countries think Indians here have it easy.
“Yes, there are human rights violations in Canada and the United states. People on the outside believe we have it
made. They don’t know we live in poverty and we have serious conditions for our women and children.”
In some way, conditions are worse in the United States than elsewhere.
“It is worse. The people are controlled by the government. Your own people are assimilated as well and they abuse
the system. The system is controlling us and controlling the people.”
Rivas said the money that flows into Indian Nations, and the conditions and restrictions attached to the money, result
in that control.
“With the federal money, state money, gaming money, there is control. Everyone is under control.”
Among the tearful stories shared at the gathering, she said, were those of a Lakota woman, who spoke of the
abuses in boarding schools and the conditions that the Lakota still live under. Indian children were seized by the
governments of the United States and Canada during much of the Twentieth Century and forced into government-
operated boarding schools. Here, they were often abused sexually abused and beaten. Indian children were
forbidden to speak their own languages and were forced to assimilate the dominant culture. Those who ran away
were placed in solitary confinement and some died. The abuses resulted in generations of traumatized Indian
people in the United States and Canada.
As Nation after Nation told their stories at the encuentro, or gathering, Rivas said, “Everyone was so attentive. They
heard it straight from the people.”
Meanwhile at home on the US/Mexico border where O’odham ancestral lands are bisected by the international
border, the construction of a border vehicle barrier has blocked the ceremonial route of the O’odham people.
“This ceremony has been going on since the creation of the world,” Rivas said.
Before the recent construction of a federal vehicle barrier on tribal land on the border at Ali Jegk in the Gu-Vo
District in Arizona, 12 miles east of Sonoyta, Mexico, local O’odham were able to cross in their traditional territory
Now, instead of taking less than an hour to go to town for shopping, O’odham have to travel six hours roundtrip to
shop in Tucson. For those with diabetes and medical emergencies, the new border barrier means a life-threatening
“A lot of traditional people do not have passports, because they were born at home.”
For O’odham attending the ceremony during July, the new border barrier violated the spiritual journey.
“It was a real hardship,” Rivas said. “When you are on a pilgrimage to a sacred place, you are in a sacred mode.
Then you are stopped by immigration and your papers are checked, that is a disruption. People have prepared
spiritually and then they have to go through this ordeal of crossing the border.
Rivas said the Tohono O’odham Nation’s elected government in Sells, Arizona, is not assisting the traditional O’
odham people to maintain their right to cross their ancestral territories and carry out their traditional ceremonies.
Further, many O’odham lack passports because they were born at home and this makes border crossing difficult.
“This ceremony,” she said, “is hanging on by a thread.”
Rivas said the power, unity and awareness shared at the Intercontinental Encuentro should now be shared with
those who were unable to attend.
“So many people who should have been there were not there. They were home guarding their people or their land.
Some had problems crossing the border.”
Rivas said she hopes the Vicam Pueblo gathering will continue with regional gatherings in Canada, the United
States and South America, so others will be able to participate.
Rivas, bilingual in English and O’odham, delivered her presentation to the Intercontinental Encuento in the O’odham
“Speaking my language is my personal form of resistance,” said Rivas, whose presentation was translated from O’
odham into English and Spanish.
Rivas shared a statement from the traditional O’odham leaders from the Cu:Wi I-gersk and the ceremonial leaders
from the O’odham lands of Mexico and the United States.
“The O’odham resistance began when the prophets told of the invasion of the foreigners and the many changes
that would happen to the people and the world. The O’odham defense was to bend to the surge of this coming wind
so as not to break. My friends, my people are at the breaking point,” Rivas said, reading from the statement at the
The O’odham Nation consists of four bands in the Sonoran Desert. To the north, there is the On’k Ake’mel O’odham
(Salt River people) and the Ake’mel O’odham (Gila River people.) In the west, there is the band of Hia’ced O’odham
(Sands people) and the southern band is the Tohono O’odham (Desert people.)
The O’odham ancestral territory is bordered by the Yaqui territory to the south and the Apache territory to the east.
To the southwest, along the inland waters of the Pacific Ocean at Ka’ch’k (the Sea of Cortez or Gulf of California in
Mexico), O’odham land borders the Seri territory.
The United States and Mexico claimed O’odham lands when the International Boundary was created in 1853. The
boundary bisected O’odham lands. The Tohono O’odham elected government, which chose to work with the U.S.
federal government, receive federal dollars and develop a tribal government based on the U.S. system, was not
recognized by the traditional authorities of the O’odham.
“Our peoples’ history begins at the creation of the world. We also have knowledge of former worlds that existed.”
The people were given the Him’dag, the O’odham way of life. They were taught how to live in the desert and given
the responsibility and honor of being Indigenous Peoples.
“We are the keepers of the universe; we keep the universe in balance through our teachings from the Creator,
through our songs and ceremonies maintain the balance of the universe.”
The first attack on O’odham came by way of foreign diseases, which altered the peoples’ genetic makeup. Then
outsiders came to steal and market O’odham knowledge of healing medicine plants.
The second attack came from foreign religion.
“The very Churches that catholic O’odham pray in were constructed with O’odham slaves controlled by the
Today, O’odham ceremonial places are seen as tourist sightseeing places, from the great lava fields along the
border to the Sea of Cortez in Mexico.
“The ceremony sites and sacred places are under constant threat by archeologists, mining companies and
Mexicans claiming O’odham lands and communities, such as a recent threat of a proposed chemical waste dump
proposed location, just eight miles from our ceremony site.”
With the agenda of assimilating O’odham, the United States placed O’odham children in boarding schools and
relocated O’odham to cities.
“The destruction of the social structures of the people is evident today; the people are dependent on the system to
exist. Our language that was forbidden in boarding school is today surviving, but by a small degree.”
Now, the militarization at the border prevents O’odham from crossing on traditional routes.
In Mexico, ranchers, farmers and corporations are seizing O’odham lands. In 1845, there were 45 villages south of
what is now the border. Today, there are nine surviving villages.
The restriction of mobility, exploitation of land and destruction of cultures through genocide and ethnocide means
this is a critical moment in the universe.
“Today here in Vicam we gather not as governments and organizations, but as people of the earth. We are here to
stand in solidarity, for our survival, to protect the world, our territories and our future generations.”
“A delegation of all Nations must continue to strengthen this message of solidarity and continued education on
Universal Indigenous Rights.
“Today we continue to demand access to our lands, including access to our ancestral routes, to conduct our Him’
dag and make offering to sacred places. We demand protection of our cultures and sacred places. We demand fair
elections and our own representation in the government systems that ignore us.”
Brenda Norrell has been a news reporter in Indian country for 25 years. She is currently based in Tucson and
covers Mexico, the U.S. borders and the West. She is the author of The Censored Blog and frequent contributor to
Photo: Ofelia Rivas, O'odham, with Marcos in Sonora, Mexico in 2007/Photo Brenda Norrell
For more information about O'odham History please see:
"Resistance and Collaboration: O'odham Responses to U.S. Invasion" By Jeff Hendricks