July 15, 2008
by Tim Murphy
WASHINGTON — Calling it an affront to religious freedom, representatives of an Arizona Indian tribe have asked the federal government to halt construction of a border fence across the tribe's Arizona reservation.
Leaders of the Tohono O'odham nation say the fence, currently being built along the U.S.-Mexican border by the Department of Homeland Security, will prevent members of their nation from crossing into Mexico for traditional religious ceremonies.
"This wall and the construction of this wall has destroyed our communities, our burial sites and ancient Tohono O'odham routes throughout our lands," said Ofelia Rivas, according to the Washington Times.
Rivas argued that the fence will violate the 1978 American Indian Religious Freedom Act, which guarantees free exercise of traditional religious practices for Native Americans. She said that the fence would disrupt such practices by limiting travel to and from O'odham land in Mexico.
The Tohono O'odham reservation straddles the Mexican border for 75 miles in Arizona, and extends south into Mexico. According to the 2000 census, 18,000 people live on the reservation, which spans an area roughly the size of Connecticut.
Rivas' statement is the latest salvo from the Tohono O'odham nation protesting the fence. The community has been at odds with the federal government in recent years over how best to deal with undocumented immigrants and smugglers who cross through tribal lands.
Testifying in front of a House subcommittee last April, the nation's chairman, Ned Norris Jr., called the Department of Homeland Security "inflexible" and "unreasonable," and framed the fence as part of a larger problem facing the nation.
"Our land is now cut in half, with O'odham communities, sacred sites, salt pilgrimage routes, and families divided," Norris said. "We did not cross the 75 miles of border within our reservation lands. The border crossed us."