Ofelia Rivas, the Tohono O’odham, and the Wall

Considering all that is going on on the United States these days, I figure now might be a good time to post something from Walls: Travels Along the Barricades. I’ve chosen this section about where the US-Mexico border divides the traditional territory of the Tohono O’odham people. Ofelia Rivas was generous with her stories, and I am most grateful she spent a desert afternoon talking with me about the border. Here is a shortened excerpt from my time with Ofelia.


I turned off Arizona’s Highway 86 and followed Ofelia Rivas’s white van onto a road heading south through the  Indian Reservation. The Baboquivari Mountains, sacred to the O’odham, rose to the east beneath the vast desert sky. Signs along the roadside warned of crossing tortoise, but I only had to brake for a tuft-headed quail that skuttled across the tarmac. White shrines adorned with crosses and flowers marked the places where locals had died on the road. The shrines reminded me of the stone-circle mosques along the highways through the Saharawi refugee camps. In fact, much of the reservation echoed what I’d seen in the Sahara. The O’odham villages, composed of single-storey structures built on hard-packed sand, resembled the Saharawi camps. The saguaro cacti, with their plump, imploring arms, stood in the place of the Sahara’s camels as the desert’s marriage of the elegant to the absurd. The words Saharawi and Tohono O’odham both mean “Desert People.” Like the Saharawi lands and the other walled places I’d seen, the Tohono O’odham reservation represented the homeland of another nation that does not exist, at least not with any true sovereignty. And both the Saharawi and the O’odham found their traditional land bisected by a wall.

The reservation shares its southern edge with 120 kilometres of the U.S.–Mexico border. Traditional O’odham territory, though, continues far beyond the international line and all the way to the Sea of Cortés, where O’odham men used to make pilgrimages to collect sacred salt. The less solemn rituals of U.S. “spring break” now defile the traditional gathering site. Long before there was a Mexico or a United States, the O’odham wrestled an existence from this desert. They planted tepary beans in the annual flood plains, hunted rabbit and javelina, and picked the rhubarb, spinach, and purslane that grew wild on the land. They tapped mesquite trees for sap and ground its pods into flour. Plucked tender buds from cholla cactus, pit-roasted agave, and braved the tiny spines of prickly pears. Unlike the Sahara, the Sonora granted its Desert People a surprising abundance.


             Ofelia’s home, a single-storey shack, stood at the very end of the road. A fence made of branches and barbed wire — her own wall — surrounded the property. She stepped out of her van and swung open a gate with a sign that read: “U.S. Border Patrol. Do not enter without a lawful search warrant.” After I parked the car, I told her I liked the sign. “I have a bunch of them if you want one,” she said, inviting me to sit at a table in the shade of a canopy. Two white fridges stood against the cracked stucco walls of the house. A rusty bed frame without a mattress sat in the dust, and a plastic bin of empty Pepsi bottles lay next to a stone hearth and grill where Ofelia made tortillas. Only the black satellite dish on the roof appeared modern and new.

             Ofelia sat across from me and folded her hands, knotted with arthritis like tree roots, on the tabletop. She wore a thick flannel shirt against the November breeze and a floral orange skirt. Her hair was straight and black, and when she started to speak, I had to lean forward to hear her. Like all the O’odham I met, Ofelia spoke in soft, reverent tones, as if she was continuously occupying sacred space. And she was. According to O’odham him’dag — the canon of beliefs, stories, and rituals that governs O’odham life — all O’odham territory, from the northern reaches of the desert to the Cortés seashore, is holy land. “We are directed by Creation to maintain the area by doing our ceremonies,” Ofelia whispered. “By doing our prayer offerings. Doing our songs to specific mountains. Gathering medicine.” Because their land spanned beyond the international line, the Wall not only divided the territory, it desecrated it.

             Some of the traditional ceremonies occur on the other side of the border. The annual rebirthing ritual called the vikita — named for the white fluff on the base of an eagle feather — takes place in the ceremonial grounds at Qitowak, about thirty kilometres south of the line. The vikita ritual “has been going on since the beginning of the world,” Ofelia told me. “We wait for the saguaro fruit to turn red, because that is when we have the ceremony.” The ripening fruit is the O’odham call to prayer. The elders cross the border with medicine bundles holding the sacred implements of the ritual. I asked Ofelia what the bundles contain, but she would not tell me. “There are certain secret things that are held by the singers in a sacred way,” she said with careful ambiguity. “And some items related to rain and water, and the clouds that represent the directions, the colours, the animals and the plants.”

Before the increased security along the border, the O’odham passed freely back and forth across the line, following their traditional routes. Ofelia’s parents’ villages were on opposite sides of the frontier, and Ofelia used to cross all the time. When she was a child, only a barbed wire cattle fence marked the borderline. “We didn’t realize it was a border, really, until 9/11,” Ofelia joked. Now the keepers of the O’odham faith need to face those who hold the line. The DHS has ordered two of the ceremonial routes closed, and forces O’odham to make long detours to checkpoints enforced by the Border Patrol. The agents now insist on searching medicine bundles for drugs and contraband. According to O’odham belief, only the celebrants of the O’odham rituals are permitted to handle the sacred items. The border searches pollute the sanctity of the bundles and, according to Ofelia, violate treaty rights of the Tohono O’odham. After some of the O’odham explained to the guards that they were ceremonial dancers, “the agents said, ‘If you men are dancers, then do a dance.’ They made them dance! Isn’t that so inhumane?” Ofelia told me about a checkpoint near the Yaqui Indian reservation farther east where a guard broke open the antlers on an elder’s ritual headdress to make sure there were no drugs hidden inside.

             The abuse occurs all over the reservation, not just along the border. “If their job is to enforce and monitor the border, then why aren’t they on the border?” Ofelia asked. Border Patrol vehicles follow O’odham as they leave their homes and arbitarily pull them over for searches and questioning. O’odham have been harassed, held at gunpoint, and beaten up. One morning, a Border Patrol agent pulled over a tribal elder and asked where he was going. When the elder said he was going to the grocery store, the agent demanded to see a grocery list. “So now all the poor elders have to make a little list every time they go out in case they are asked,” Ofelia said. “It’s humiliating. They’ve beaten up so many people. Intimidated enough people. Every other night there are helicopters going back and forth. People feel like they better be good little Indians.”

             All Tohono O’odham are considered American citizens under federal law, regardless of which side of the international line they live on. They should be allowed to pass freely over the border. New protocols, though, require border agents to check the identification of everyone who crosses the line. Federal agents only allow “southern” O’odham to cross the line to use the medical facilities on the reservation. They are not permitted to leave the reservation at all, and the Border Patrol operates checkpoints on the highway just outside the reservation boundary to ensure everyone who passes has a visa or is a documented American.

Even O’odham born north of the border sometimes have trouble proving their citizenship. Ofelia was born in her mother’s dirt-floor home that stands next to Ofelia’s house. No one recorded the official details of Ofelia’s birth, and like most O’odham of her generation, she had no birth certificate or proof of citizenship. For most of her life, only a collection of forms from the Indian health services proved she existed at all. Now all O’odham have to scrape together a paper reality in order to walk the lands their Creator bequeathed to them.


             Ofelia sat silent for a moment and looked down at her hands. When she raised her eyes, she asked if I would like to see the Wall. We got into my car and she guided me along the paths to the border. It was late afternoon, and shadows extended from the fence across the dirt road on the American side. Aside from the occasional gust of the November wind that shook the cholla cactus and swept dust into our eyes, the borderline was quiet. Ofelia was quiet too, and her presence lent the scene a kind of sacred stillness. She told me we were lucky — the silence was too often punctured by helicopters and Border Patrol ATVs.

A row of steel posts, linked with three strands of wire cable, stood along the borderline. The posts were sunk five feet into the ground and filled with concrete slurry to stop trucks from barrelling through. The posts were spaced far enough apart, however, that anyone on foot could step through the Wall. The DHS originally wanted to build a solid wall here, something akin to the post-and-mesh barrier along Bill Odle’s property. Environmentalists and members of the O’odham Nation objected, but Ofelia figured the DHS was deterred by the cost, not anything else. Besides, the DHS kept their options open. She pointed to metal clips on the tops of the posts where the government could hang steel panels and seal off the border to foot traffic. “They did it in Yuma,” she said. “The National Guard came in with plates of metal and put it together like Lego. It could change at any time. I feel like they are preparing for war.”

             The Wall travelled straight along the border except where it abruptly veered off the line and curved around a tall saguaro to place the cactus on the south side of the barrier. The diversion around the cactus baffled Ofelia. “How did the Border Patrol decide this cactus was a Mexican cactus?” she laughed. Then she stepped across the border to pose for a photo in front of the saguaro. She invited me over the line and I squeezed past the posts to join her on the other side. I stood south of the line for a moment before stepping back into the United States. Stories of remote drones and omniscient Border Patrol spooked me. I live across America’s other border and know how easily one can find your name on a border-crossing black list. I didn’t want to risk being forever banned from the United States for the thin prank of pushing past some fence posts into Mexico.

             “People have to realize that the barrier is permanently there,” Ofelia said. “And because it is permanent, it changes forever who we are.”

             Before I said goodbye to Ofelia, she told me about the elders who died the year the Wall went up. “That year we lost eleven elders. One after another, they passed away. It just seemed like they couldn’t comprehend what was happening.” Seeing their sacred land bifurcated and dishonoured poisoned them somehow. The Wall Disease can be terminal. “Almost every month we were having death ceremonies. I had longer hair back then, and I kept cutting it to honour the elders who died. By the end of the year, my hair was gone.”