Congressman Raúl Grijalva represents Arizona’s 3rd District, which spans most of the Arizona-Mexico border. The district is home to seven Native American reservations, including that of the Tohono O’odham Nation, which has recently made headlines in its protests against the federal government’s proposed border wall. Congressman Grijalva is a ranking member of the House Committee on Natural Resources and also serves on the House Committee on Education and the Workforce.
Harvard Political Review: Recently, you stated that “a comprehensive and sensible approach to border security spans well beyond only walls and militarization.” How can the United States reconcile its respect for tribal sovereignty with its desire to secure its borders?
Rep. Raúl Grijalva: Proponents of enforcement always make it an either-or proposition. To them, either we have security or we do not have it. It is not an either-or proposition. The issue of sovereignty and the trust responsibility that the federal government and the nation have to Native sovereign nations is in the Constitution. It is part of the history of our nation, and it is a response to a very sad and tragic legacy of the treatment of Native people in our country by our government and others.
The desire of the Tohono O’odham people to have 90 miles of no border wall is a legitimate, sovereign desire. They have borne a considerable amount of the social and financial costs in terms of the law enforcement activities that are going on within their reservation. It is not a question of them turning their backs on security. It is a question of them exerting their rights as sovereign nations to decide what happens and what does not on their land. They are––for historical reasons, cultural reasons, and tradition––opposed to this wall. It is necessary for the United States government and the agencies responsible, Homeland Security and Justice, to understand that.
HPR: Last fall, you traveled to Standing Rock during the Dakota Access Pipeline protests. What can the Tohono O’odham Nation learn from the Standing Rock protests?
RG: Coalition-building. If the issue of their position on the wall comes to a head in this present administration, then it is all about coalition-building and gathering allies from a spectrum of people. That is something that was very important to see in Standing Rock. Coalition-building would bring tribal support across the country because the border wall would be a test on sovereignty––a fundamental legal, moral test on the issue of sovereignty for a Native nation.
But it would also bring other people into supporting the O’odham. One of the important things that we learned in Standing Rock is that the tribe has to be in charge of constructing the narrative of what that issue is. They are pretty solid on that. There is a lesson to be learned here: it is about allies and it is about the support for Indian country not only here but internationally.
That support can be replicated. I use the example of the Oak Flat Apache protest. It gained national attention, and it was the same kind of the intrusion as Standing Rock: a land deal in the middle of the night that is going to affect not only the land but also sacred sites for the San Carlos Apache people. It gathered a lot of national attention, but it was a precursor to what happened at Standing Rock. By that time, the momentum had grown. Given what happened at Standing Rock, that the momentum for the O’odham will be fast and strong.
HPR: Why do you believe that there has been less media attention directed toward the Tohono O’odham border wall protests compared to the Standing Rock Dakota Access Pipeline protests?
RG: Because there has not been a federal action yet. As soon as there is a federal action or a threat of an action to supersede, override, or force the question of sovereignty versus the wall, I think there will be more media attention. With Standing Rock, once the Army Corps granted the permits, it became a fight.
HPR: Given that the House recently passed a spending bill to allocate $1.6 billion to fund the construction of the border wall, how do you plan to defend tribal sovereignty if the border wall comes to fruition?
RG: It is going to be really hard-pressed for Congress to try to do something to effectuate a border wall on sovereign land. First of all, there would have to be an act of Congress to suspend the sovereignty of the O’odham nation in order to build a wall. Trust me, that would be brutal, historic, and unprecedented. It would be very difficult for them to get. The consequences of legal precedent, constitutional precedent, and historic precedent would be tested in that.
HPR: What steps should be taken to ensure that tribal entities in Southern Arizona, and in the United States as a whole, are adequately protected during the Trump administration?
RG: It is about protecting sovereignty. Many times, tribal governments have been able to work with both sides of the aisle, but I think they are going to find themselves unable to do that with this administration. This administration sees resources on tribal land as critical. They are working under the mythology that––because there is gaming in some tribes––the resource support, trust responsibility, and obligation of the federal government can be lessened. To this administration, healthcare, education, and the vital social infrastructure monies that go to tribes can be reduced. That is going to be a budgetary fight.
Also, this administration is dealing with Indian country at a time when the definition of sovereignty is being expanded. It is not “I live in this little territory, therefore I am sovereign” anymore. Sacred sites, religious ceremonies, burial sites, ancestral lands, cultural traditions, and historic resources are expanding sovereignty issuance outside the boundaries of a reservation. The administration is going to confront that as well. The recent Bears Ears Monument designation is a good example of a landmark that is outside a reservation boundary but still within tribal ancestral land. The Standing Rock example also falls within this framework. The privatization of resource extraction in Native country and restricting tribal resident recognition and trust land acquisition will make Indian country come to the realization that this administration is not its friend.
Historically, what happens in Indian country has been bipartisan. What the Environmental Protection Agency is doing in terms of cutting spending on the water, soil, and air protections that affect Indian country is another indication that the government is pulling back from its obligations. It is going to be an adversarial situation. That is the direction in which I see it heading. For instance, the Department of the Interior has not yet figured out what is going to happen with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and they are promoting ideas to restrict trust land acquisition. They want Congress to be the only arbitrator on tribal recognition. Politicizing the issue this way is dangerous.
HPR: To what extent do you believe there is an awareness of contemporary Native American issues within the 115th Congress, and what could be done to promote a greater awareness of these issues among your colleagues?
RG: There is a greater awareness since I have ever been there. Symbolically, there have been some issues that have galvanized that sense with respect to not only Standing Rock, but also others across Indian country. The power of Indian country is being recognized politically and socially.
But you still have the paternalism. You still have the benign neglect. You still have the abject neglect. There are still people who feel that assimilation is the way that this can all be solved, if we just made Native people more ‘white.’ We tried that. It did not work, and the consequences were awful. That attitude is a dangerous one, because it says that Native people are not co-equals to us, but that they are wards of us.
HPR: Any final thoughts?
RG: The O’odham question of the wall is going to have important historical, political, and legal implications that go beyond the tribe’s desire of no wall. The impending test of sovereignty is precedent-setting. Is this administration stupid enough to test sovereignty? Probably.
I tease Verlon Jose, the Vice Chairman of the Tohono O’odham Nation, when he says the wall will be built “over his dead body.” But he means it. O’odhams have a really strong grain of tradition. They have lived here for millennia. The younger folks are more assertive, politically and otherwise. They do not fit with the age-old stereotype of Native people being ‘so patient.’
Lastly, gaming has provided tribes with revenue to be able to access the expertise to educate their own and to be able to access legal, scientific, and historical expertise; they are not content with the government telling them, “That’s the way it is.” But there has been a recent movement, even among Democrats, to give local cities and counties adjacent to these tribes veto power over the acquisition of trust land by reservations. The reason we have trust land is because of the lost land, so tribes can assemble a land base. It is another fight to allow, let’s say, Pima County to say, “O’odhams, you can’t have trust land” or, “Yaquis, you can’t have trust land because we can veto it.” And Democrats are behind this, too. This movement goes against the reparations that have to happen after we took Native land.
Image Source: Flickr/Bill Morrow