Globilization -Tohono O’odham tribes of the Southwest

Globalization is as much a fact of consciousness as it is an economic fact; people everywhere, now, see themselves as individuals, possess an image of humanity-at-large, think of the world as a collection of sovereign nation-states.  Despite fears of cultural homogenization, localism has not died in a globalized age. Globalization fundamentally alters power relationships, both religious and scholarly.   The lines between things have shifted, and many doubt that they will ever have new fixed configurations.  Globalization highlights “religious” processes that extend far beyond church life. You can analyze human rights that religion gives as symbolic images of social life; few symbols are more sacred today, and the three “generations” of those rights – civil/political, economic/social, and group – symbolically represent three conflicting social processes: individuation, the growth of worldwide economic and social networks, and increased localism.   Globalization for Tohono O’odham tribes of the Southwest really started over 100 years ago as they began to fight for their own sovereign nation status and with people who greedily took from them leaving a nation today that is dissected by the boarder separating two countries and families who have been split apart because the Indian Way is not the way of the World.  Civil, political, social, economic symbols and the tribe as a whole, have been impacted by a government that they cannot trust.  It is difficult to imagine the Tohono O’odham  think beyond their own situation.  The global context is a warning for other impoverished people who possess something a greater nation or people may want and are so easily allowed to take.

The Tohono O’odham tribe have lived in the Sonora region of Mexico up to just north of Phoenix Arizona and west to the Gulf of California for thousands of years – before the USA and Mexico were nations.  From the early 18th century they were ruled by many different foreign governments and in 1853, through the Gadsden Purchase, O’odham land was divided almost in half, between the United States and Mexico.  “…according to the terms of the Gadsden Purchase, the United States agreed to honor all land rights of the area held by Mexican citizens, which included the O’odham, and O’odham would have the same constitutional rights as any other United States citizen” ( The majority of Tohono O’odham remained in the United States, but a significant number remain in Sonora.

In the late 1800s non-Indian farmers began to come to the O’odham land wanting to farm.  They dug ditches and channeled water affecting the water table and underestimating desert floods – their ditches took the water that would normally flood the crop area of the O’odham and for the next 20-25 years the Tohono O’odham lost precious farmland and their water table dropped.  The river was dry and unable to irrigate their farmland so farming ceased along the Santa Cruz River.  In addition, the city of Tucson was growing and the demand for drinking water increasing.  The city began to sink more wells and taping into the aquifer the Tohono O’odham owned.  In 1975 the Tohono O’odham had had enough and filed suit against the city of Tucson.  Their defense was based on the Winters Doctrine which”…proclaimed that Indians ‘have prior and paramount rights to all water resources which arise upon, boarder, traverse or underlie a reservation/  Moreover that water had to be supplied in sufficient quantity to satisfy for both present and future needs of the reservation” (Sheridan 1996).  Resolution of this lawsuit initially came in the passage of the Arizona Water Rights Settlement Act of 1982which granted the Tohono O’odham water.  The secretary of the Interior also declared that the irrigation system along some of the O’odham rivers were to be improved and that “the water could be used for any purpose, including lease to non-Indians… to subjugate reservation land” (Sheridan 1996) and to deliver water from the Central Arizona Project for irrigation.  This settlement was signed by President Reagan and the Tohono O’odham still continued to debate how the water will be used.

Mining in southern Arizona became big in the mid 1800’s and owners of the mines needed lots of help to get the ore.  Arizona was still a part of New Mexico and peonage was legalized in 1851.   Many Mexicans worked in the mines under legal peonage until it was abolished in 1867, the Tohono O’odham worked the mines too but not as servants; they still owned a lot of farmland and livestock and it seemed when water became scarce on their own land, the Tohono would seek work in the mines or in other jobs in the town of Tucson.  The mine owners had difficulty getting their ore to the metropolitan areas and in 1877 the Southern Pacific Railroad was given a charter to build a route across the Arizona desert; the railroad would transport silver ore, cattle and people back and forth.   With the advent of the railroad came a “…strictly defined, radicalized class system in which Mexican nationals and Mexican Americans alike found themselves subordinated” (Meeks 2007).  The Chinese were imported to help build the railroad and once completed were hired on at the mines.  Copper mines employed labor contractors who traveled into Mexico and hired Mexican peasants to work in their mines.  The railroad and copper mines also imported labor from Europe and a class system began to take effect; the ethnic Mexicans and Indians were hired for unskilled positions and paid the lowest wage.  According to the Dillingham Report, a government study on immigration, the majority of the workforce in the area was Irish, Anglo-Americans, southern and eastern Europeans, ethnic Mexicans and Indians.  There were vast differences in wages between these groups with the Italians, Mexican and Indians being paid the lowest.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs had hoped the Tohono O’odham willingness to work for wages would help assimilate them into the US culture while the cotton growers hoped to use groups like the Tohono for their own benefit as cheap labor.  The Tohono O’odham “…engaged in what scholars in Latin American history call ‘resistant adaptation’.   For centuries they had moved seasonally between multiple villages and desert camps, and, beginning in the Spanish colonial era, regional mines and missions” (Meeks 2003)  With the arrival of  commercial  agriculture, mines and railroad,  the Tohono  adjusted and moved as they had for centuries and moved back and forth between their villages and the towns,  mines and  the fields.    “They utilized the traditional flexibility in the structure and gendered division of labor of their families to shape their entrance into the regional wage economy, and, more broadly, their incorporation into the national political economy” (Meeks 2003).  They didn’t just conform; they used life skills to adapt to their changing world.

The push for Arizona statehood became a not only an issue of Republican vs. Democrat, but was race-based.  Ethnic Mexicans and Indians, as well as, Italian, Spanish and Slavic were discriminated against through wages; delegates from the mining unions believed employers should limit the rights of new immigrants believing that 80% of workers should be “…native born citizens of the United States…and qualified electors” (Meeks 2007).    Arizona did not become a state until 1912, making it the 48th state to enter the union, Alaska and Hawaii entered many years later in 1959.

Arizona may have finally become a state but the O’odham and other native groups still continued to be discriminated against not having the same rights under the constitution that all other US citizens had.   It wasn’t until the Civil Rights Act of 1968 that an Indian Bill of Rights was established giving the O’odham and other indigenous people sovereignty, the right to vote, religious freedom, but they still have lost much of the land that they loved.  The O’odham history is played out daily as they assimilated into a society as they choose.  While their future is troubled by water issues, it is also clouded by immigration disputes and to recognize their rights to a homeland that transcends the U.S. – Mexico border.  Many Tohono O’odham were born on tribal land and do not have birth certificates making it very difficult to obtain passports.  The Tohono O’odham Citizenship Act of 2003 granted citizenship to about 8,400 tribal members not currently recognized as U.S. citizens but continued to bar those who did not have proof of citizenship making it impossible to cross the border between the US and Mexico.

Ofelia Rivas of O’odham Voice Against the Wall, a group of elders and youth concerned with carrying on their traditional ways in 2004 summarized how many of the O’odham feel “…. people need opportunities, not just near here, but in the whole of Mexico. It’s the U.S. pushing them out of their communities. They don’t have anything to support sustainable economic development and self-government. Young people tend to get coerced into trafficking. Then they’re given severe sentences and are sitting in prison” (Cultural Survival 2004).  It appears there are many issues the O’odham people face, but considering how they have assimilated over thousands of years if given their land back, they would know  what to do with their water rights and they again, would become top agricultural and livestock producers.  It’s really all about the water.


Cultural Survival

August 9, 2004 Border Troubles Barrage O’odham Lands.  Electronic document.

Accessed 7 June 2013.

History and Culture of the Tohono O’odham .  Internet Document.  Accessed June 6, 2013.

Meeks, Eric V.

2003  The Tohono O’odham wage labor and resistance adaptation.   Electronic document. The Western Historical Quarterly 34(4) 469-489.  Accessed June 6, 2013.

Sheridan, Thomas E and Nancy J. Parezo

1996  Paths of Life:  American Indians of the Southwest and Northern Mexico.  Tucson: The University of Arizona.

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