As U.S. border fence rises, a tribe tightens ties
By Tim Gaynor, Reuters, posted at the
Post, MARCH 19, 2008
CAMPO, California (Reuters) - As U.S.
authorities tighten security on the porous Mexico border
in this election year, some communities have been caught
off guard by government plans to build miles of fencing
But members of one Native American tribe
whose scattered settlements stud the rocky highlands
of southern California and northwest Mexico, saw the
build-up coming years ago and have turned something
they dreaded to their advantage.
"There was a sense among a lot
of people that something needed to be done to prevent
us from losing touch ... and so that's what we did,"
said Mike Connolly, a councilman with the Campo Band
of the Kumeyaay nation.
Expecting the wall to come crashing
down on their community, the tribes have deepened ties,
from cultural exchanges to visa regimens that ensure
families can easily cross the U.S.-Mexico divide.
For centuries the Kumeyaay thrived as
farmers and hunter gatherers in the borderlands, where
there are now 13 Kumeyaay reservations, or "bands,"
dispersed across the rugged highland corner of San Diego
County and four further settlements in Baja California,
Their dispersed traditional settlements
gave names to many of the cities and towns on both sides
of the international line, including Tecuan, which became
Tijuana, now the largest city on the border, and Otay,
an area of trade parks in southern California.
Members of different settlements in
Mexico and California used to cross informally back
and forth over the line to visit their kin for decades,
often bypassing checkpoints and simply hopping over
a cattle fence in the oak-studded highlands east of
But as a crackdown on illegal immigration
from Mexico placed more border police and taller steel
barriers along the line near San Diego in the 1990s,
the members of the fragmented tribe realized that they
needed to take decisive action if they were to stay
"The Kumeyaay were like a broken
vase, and we needed the pieces back together again,"
said Louie Guassac, executive director of the Kumeyaay
Border Task Force.
MENDING A BROKEN VASE
Curbing illegal immigration and securing
the nearly 2,000-mile (3,200-km) Mexico border have
become hot button topics in the United States, ranking
high with both Republican and Democratic hopefuls seeking
to be their party's pick to replace President George
W. Bush in the November election.
Amid demand for action, Washington is
seeking to complete 670 miles of new fencing by the
end of the year, but faces resistance from more than
a hundred border landowners in south Texas and opposition
from environmentalists who say the barriers may sever
Starting in 1998, members of a newly
convened Kumeyaay Border Task Force, sought to turn
a threat to their tribal way of life into a catalyst
to ensure their survival in a fast changing world.
"We thought, let's get these people
over here who can help rebuild our nation as a whole
nation, instead of having pieces on both sides of the
border," said Guassac.
Task force movers began by carrying
out a formal census of Kumeyaay members dotted across
the north of Baja California, many of whom lived in
remote villages and on large communal farms, called
"ejidos," and who lacked formal tribal rolls.
The census process was carried out under
the watchful eye of the Mexican authorities, and registered
1,300 tribal members, for whom the task force then obtained
Mexican passports to give them mobility.
Following negotiations with U.S. immigration
authorities in San Diego, the task force obtained U.S.
laser visas for the new passport holders, which allowed
members to cross to and from California legally through
the Tecate port of entry, and stay for a period of up
to six months.
"We wanted to get the artisans
and the knowledge keepers to go back forth, and that's
how we got this ball rolling," said Guassac.
As security has tightened along the
line in recent years, visits between settlements on
either side of the border have become frequent events,
and the process of knowledge sharing between communities
has gathered pace, tribal authorities say.
"We don't know our relatives there
as well as we should ... I think it helped reconnecting
with our people down there" in Mexico, said Paul
Cuero Jr., the chairman of the Campo Band of the Kumeyaay,
east of San Diego.
Members on the north side have taught
their Mexican kin a traditional gambling game called
"peon," played with dice-like pieces of white
and black bone, and are also passing on an intricate
cycle of bird songs celebrating the natural world, much
of which had been lost in Mexico.
Tribal members from the south side,
meanwhile, have been able to teach their Californian
neighbors a range of traditional handicrafts including
pottery, basket weaving and agricultural techniques,
and have also helped coach their neighbors in the complexities
of the Kumeyaay language.
"People in Mexico are much more
fluent speakers," said Conolly. "They grew
up speaking Kumeyaay at home and didn't learn Spanish
until they went to school, so they are really fluent,
so that's a good resource."
Now, the tribal authorities would like
to explore the possibility of obtaining working visas
for some members on the south side, so that they can
come and work in the tribe's four casinos in California
which provide revenue and jobs for their bands.
They believe that their patient, determined
efforts to overcome the obstacles that tightened border
security placed in their path may have lessons for the
U.S. government in its dealings with other tribal communities
and landowners on the border.
"What we have shown is that people
who live along the borders are not the enemies of the
government, but can be their valued allies," said
Guassac. "They need to understand that."
(Reporting by Tim Gaynor; Editing by