The impact of borders on the colonial Americas — from Alaska to Argentina — on Indigenous communities visibility, political representation, and access to community and sacred sites cannot be understated. I am a Nednhi Chiricahua Apache and Guamares Two Spirit residing in Apacheria, an area of land spanning from what we call Eastern Arizona, through New Mexico and West Texas, into Sonora, parts of Coahuila and the entire state of Chihuahua, and is the homeland of Apache and some Pueblo tribes.
The language we use to describe the Earth is important to recognize: what settlers call North America, many (but not all) Indigenous people refer to as Turtle Island, in reference to widely shared creation myths. The Kuna people refer to North and South America as Abya Yala, which means “continent of life,” a name that has become widely adopted by other Indigenous nations. Cēmānāhuac is the Nahuatl name used by the Mexica to refer to what many know as Central America today.
Indigenous relationship to the land is fundamentally different from settler-colonial relationship to the land, the latter which seeks to own, dominate and extract. In contrast, Indigenous nations, many of whose names translate to “the people” in recognition of being peoples of the Earth, seek to live in harmony and with respect to the land.
The colonial borders are a tool for Indigenous erasure, sustained by settler logic.
We see this desire to own, dominate and extract in the way that settler-colonial borders are militarized. It is well documented how the U.S.-Mexico border is a site of trauma, riddled with unmarked graves of people who tried to cross, patrolled by agents who kick aside water jugs meant for migrants. For migrants, many of whom are Indigenous to this hemisphere, attempts at passing the border are grounds for the U.S. government to separate family members or place them in detention, or both. Both the U.S. and Mexican governments have an interest in maintaining control over their colonial borders, and cooperate together to control migrants.
While there have been many liberal responses of outrage, Indigenous people understand the root cause of this violence: the United States and Mexican governments, along with most of the governments in the Americas are settler colonial governments, and as such are concerned with control of Indigenous lands and bodies for the purposes of resources access and exploitation.
As someone who lives in the borderlands, the border is a brutal reminder of how members of the Apache nation are disconnected from each other, a feeling that connects us with the Tohono O’odham, Chumash, Coahuila, Anishinaabe, and other nations whose communities and sacred sites have survived genocide and been separated from each other by the border. And when I interact with members of the Apache nation living on the other side, I feel the effects. We are two versions of Apache, each impacted by different colonial cultures. In Mexico, I see the version of Apache that was forced to speak Spanish, and as such has been assimilated into adopting a Spanish or Mexican national identity.
The U.S.-Mexico border is not insurmountable, however, and decolonization is happening.
One horrible reality of the border is that members of our community have different levels of access to their roots, so when I look across, I see a number of Indigenous people with little connection to our common roots. One reason for this could be the different ways in which colonialism and nationalism operate between the United States and Mexico, both colonial states undertook different forms of nation-building and of creating a national identity and consciousness which informed the development or assimilation of local Indigenous identities.
While on this side of the border we may see our relatives in a certain way, they may see how we lost ourselves to materialism and the excesses of capitalism. They may see how we became comfortable to the point that we don’t usually bother to work for our food, we don’t put in the effort to make everything from scratch. Yet our shared traditions and foods still live through our love for Nadaa (the Western Apache word for corn), tortillas, fry bread, bunuelos and atole.
The colonial borders are a tool for Indigenous erasure, sustained by settler logic. Settler logic are the ideas that prop up settler-colonial states that are rooted in disinformation, half-truths and fallacies in service of colonizer supremacy. Examples are all around us: children in the United States learn about “manifest destiny,” or the “God-given right” for colonizers to conquer Indigenous lands and enact genocide on Native peoples. From this, we get another piece of settler logic: the idea that everyone in the United States is an “immigrant,” as opposed to non-Native migrants being settlers, which serves to de-emphasize and invisibilize Indigenous peoples. The narrative of being a “diverse nation of migrants” would be more honest if it acknowledged that non-Native migrants to the United States become settlers.
The U.S.-Mexico border is not insurmountable, however, and decolonization is happening. In these modern times, there has been a resurgence of reconnecting with one’s Indigenous identity. People are looking for their roots because they understand that there is far more to their story than just speaking Spanish or English. Apaches in Mexico have reconnected with Apaches north of the border and over the past few years (prior to COVID-19) were having an annual gathering to reunite and restore our bond, to learn and unlearn with each other, to pray together in sacred ways.
In addition to the spiritual reconnection between Indigenous peoples, there are many Indigenous-led movements aiming to build political power for ourselves and the Earth through decolonization. For example, there is the decades-long movement to recognize Indigenous People’s Day over Columbus Day. Tribes like the Tohono O’odham are on the frontlines defending the land from the U.S. government’s border wall project. And Two-Spirit people are pushing to decolonize settler concepts of gender and sexuality within the broader LGBTQIA+ movement. Through these and other decolonization efforts, we can achieve justice and ultimately healing on Turtle Island.
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