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Arizona tribe shares its traditions

 Bernard Siquieros is with the Tohono O'odham Cultural Center and Museum.
Visit the Photo Place
Date published: 10/7/2012

Y OU MAY BE unfamiliar with the Tohono O'odham, one of two dozen American Indian tribes in Arizona.

If there is a front line in the war over illegal immigration from Mexico, the Tohono are on it.

The 2.8 million acres of the Tohono nation include 75 miles of the United States-Mexico border. And while 15,000 Tohono people live on the American side of that line in the sand, another 2,000 live in nine small communities in the Mexican state of Sonora.

Tohono O'odham. The name says it all: People of the Desert.

Bernard Siquieros is a lifelong educator and a Tohono O'odham. He has lived and taught school in a variety of places on and off the traditional lands of his people. Today, he is an educational coordinator for the beautiful new Tohono O'odham Nation Cultural Center and Museum in Topawa, Ariz.

I took a bus trip last week with other journalists to visit the museum, located in the heart of the Tohono Nation in Topawa, a tribal village near Sells, Ariz.

This is a part of the United States few Americans visit. And that is a shame. Chances are you never dreamed anyplace like this existed. Here's why.

Our bus trip began at the tribe's large, striking, nearly new hotel-conference center and casino on the outskirts of Tucson.

The Tohono O'odham built this facility entirely with proceeds from their gaming enterprises, just as they built their equally handsome cultural center and museum, Siquieros said.

Traveling southwest along Arizona 86, the ranches gradually drop off and you enter the enormous reservation lands. Studded with mountain ranges, these lands lie at the heart of the Sonoran Desert. In its unique fashion, this is a dramatic landscape: vistas expanding literally to the horizon--space like you've never known it, particularly if you are from the East.

At the same time, it is a forbidding, utterly inhospitable land, and it is hard to imagine the desperation that would drive anyone to attempt to enter the United States through this country.

And yet, attempt it they do, as we soon see. Up ahead, there is something in the road. The driver slows, stops, for a Border Patrol checkpoint. The officer waves our driver on.

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