PHOENIX – The Hia-Ced O’odham people were known for their nomadic lifestyle in the arid Sonoran Desert, and the “Sand People” often ventured in search of water sources and survived in the harshest of climes.
But lack of water wasn’t the biggest threat to the Hia-Ced. In the mid-1800s, yellow fever swept through their ancestral lands, which straddle the US and Mexican borders, wiping out much of the population.
Only four Hia-Ced families survived, according to descendants – those who fled to neighboring O’odham country to escape the epidemic. With their lands no longer inhabited, early American settlers believed the Hia-Ced were extinct.
Today the number of Hia-Ced is about 1,000. An accurate count is difficult to determine because census forms do not recognize a Hia-Ced tribe.
Arizona has 22 state-recognized tribes living in almost every region of the state, according to the Arizona State Museum, but the Hia-Ced are not one of them.
But some descendants of these four surviving families are working to change that. They are researching the history of the Hia-Ced to prove its existence and distinctive features, and are working to lobby the federal government for recognition.
“It’s not our fault that the Hia-Ced O’odham were hit by an epidemic, but we are still a tribal community that deserves federal recognition like any other tribal community here in Arizona,” Lourdes told Lulu. Pereira, an Arizona State University student and Official Archivist of Hia-Ced Hemajkam LLC, formed in 2015 to work toward federal recognition and ancestral land reclamation.
“I believe the basis for this is the responsibility of the federal government — recognizing these tribal communities that they have inflicted genocide on, that they have taken through hell and through disturbing, horrific actions.”
The Board of Directors of Hia-Ced Hemajkam LLC, headed by Pereira’s mother, Christina Andrews, consists of seven members who meet monthly to gain state recognition.
Hia-Ced indigenous territory extends across the western side of present-day Tohono O’odham Nation, west to Yuma, north to the Gila River, and south to Puerto Peñasco, Mexico.
Andrews does not believe it will be possible to reclaim all of the land, so the LLC is focused on reclaiming the national parks in the Hia-Ced area: Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge.
For the Hia-Ced, these cultural areas are sacred.
Andrews has a clear message for the National Park Service: “You’re just a babysitter to us right now, and that’s okay. But we want our homeland back and that is our goal.”
The US Fish & Wildlife Service and NPS declined to comment on the story.
Complicated story with Tohono O’odham
The Hia-Ced had established a tribal homeland within the Tohono O’odham Nation with whom they share the heritage of the O’odham language. But internal disputes led some of the Hia-Ced to go off on their own, choosing instead to reclaim their original heritage.
Also known as the “Areneños” or “Sand People”, the Hia-Ced are cousins of the Akimel Oʼodham (River People) and the Tohono O’odham (Desert People).
Although the O’odhams share a common name, the tribes differ in dialect, geographic location, migration patterns, dwelling style, and diet.
Andrews said the Tohono O’odham Nation sold the Hia-Ced Indian lands to the federal government for $26 million in 1976 under the Indian Land Claims Act — without the Hia-Ced’s consent or knowledge.
In 1984, the Tohono O’odham Nation unofficially adopted a Hia-Ced district as part of their tribe. In 2013, the Hia-Ced officially became the 12th district of the Tohono O’odham Nation, led by Andrews as chairman, but the district disbanded two years later over disagreements over council decisions and district monetary budgets.
In an email, spokesman Matt Smith said the office of Tohono O’odham chairman Ned Norris Jr. was not aware of any official efforts by the Hia-Ced to seek federal recognition.
Lorraine Eiler, who is Hia-Ced but remains a member of the Tohono O’odham Nation, said seeking federal recognition may not be in the Hia-Ced’s best interest.
According to an article by ICT, a nonprofit news organization dedicated to tribal peoples, Eiler led efforts to disband the 12th Ward.
“I think in a way you’re going to endanger individuals who don’t have the means to live on a very limited income to retire from the tribe and try to apply for further state recognition,” Eiler said, referring on the funding associated with federal recognition. “It will be a hardship for them.”
The way to federal recognition
An Indigenous community can be recognized federally in two ways: by an act of Congress or by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
To be federally recognized by the BIA, the group seeking recognition must submit a letter of intent to petition, then a documented petition containing extensive evidence of the tribe’s past, per bureau guidelines. The Hia-Ced are in the process of collecting and compiling documents that prove their existence over the years.
A tribe can also be directly recognized by Congress. Andrews has met with US Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Tucson, hoping to persuade him to introduce legislation that would recognize the Hia-Ced at the federal level.
Federal recognition entitles tribes, according to USA.gov, “to funding and services from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, either directly or through contracts, grants, or contracts.” Cultural, historical and landscape conservation projects are among the benefits.
According to the BIA, federal recognition “recognizes your tribe’s status as a government with independent sovereignty arising from your historical status as a tribe before European contact and the maintenance of your government uninterrupted since.”
Andrews said she wanted the Hia-Ced “to have a voice at the table at the federal level” and bemoaned the group’s exclusion from decisions about their holy land.
In 2020, the Trump administration waived regulations that would have prevented the construction of a border wall on Hia-Ced indigenous land.
Andrews said construction of the border wall in southern Arizona drained much of the water from Hia-Ced’s land and forced members to rebury three bodies from destroyed graves.
A sacred man-made pond in Quitobaquito Springs in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument was also affected by the boundary wall built through the monument.
Andrews said educational and language barriers prevented the tribe from being recognized by the state.
“(The federal government) made it seem like we were extinct, but we had no idea how to navigate this western world at the time (our land) was taken away,” she said.
Eiler agreed that education, experience and money were key factors preventing the Hia-Ced from gaining state recognition. She also said that’s because “they’ve always thought of us as O’odham.”
But many of the Hia-Ced want to be recognized separately from other O’odham nations and reclaim their heritage in the eyes of the federal government.
“There’s no secret when it comes to the Hia-Ced and our award here in Arizona,” said Pereira, the ASU grad student. “We have sovereignty – we have always been sovereign – that is why we have thrived and survived on Turtle Island (Earth) in diverse regions of this beautiful continent for so long.”