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Christina Leza, Divided Peoples: Policy, Activism, and Indigenous Identities on the U.S.-Mexico Border

Lio Ando-Bourguet
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Christina Leza, Divided Peoples: Policy, Activism, and Indigenous Identities on the U.S.-Mexico Border; Tucson: University of Arizona Press, “Critical Issues in Indigenous Studies” series, 2021, 224 p. Paperback ISBN: 9780816543212; Ebook ISBN: 9780816540556, $32,95.

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1Divided Peoples: Policy, Activism, and Indigenous Identities on the U.S.-Mexico Border is based on anthropologist Christina Leza’s doctoral ethnographic work conducted within the Alianza Indigena Sin Fronteras, an indigenous grassroots organisation based in Tucson, Arizona. The Alianza does community, advocacy and rights defence work to reduce border and immigration policies’ impacts on Native peoples, notably those who have historical ties on both sides of the international line. By centering indigenous “activist” voices in her border ethnography, C. Leza provides a unique contribution to both borderland and critical indigenous studies: indeed, she sheds light on a border struggle that is largely invisibilised in media, political, and scholarly discourses, in a manner that reveals the complex diversity of indigenous experiences, perspectives, and identities. Ultimately, she explains, while the activists put at the centre of her work strive for “the maintenance of traditional ties across the U.S.-Mexico border, much of this ethnography focuses on division” (9). As it outlines the interweaving of physical, legal, and mental bordering processes within indigenous border communities that ensue from national migration policies and discourse, this work exposes the role that migration governance plays in ongoing U.S. settler-colonialism.


2As C. Leza points out, this ethnography differs from more traditional contributions to indigenous studies because it does not focus on a single tribe, nation, reservation, or in other words on “traditional community practices or belief systems within a traditionally defined cultural community” (132). Her focus on an intertribal grassroots organisation brings her instead to examine issues of Indigeneity more widely in relation to a spatial reference, the border. Her work within the Alianza thus puts her in relation with numerous nations, among which the Tohono O’odham, the Pascua Yaqui, the Akimel O’odham, the Lipan Apache, and the Kumeyaay.

3C. Leza’s analyses rest on her observations as an active member of the Alianza, on interviews (with activists from the organisation, from affiliated groups and from the wider indigenous activist community), as well as on grey literature (public statements gathered from events, Native and non-Native press, publications, indigenous radio programming and blog sites). Her participation in the Alianza’s activities provides her with first-hand knowledge of the structural and political context in which indigenous border activists construct their counter-discourse about the border, of which she analyses the main tropes and metaphors.

Theoretical framework

4Trained in cognitive and linguistic anthropology, C. Leza’s focus on metaphors and tropes in indigenous activists’ and community leaders’ political counter-discourses on migration and border issues is especially influenced by Claudia Strauss’s work on schema and themes in public discourse. Analysis of such figurative language in political narrative enables C. Leza to reveal both the constructed and internalised group boundaries that indigenous border activists leverage in their positioning within Native communities and with respect to the wider national political imaginary. In other words, she is able to expose the othering processes that they counter or reproduce. Thus, her focus is as much on agency as it is on structural constraints in processes of identity formation. This approach is based on a certain understanding of ethnic identity construction—in particular indigenous identity—as being in constant tension, having to contend with and “articulate” (Clifford) personal history and experience with available stereotypes, notions of authenticity, and changing scales, contexts, and sources of influence (she cites the works of Owens, O’Nell, Gone). In this way, C. Leza positions herself within a particular branch of border research that focuses on the impacts of borders on subjectivities, tactfully drawing on Gloria Anzaldúa’s and Renato Rosaldo’s works, which both “highlight the importance of subjective experience in sociocultural analysis” (Leza 128).


5Given the importance of identity narratives in her work, it comes as no surprise that C. Leza makes explicit her positionality in relation to her own identity as an anthropologist, an activist, and a person of indigenous (Yaqui) descent. Her transparency not only enables to better understand the context in which she conducted ethnography, but also functions as an additional illustration of the complex and conflictual process of indigenous identity formation that she sets out to explain in her book. As she recounts her own negotiated reconciliation of the multiple identities she has to contend with (i.e., a scholar in western academia, a racialised “Other” in the white gaze, a non-tribally-affiliated Native having grown up with limited ties to a Yaqui community, and an activist for indigenous rights), she makes clear certain boundaries that make her an outsider in the indigenous activist community in which she is embedded. At the same time, her own personal experience of cultural and linguistic loss attest to her embodiment of the very issues against which this community rallies. This puts her in a privileged position to form committed and transformational relations “on the field”, “making research ceremony” (Wilson). C. Leza’s work readily proves her belonging to “the camp of engaged anthropologists who refuse to make a choice between ethnography and activism” (xi), as it unsettles the settler-colonialism of border studies while in the process striving to be useful to concerned groups and communities.

Book structure

6Divided Peoples is composed of nine parts. In the preface, C. Leza discusses her positionality. In the introduction, she then spells out the aim, object, and methodology of the book and provides key information about context: overview of the concerned border nations’ histories and economic and legal situations under U.S. settler-colonialism, a presentation of the multiple impacts the border and border policies have on them (on their environment, spirituality, mobility, security…), and an outline of how such impacts tie in with or exacerbate indigenous divisions.

7Chapters 1 and 2 provide further detail about the Pascua Yaqui and the Tohono O’odham nations, which are the two border nations in the Tucson area with which C. Leza became the most familiar throughout her work in the Alianza. As she recounts their history from pre-colonial to current times, she lays out how specific tribal trajectories and experiences of the border, as well as structural particularities like border proximity, shape the divisions that it incurs and the issues that become more or less contentious in tribal politics.

8Chapter 3 describes the context and structural challenges to the emergence and development of the Alianza Indigena Sin Fronteras, providing explanation for the strategy issues that the organisation faces regarding tribal governments, but also migrant rights groups.

9Chapter 4 outlines the domestic law pertaining to indigenous border-crossing and explains its procedural shortcomings, based on first- and second-hand testimonies of indigenous experiences of border policies. It then turns to a more normative discussion of indigenous rights in relation to borders in international human rights instruments, enabling a certain transition in the book from contextual and structural information to an analysis of agency and discourse.

10Indeed, the last two chapters deal with processes of indigenous identity construction at the border. Chapter 5 extensively lays out the limits of approaches to identity in U.S.-Mexico border studies for treating issues of indigenous identity construction, detailing the latter’s complexities and related processes of othering. Chapter 6 dives into further literature review and theoretical discussion of agency and constraint in political discourse analysis, before turning to descriptions of the main identified tropes and features of indigenous counter-discourse in border politics.

11C. Leza concludes by pointing to some future challenges to indigenous border activism and by providing directives for possible future research.

Elements of appraisal

12Divided Peoples is a very welcome contribution in a time of increased political, media, and academic interest in the topic of international borders. For one, it sheds light on a very rarely acknowledged perspective on the matter—indigenous perspectives—opening up new pathways for both policy and future scholarship. Bauder and Breen’s main takeaway in a recent investigation into indigenous perspectives of immigration policy in Canada (another settler country) is the very little data that actually exists on the subject, although such research “could complement efforts by the Canadian legislative, executive, and judiciary branches to solicit Indigenous perspectives on immigration legislation and regulations” (380). The two authors suggest that such a process would be a significant aspect of the decolonisation and reconciliation efforts in the country. More generally, C. Leza’s work is an important input into the emerging yet still small body of literature bridging issues of Indigeneity and migration, especially in the context of settler colonial states. Ellermann and O’Heran have outlined how treating settler colonialism as an ongoing process—engaging with indigenous experiences—can contribute to “unsettling migration studies” by challenging key concepts such as borders, citizenship, sovereignty, and integration.

13Moreover, C. Leza manages to navigate highly sensitive issues of border politics, indigenous identity, and intra-community racism in a way that takes emic categories seriously while remaining critical of them. Such work is of particular importance in border research, which all-too often discusses subjective boundaries very metaphorically—and sometimes uncritically, even more so when it comes to state-centric categories. Methodological nationalism indeed remains pervasive in border and migration studies despite having been theorised 20 years ago (Wimmer and Glick-Schiller). C. Leza’s tour de force lies in her work being decidedly “methodologically unnationalistic,” all the while acknowledging and demonstrating the continued importance of national borders and categories in shaping contemporary experiences and subjectivities. She successfully centres the diverse perspectives of a transnational community and questions state-centric notions of sovereignty. She thereby reverses De Genova’s critical gaze on what he calls the unexamined “‘native’s point of view’ in the anthropology of migration,” in a decolonial move that reappropriates the politics of “being native” in migration discourse. The first-hand testimonies of indigenous activists and community builders that Divided Peoples portrays could be complemented with primary research further exploring the views of indigenous Elders, tribal governments, and reservation residents. But the book also calls for a deeper investigation into the divisions and diversity that compose what theoretical works on migration often uncritically call “the receiving society.” This book is inspiring in its aim and levels of reflexivity and will hopefully pave the way for more unsettling research in border and migration studies, about but also beyond the U.S.-Mexico border.

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ANZALDÚA, Gloria. Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books, 1987.

BAUDER, Harald and Rebecca BREEN. “Indigenous Perspectives of Immigration Policy in a Settler Country.” Journal of International Migration and Integration, vol. 24, 2023, p. 369-384.

CLIFFORD, James. “Indigenous Articulations.” Contemporary Pacific, vol. 13, no. 2, 2001, p. 467–490.

DE GENOVA, Nicholas. “The ‘Native’s Point of View’ in the Anthropology of Migration.” Anthropological Theory, vol. 16, no. 2-3, 2016, p. 227-240.

ELLERMANN, Antje, and Ben O’HERAN. “Unsettling Migration Studies: Indigeneity and Immigration in Settler Colonial States.” Research Handbook on the Law and Politics of Migration. Ed. Catherine Dauvergne. Elgar Publishing, 2021, p. 21-34.

GONE, Joseph P. “Mental Health, Wellness, and the Quest for an Authentic American Indian Identity.” Mental Health Care for Urban Indians: clinical insights from Native practitioners. Ed. Tawa M. Witko. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association, 2006, p. 55-80.

O’NELL, Theresa. Disciplined Hearts: History, Identity and Depression in an American Indian Community. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996.

OWENS, Louis. Mixed Blood Messages: Literature, Film, Family, Place. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1999.

ROSALDO, Renato. Culture and Truth: The Remaking of Social Analysis. Boston: Beacon Press, 1989.

STRAUSS, Claudia. “Partly Fragmented, Partly Integrated: An Anthropological Examination of Postmodern Fragmented Subjects.” Cultural Anthropology, vol. 12, no. 3, 1997, p. 362-404.

WILSON, Shawn. Research Is Ceremony: Indigenous Research Methods. Black Point, NS: Fernwood Publishing, 2008.

WIMMER, Andreas, and Nina GLICK SCHILLER. “Methodological Nationalism and Beyond: Nation-State Building, Migration and the Social Sciences.” Global Networks, vol. 2, no 4, 2002, p. 301‑334.

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Lio Ando-Bourguet, « Christina Leza, Divided Peoples: Policy, Activism, and Indigenous Identities on the U.S.-Mexico Border »Transatlantica [En ligne], 2 | 2023, mis en ligne le 01 novembre 2023, consulté le 22 février 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Lio Ando-Bourguet

Université Paris-Cité, Institut Convergences Migrations

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Le texte seul est utilisable sous licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Les autres éléments (illustrations, fichiers annexes importés) sont « Tous droits réservés », sauf mention contraire.

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