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Mystery language on a border sign


The photo that accompanied an article Saturday about deaths of illegal immigrants in the Arizona desert showed a sign that carried instructions in three languages. The sign was posted on a solar-powered emergency beacon, from which illegal immigrants in distress could summon help.

In English, the sign read: “If you need help push the red button. Rescue personnel will arrive shortly to help you. Do not leave this area.”

The warning was also posted in Spanish, but what was the third language? The caption did not say, and readers were curious.

“The third is a language that is a mystery to me and perhaps to some of your other readers. It has a degree of importance if it suggests the nationality of a group, other than Mexican, traversing that dangerous stretch of America,” wrote Godfrey Harris of Los Angeles.

The photo was taken by Scott Olson of Getty Images, and he did not address the language question in the caption information he supplied. After readers inquired, a Times photo editor contacted Olson, who in turn checked with the Tucson sector of the Border Patrol to get the answer:

Tohono O’odham.

The language is a dialect of the O’odham language and is spoken by members of the Tohono O’odham Nation.

According to the tribe’s website, the federally recognized Tohono O’odham reservation ends at the U.S.-Mexican border and its eastern boundary is near the Sasabe, Ariz., port of entry. However, the tribe considers its land to extend farther south to include nine communities in Mexico. The tribe’s website says increased enforcement of immigration law at the U.S.-Mexico border has “prevented the O’odham from crossing it freely.”

That may be driving tribal members to cross illegally – which could put them in the position of needing an emergency beacon such as the one pictured in Saturday’s Times. Hence the inclusion of Tohono O’odham on the beacon's sign. 

--Deirdre Edgar

Photo: An emergency beacon near Sasabe, Ariz. Credit: Scott Olson / Getty Images

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Comments (18)

This is the height of irony: The original indigenous Americans are now relegated to crossing a border that croseed them?

Illiterate illegal peasants probably can't read Spanish, and certainly can't read English, so what's the point of this waste of tax dollars?

However, f the government insists on helping lawbreakers enter the USA illegally, how about a 4th language?

International common-sense:

"if you're reading this sign, you are attempting to enter the United States illegally, and are breaking the law. Do not expect to be rescued if you run out of water or get lost in the desert: Turn back now before you become food for coyotes and vultures.

of course it doesn't occur to Carlos that illegals who press the button would probably be picked up and deported anyway.

So, if the Tohono O’odham nation was around long before there was a United States or a Republic of Mexico shouldn't they be setting immigration policy? The Tohono O’odham people, being here first, should decide what "immigrants" should be allowed to enter or cross their territory. If the US has the right to protect its borders the native Tohono O’odham have the right to do the same. Fair is fair.


European-descent people have been telling Indigenous Peoples that we were "illegally in existence" since Columbus invaded the Caribbean in 1492.

Europeans and their colonist-children have been telling us (coupled with genocidal violence) that:

1) We were the wrong religion
2) We were the wrong race
3) We were on the wrong side of "White Man's borders"
4) We were too many in number (even after they killed 95% of us)

In 1830, Euro-Americans imposed "The Indian Removal Act of 1830", wherein all Indigenous Peoples were declared "ILLEGALS" if we resided east of the Mississippi River.

It's been 500 years of non-stop genocide, forcible removals, reservations, death marches, and roundups.

Europeans killed 95% of our Indigenous Ancestors, and White People still think "there are too many Brown people." It's enough to make Hitler blush.

Looks like it might be in Klingon.

The pointy mountain in the distant background, directly below the sun, is Baboquivari Peak, the most sacred peak to the Tohono O'odham.

O.K., THIS is the ONE group that can honestly claim "The Border Crossed Them"...

Interesting. Where I grew up, near the US-Canada border, the Native peoples have the right to cross the border at will as a result of the Jay treaty. Is there no similar border-crossing process for the US-Mexico border?

I'm glad there the Tohono O'odham language is still prominent enough in their community to be put on signs, too. I doubt anybody would put Abenaki (which was spoken in my hometown up to a few generations ago) on a sign, since hardly anybody can read or speak it anymore.

Isn't it sad that the language of the people who actually are natives of this land speak what their invaders call a "mystery language"?

I met a man whose last name was Yazzy, which I had never heard before, and I asked him where he was "from." I was so embarrassed and ashamed when I learned that he was "from" the Navajo Nation. How little we know about the people whose land we so confidently inhabit.

Who deviced the O'odham written language? It uses the Latin script.

Probably the Jesuits. They were very good at giving various native people a written language.

If the Indians were to set immigration policy (good luck trying that in Mexico, Mexicans consider by and large indigenous people to be not "real Mexicans" and undeserving of basic human rights much less special privileges) ...

Shouldn't the Scots, Welsh, Bretons, Cornish, set immigration policy in the UK? The Native Irish set immigration policy in Ireland? The native Danes set immigration policy in Denmark? The native Germans set it in Germany?

After all, native Celts, Scandinavians, and Germans have been living in the areas **LONGER** than the Indians of Arizona.

No, I didn't think I'd get any takers for that. I don't think you'd get too much sympathy for Germans arguing "the border crossed them" after WWII, or French that the "border crossed them" with the end of Napoleon's empire or say, Italians arguing the "border crossed them" with the end of the Roman empire.

So why should Mexicans or Indians be any different? They're not White? Therefore possessed of special moral insights, legal privileges, and just overall specialness?

Without a doubt ignorance is bliss, Carlos Jobim!

Obviously Carlos (a very American name, by the way) has not heard that people who cross the border illegally are also human beings. Also, he did not get the memo that not all are illiterate peasants who only speak Spanish.
Honestly, people like Carlos make me feel like the country is going backwards.

Kudos to the Tohono Nation for protecting the Human Being!
Sape'o G "Neok S'gevktak"

Whats the Mystery?? Thats Tohono O'odham.
The Language Of The Land In That Area.

English Is New To These Lands, So To All Living Peoples Within OUR Turtle Island That You Call The "united states" That Speak That Foreign Language Of 'English'..


This article is astounding. These people live on both sides of a border that "crossed them," so the notion that they might illegally be crossing this border that their own community predates, is nonsensical and incredibly insensitive to their culture.

Interesting. I speak eight languages (five fluently) and have been working as a freelance translator for over 30 years, yet had never heard of this particular language...

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