SAN ANTONIO – Raymond Hernandez was a boy when his grandfather took him on walks to the Alamo, pointing out the area around a Spanish mission founded in the 18th century.
“He told me over and over again, ‘They built it all on top of our campo santo,” said 73-year-old Mr. Hernandez, using the Spanish term for a cemetery. The San Antonio elder of the nation, Tāp Pīlam Coahuiltecan, he added: “All tourists who flock to the Alamo stand on the bones of our ancestors.”
On a busy day, thousands of visitors explore the Alamo, the site of the decisive battle of 1836 during the Texas Revolution, when American settlers fought to secede from Mexico and create a republic that would become part of the United States.
But long before the separatists garrisoned the Alamo, Spanish missionaries used the site, known as Mission San Antonio de Valero, to spread Christianity among Native Americans. People from different tribes built the Alamo with their own hands, and missionaries buried many converts, as well as colonists from Mexico and Spain, around or just below the mission.
Now a new battle for the Alamo is brewing as Native Americans and descendants of some of San Antonio’s founding families seek protection for human remains, while Texas officials push for a controversial $ 400 million renovation plan for the site.
The feud comes at a time when political leaders in Texas try to maintain longstanding descriptions of the state’s history, limit how teachers discuss the role of slavery in the Texas Revolution, and target hundreds of books that could be removed from schools. With critics accusing the leaders of political inferiority, the burial ground controversy raised the question of whether the narrow focus on the 1836 Battle of the Alamo comes at the expense of the site’s Native American history.
Ramon Vazquez, leader of the Tāp Pīlam (pronounced TAPE PEE-lam) nation, criticized government officials who resisted calls to declare the Alamo and its surroundings a historically significant cemetery.
He compared the controversy to discussions about protecting important burial sites in the United States, such as those that surrounded the 2018 discovery in Sugar Land, Texas, of the remains of 95 African Americans forced to work on plantations after liberation.
“We don’t mind telling the story of 1836,” said Mr Vasquez, whose people filed a lawsuit in 2019 trying to give their opinion on how the remains found in the Alamo are being treated. “All we say is tell the whole story of the site. We have a rare chance to correct course. “
In court documents filed this year, lawyers from the Texas State Lands Office, the site’s custodian, and the Alamo Trust, a nonprofit that oversees the development plan, said Tāp Pīlam’s inheritance claims did not give them “constitutional protection.” the right ”to participate in the management of the human remains found at the Alamo.
Should Tap Pilam be given such a role, lawyers argued the decision could set a precedent for others who might trace their ancestry back to someone who lived or died in the Alamo.
The courts awarded victories to the Alamo official stewards, which Tāp Pīlam had appealed against, increasing pressure on the authorities in public protests and private mediation proceedings.
Their strategy has moved closer to achieving results, although a solution remains elusive.
Two people involved in the mediation, who wished to remain anonymous because they had no right to speak publicly about the negotiations, said this week that Texas officials are preparing to give in to several Tāp Pīlam demands. These included requests to restore access to the Alamo Chapel for religious ceremonies, improve the training of Alamo personnel, and participate in discussions on how to handle the human remains found at the Alamo.
The parties have even reached a preliminary settlement, according to court documents filed this week, although the settlement must be approved by the San Antonio City Council and others for the settlement to take effect. But in a statement on Tuesday, the Land Office said it would continue to fight Tāp Pīlam in the courts.
“We are currently planning to withdraw from the proposed agreement,” said Stephen Chang, a spokesman for the land administration. “The proposed mediation, which was not completed, was aimed at ending these unfounded legal claims.”
As this legal battle rages on, the $ 400 million renovation plan, which includes the construction of a 100,000-square-foot museum and a visitor center, is moving under a veil of criticism.
Others argued that the Alamo should focus on the battle of 1836, which made folk heroes like Davy Crockett, a former Tennessee MP who was killed in the clash. Brandon Burkhart, president of This Is Texas Freedom Force, whose members have openly armed around the Alamo to protest the changes at the site, said he opposes attempts to put Native Americans at the center of Alamo history.
“They don’t want to shed light on the defenders of the Alamo, who fought for 13 days and died there,” said Mr Burkhart, a former fugitive rescue officer. “Well, I have news for them: people are coming from all over the world because of that battle, not because of the Native Americans who were there before them.”
George P. Bush, the Texas land commissioner, appears intent on allaying such concerns. “The plan to restore and preserve the Alamo focuses on the battle of 1836 and the defenders who gave their lives for their independence,” Bush said in a statement.
Recent tensions have shed light on important milestones in the state’s indigenous history. Texas was home to hundreds of tribes like Anadarko and Carancawa when Spanish missionaries arrived in what is now San Antonio in the 1700s.
The Alamo burial records include the names of hundreds of people from different tribes. For example, in 1745 the priests performed the last rites for Konepunda, the Indian child of Sipham. In 1748 Valentino Alfonso, an adult Mesquite Indian, and in 1755, Magdalena, an adult Ipandi Indian, were buried.
Following the secession of Texas from Mexico in 1836, Mirabeau Lamar, who presided over the independent republic in 1838, reversed the conciliation policy towards Native Americans imposed by his predecessor, Sam Houston.
Instead, Mr. Lamar chose what he bluntly called a “war of extermination” against the tribes in Texas. As a result of this ethnic cleansing, some indigenous peoples were completely destroyed; others were eventually forced to move to Indian territory, which is largely present-day Oklahoma.
“There was a government-sanctioned genocide program during the Republic of Texas,” said Raul Ramos, a University of Houston historian who has written extensively about the Alamo. Texas is now home to only three federally recognized tribes: the Alabama Cosshatta, Tigua, and Kikapu.
The alamo issue has also raised new questions about who is considered indigenous. Like other combined groups such as the Genizaros in New Mexico and Colorado, some of whom began to identify as indigenous after learning they descended from enslaved Indians, Tap Pilam chose not to seek federal recognition, arguing that it depended from members of the tribe. not the central government to determine if they are Native Americans.
The Tap Pilam, whose religious practices combine peyote rituals with Catholic traditions, has over 1,000 registered members of the tribe. Their leaders recently formed a commercial corporation to train Native American entrepreneurs in areas such as carpentry and construction. Tap Pilam estimates that more than 100,000 people live in San Antonio alone, who are descended from Indians who once lived in the Alamo and other Spanish missions in Texas.
However, the lack of federal recognition worked against Tāp Pīlam in their lawsuit over the burial ground. They filed a lawsuit after they were banned in 2019 from using the Alamo Chapel for private annual services during which they asked their ancestors for forgiveness.
That same year, the Texas Historical Commission rejected a request to officially designate about 10 acres around the Alamo as a cemetery, which would have set stricter standards for the handling of any human remains, opting instead to narrowly designate only the mission-era church as a cemetery. cemetery.
In 2019, archaeologists discovered the remains of three bodies during excavations at the Alamo. But instead of consulting with Tāp Pīlam for further action, the Alamo Trust relied on five federally recognized tribes, none of which are based in Texas. (The Lipan Apaches, a state-recognized tribe in Texas, ally with Tap Peel in the dispute.)
The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, commonly known as NAGPRA and passed in 1990, was intended to provide greater control over the disposal of Native American human remains. But the Tap Pilam, who use mission birth and death records to show their ancestral lineage of Indians in the Alamo dating back to the early 18th century, are unhappy that they have been pushed aside by the Alamo rulers.
As the conflict drags on, more and more people study the Alamo burial records and find family ties. Tāp Pīlam estimated that about 80 percent of those buried around the mission were Native Americans.
The rest are people of all backgrounds, such as Juan Blanco, a free black man who was a Mexican soldier on the border before he was killed by the Apache Indians in 1721. One of the last to be buried in the Alamo, in 1833 was born Antonio Elosua, a Cuban commander of the Mexican forces in Texas.
Lisa Santos, President of 1718 Founders of Families and Descendants, a group of descendants of the founders of San Antonio, said she was stunned to discover that her ancestors were buried in the Alamo Cemetery.
It is believed that her ancestors, Bicente Guerra, who died in 1725, and his widow Maria Zepeda, who died less than a year later, were buried next to the federal building opposite the Alamo.
“I don’t know how to oppose the government if it continues to deny that our ancestors remained at the burial site,” said Ms Santos. “Sometimes I just look at the sky and ask: what prevents them from telling the truth?”