Cemetery Under the Alamo Causes a Texas Feud

SAN ANTONIO — Raymond Hernandez was a boy when his grandfather took him on walks to the Alamo, pointing out the grounds surrounding the Spanish mission founded in the 18th century.

“He told me over and over, ‘They built this all on top of our campo santo,'” said Mr. Hernandez, 73, using the Spanish term for cemetery. An elder in the Tāp Pīlam Coahuiltecan Nation of San Antonio, added, “All tourists who come to the Alamo stand on the bones of our ancestors.”

On a busy day, thousands of visitors explore the Alamo, site of a pivotal 1836 battle in the Texas Revolution, where American settlers fought to secede from Mexico and forge a republic that would become part of the United States.

But long before the Alamo dissenters were garrisoned, Spanish missionaries used the site, known as the Mission San Antonio de Valero, to spread Christianity among the Native Americans. People of different tribes built the Alamo with their own hands, and missionaries buried many of the converts, as well as settlers from Mexico and Spain, around the mission or beneath it.

Now a new battle brews for the Alamo as Native Americans and descendants of some of San Antonio’s founding families seek protection for its human remains as Texan officials push ahead with a controversial $400 million renovation plan for the site.

The feud comes at a time as political leaders in Texas are trying to bolster long-standing depictions of the state’s history, curtail the way teachers discuss slavery’s role in the Texas Revolution, and target hundreds of books for possible removal. from schools. While critics accuse leaders of politically exaggerated outreach, the dispute over the cemeteries has 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.

Ramón Vásquez, a leader of the nation of Tāp Pīlam (pronounced TAPE PEE-lam), criticized state officials for opposing the call to designate the Alamo and its environs as a historically significant cemetery.

He compared the dispute to discussions about protecting important cemeteries in the United States, such as the one surrounding the 2018 discovery in Sugar Land, Texas, of the remains of 95 African Americans forced into plantation labor after emancipation.

“We are not opposed to telling the story of 1836,” said Mr. Vásquez, whose people filed a lawsuit in 2019 to have a say in how remains found in the Alamo are treated. “All we say is that we tell the whole story of the site. We have a rare opportunity to correct course.”

In court documents filed this year, attorneys for the Texas General Land Office, the site’s custodian, and the Alamo Trust, the nonprofit organization overseeing the development plan, said the Tāp Pīlam’s claims of ancestral descent do not give them a “constitutionally protected right” to help decide how human remains found at the Alamo should be treated.

If the Tāp Pīlam were given such a role, the lawyers argued that the decision could set a precedent for other people who could trace their lineage to someone who lived or died in the Alamo.

Courts have awarded victories to the official stewards of the Alamo, which the Tāp Pīlam has appealed, while pressuring authorities in public protests and private mediation proceedings.

Their strategy has nearly delivered results, though a solution remains elusive.

Two people involved in the mediation process, who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the talks, said this week that Texas state officials were preparing to give in to several demands from the Tāp Pīlam. These include their requests to regain access to the Alamo Chapel for religious ceremonies, improve training for Alamo personnel, and have a role in discussions about how human remains found in the Alamo should be treated.

The parties even reached a preliminary settlement, according to court documents filed this week, though the settlement must be approved by the San Antonio City Council and other parties to take effect. But in a statement on Tuesday, the Land Office said it would continue to fight the Tāp Pīlam in courts.

“We currently intend to waive the proposed agreement,” said Stephen Chang, the spokesman for the land office. “The proposed mediation — which was not finalized — was intended to end these frivolous lawsuits.”

As this legal battle unfolds, the $400 million renovation plan, including the construction of a 100,000-square-foot museum and visitor center, is progressing under a veil of criticism.

Others have argued that the Alamo should focus on the battle of 1836, which made folk heroes of men like Davy Crockett, a former Tennessee legislator who died in the clash. Brandon Burkhart, the president of This Is Texas Freedom Force, whose members have appeared openly armed around the Alamo to protest changes to the site, said he opposed efforts to put Native Americans at the center of the Alamo story.

“They don’t want to shine the light on the Alamo defenders who fought and died there for 13 days,” said Mr Burkhart, a former fugitive salvage 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 State Commissioner, appears to intend to allay 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 crucial phases of the state’s indigenous history. Texas was home to hundreds of tribes, such as the Anadarko and Karankawa, when Spanish missionaries arrived in what is now San Antonio in the 18th century.

The Alamo burial records contain the names of hundreds of individuals from many different tribes. In 1745, for example, priests said the last rites for Conepunda, a Sifame Indian child. In 1748, Valentino Alphonso, an adult Mesquite Indian, and in 1755, Magdalena, an adult Ypandi Indian, were buried.

After Texas seceded from Mexico in 1836, Mirabeau Lamar, who presided over the independent republic in 1838, reversed a policy of Native American reconciliation enacted by his predecessor Sam Houston.

Mr. Lamar instead opted for what he explicitly called a “war of extermination” against tribes in Texas. As a result of this ethnic cleansing, some indigenous peoples were outright destroyed; others were eventually forced to relocate to Indian Territory in what is now largely Oklahoma.

“There was a state-sanctioned program of genocide during the Republic of Texas period,” said Raúl Ramos, a historian at the University of Houston who has written extensively about the Alamo. Texas is now home to only three federally recognized tribes, the Alabama-Coushatta, Tigua and Kickapoo.

The Alamo issue has also raised new questions about who qualifies as Indigenous. As with other groups that have merged, such as Genízaros in New Mexico and Colorado, some of whom began to identify as indigenous after learning that they were descended from enslaved Native Americans, the Tāp Pīlam have decided not to seek federal recognition, because they claim it is up to tribesmen, not the central government, to determine whether they are Indians.

The Tāp Pīlam, whose religious practices mix peyote rituals with Catholic traditions, have more than 1,000 registered tribesmen. Their leaders recently established a for-profit company to train Native American entrepreneurs in areas such as carpentry and construction. The Tāp Pīlam estimates that in San Antonio alone, more than 100,000 people are descended from the Native Americans who once lived in the Alamo and other Spanish missions in Texas.

Still, the lack of federal recognition has thwarted the Tāp Pīlam in their lawsuit over the cemetery. They filed the suit after being banned in 2019 from using the Alamo chapel to hold annual private services, asking their ancestors for forgiveness.

That same year, the Texas Historical Commission rejected a request to officially designate approximately 10 acres around the Alamo as a cemetery, which would have instituted stricter standards of treatment for human remains, opting instead to narrowly narrow down only the mission-era church. pointing like a graveyard. cemetery.

Archaeologists had discovered the remains of three bodies in an excavation near the Alamo in 2019. But instead of consulting the Tāp Pīlam on how to proceed, the Alamo Trust relied on five federally recognized tribes, none of which are located in Texas. (The Lipan Apache, a state-recognized tribe in Texas, has volunteered to ally with the Tāp Pīlam in the dispute.)

The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, commonly known as NAGPRA and enacted in 1990, was intended to provide more careful control over the disposal of Native American human remains. But the Tāp Pīlam, who use the mission’s birth and death records to prove their genealogical lineage from Indians in the Alamo dating back to the early 1700s, are outraged at being sidelined by the stewards. of the Alamo.

As the conflict continues, more people dig through the Alamo burial records and find ancestral connections. The Tāp Pīlam estimate that about 80 percent of the people buried around the mission were Native Americans.

The rest are made up of people from different 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 Antonio Elozúa, the Cuban-born commander of the Mexican troops in Texas.

Lisa Santos, the president of 1718 Founding Families and Descendants, a group of descendants of San Antonio’s founders, said she was stunned to find that she also had ancestors buried in the Alamo cemetery.

Her ancestors, Bicente Guerra, who died in 1725, and his widow, Maria Sepeda, who died less than a year later, are said to have been buried near a federal building across from the Alamo.

“I don’t know how to take on the government if they continue to deny that there was a cemetery where our ancestors are,” said Ms Santos. “Sometimes I just stare at the sky and think, What’s stopping them from telling the truth?”

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