Graveyard under the Alamo arouses a Texas feud

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

“He told me over and over again, ‘They built all this on top of our campo santo,'” Mr. Hernandez, 73, using the Spanish term for cemetery. An elder of San Antonio’s Tāp Pīlam Coahuiltecan Nation added: “All the 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 a decisive battle in 1836 during the Texas Revolution, in which American settlers fought to secede from Mexico and create a republic that would become part of the United States.

But long before the Alamo garrisoned secessionists, 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 of the converts, as well as colonists from Mexico and Spain, around the mission or just below it.

Now a new battle for the Alamo is brewing as Indians and descendants of some of San Antonio’s founding families seek protection for the human remains, while Texas officials push for a controversial $ 400 million renovation plan for the site.

The feud comes at a time when Texas political leaders are trying to bolster long-standing portrayals of the state’s history, curb how teachers discuss the role of slavery in the Texas Revolution, and target hundreds of books for potential removal from schools. As critics accuse leaders of politically excessive railings, the controversy over the cemeteries has raised questions about whether the narrow focus on the Battle of the Alamo in 1836 comes at the expense of the site’s Native American history.

Ramón Vásquez, a leader of the Tāp Pīlam (pronounced TAPE PEE-lam) nation, criticized government officials who opposed the designation of the Alamo and its surroundings as a historically significant cemetery.

He compared the controversy to discussions about protecting important burial sites across the United States, such as those surrounding the 2018 discovery in Sugar Land, Texas, of the remains of 95 African Americans who were forced into plantation work after the liberation.

“We are not against telling the story of 1836,” said Mr Vásquez, whose people filed a lawsuit in 2019 to influence how remnants found at the Alamo are treated. “All we say is tell the whole story of the site. We have a rare chance to set the course.”

In court documents filed this year, attorneys for the Texas General Land Office, the site administrator, and the Alamo Trust, the nonprofit organization overseeing the development plan, said Tāp Pīlam’s claims of ancestral lineage do not provide them with a “constitutionally protected” right ”to have a hand in how human remains found at the Alamo are to be treated.

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

Courts have given victories to Alamo’s official stewards, which Tāp Pīlam has appealed, while increasing pressure on authorities in public protests and private mediation cases.

Their strategy is close to creating results, although a solution is still elusive.

Two people involved in the mediation case, 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 Tāp Pīlam. These included their requests to regain access to the Alamo Chapel for religious ceremonies, improve the training of Alamo staff, and play a role in discussions about how human remains found at the Alamo should be treated.

The parties even reached a preliminary settlement, according to court documents filed this week, though the settlement had to be approved by 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 Tāp Pīlam in the courts.

“We are currently planning to move away from the proposed agreement,” said Stephen Chang, the country’s spokesman. “The proposed mediation – which was not completed – was intended to end these frivolous trials.”

As this legal battle unfolds, the $ 400 million renovation plan, which includes the construction of a 100,000-square-foot museum and visitor center, moves forward under a shroud of criticism.

Others have argued that the Alamo should keep its focus on the Battle of 1836, which made folk heroes out of men like Davy Crockett, a former Tennessee lawmaker who died in the clash. Brandon Burkhart, president of This Is Texas Freedom Force, whose members have appeared openly armed around the Alamo to protest changes at the site, said he opposed efforts to place Indians at the center of Alamo history.

“They do not want to shed light on the Alamo defenders who fought for 13 days and died there,” said Mr. Burkhart, a former refugee officer. “Well, I have news for them: People are coming from all over the world because of that struggle, not because of the Native Americans who were there before them.”

George P. Bush, Texas’ land commissioner, seems keen to allay such concerns. “The plan to restore and preserve the Alamo is focused on the Battle of 1836 and the defenders who gave their lives for their independence,” said Mr. Bush in a statement.

Recent tensions have shed light on crucial phases of the state’s original history. Texas was home to hundreds of tribes, such as Anadarko and Karankawa, when Spanish missionaries arrived in the 18th century in what is now San Antonio.

Alamo’s funeral records include the names of hundreds of individuals from many different tribes. In 1745, for example, priests recited last rituals for Conepunda, a Sifame Indian child. In 1748, Valentino Alphonso, an adult Mesquite Indian, and in 1755, Magdalena, an adult Ypandi Indian, was laid to rest.

After Texas seceded from Mexico in 1836, Mirabeau Lamar, who presided over the Independent Republic in 1838, reversed a policy of reconciliation with Indians adopted by his predecessor, Sam Houston.

Sir. Lamar chose instead what he explicitly called a “war of extermination” against tribes in Texas. As a result of this ethnic cleansing, some indigenous peoples were directly wiped out; others were eventually forced to move to Indian territory in what is now Oklahoma.

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

The question of the Alamo has also raised new questions about who qualifies as a native. Like other groups that have merged, such as the Genízaros of New Mexico and Colorado, some of whom began to identify themselves as natives after learning that they were descended from enslaved Indians, Tāp Pīlam has decided not to seek federal recognition , claiming that it is up to tribal members, not the central government, to determine if they are Indians.

Tāp Pīlam, whose religious practice mixes peyote rituals with Catholic traditions, has more than 1,000 registered tribal members. Their leaders have recently set up a for-profit company to train Native American entrepreneurs in areas such as carpentry and construction. Tāp Pīlam estimates that in San Antonio alone, there are more than 100,000 people descended from the Indians who once lived at the Alamo and other Spanish missions in Texas.

Yet the lack of federal recognition has worked against Tāp Pīlam in their trial over the burial site. They filed the lawsuit after being barred in 2019 from using the Alamo Chapel to conduct private annual worship 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 introduced stricter handling standards for all human remains, and chose instead to designate only the mission era church as a cemetery.

In 2019, archaeologists had discovered the remains of three bodies in an excavation at the Alamo. But instead of consulting with Tāp Pīlam on how to proceed, the Alamo Trust relied on five federally recognized tribes, none of which are based in Texas. (Lipan Apache, a state-recognized tribe in Texas, has signed as an ally with Tāp Pīlam in the conflict.)

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 removal of Native American human remains. But Tāp Pīlam, who uses missionary birth and death records to show their genealogical lineage from Native American Indians dating back to the early 18th century, is appalled at being sidelined by Alamo stewards.

As the conflict drags on, more people examine Alamo’s funeral records and find ancestral connections. Tāp Pīlam estimates that about 80 percent of those buried around the mission were Indians.

People with different backgrounds make up the rest, such as Juan Blanco, a free black man who was a Mexican soldier on the border before being killed by Apache Indians in 1721. One of the last to be buried at the Alamo, in 1833, was Antonio Elozúa, the Cuban-born commander of Mexican troops in Texas.

Lisa Santos, president of the 1718 Founding Families and Descendants, a group of descendants of San Antonio founders, said she was shocked to discover 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 believed to have been buried near a federal building opposite the Alamo.

“I do not know how to go up against the government when they continue to deny that there was a burial ground where our ancestors remain,” Ms. Santos. “Sometimes I just stare at the sky and I think, what prevents them from telling the truth?”

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