SAN ANTONIO – Raymond Hernandez was a boy when his grandfather would take him for a walk to the Alamo, pointing out the land around the Spanish mission founded in the 18th century.
“He was telling me over and over again, ‘They built all this on top of our Campo Santo,’” Mr. Hernandez, 73, said, using the Spanish term for cemetery. “All the tourists who flock to The Alamos stand on the bones of our ancestors.”
On a busy day, thousands of visitors explore the Alamo, the site of a pivotal 1836 battle in the Texas Revolution where American settlers fought to secede from Mexico and form a republic that would become part of the United States.
But long before the separatists in the Alamo garrison, Spanish missionaries used the site, known as Mission San Antonio de Valero, to spread Christianity among the 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 is brewing around the Alamo, as Native Americans and descendants of some of San Antonio’s founding families seek to protect human remains while Texas officials press ahead with a controversial $400 million renovation plan for the site.
The controversy comes at a time when Texas political leaders are trying to bolster old images of the state’s history, restricting how teachers discuss the role of slavery in the Texas Revolution, and targeting hundreds of books for possible removal from schools. While critics accuse the leaders of political expansion, the controversy over the tombs has raised questions about whether the narrow focus on the 1836 Battle of the Alamo comes at the expense of the site’s history of Native Americans.
Ramon Vazquez, the leader of the Tabe Pee-lam nation (pronounced TAPE PEE-lam), has criticized state officials who have resisted calls to classify the Alamo and its surroundings as a cemetery of historical significance.
He likened the dispute to discussions about protecting important burial sites across the United States, such as the one surrounding the discovery of the remains of 95 African Americans forced to work on farms after emancipation in 2018 in Sugar Land, Texas.
“We are not against telling the story of 1836,” said Mr. Vasquez, whose members filed a lawsuit in 2019 seeking their opinion on how the remains found in the Alamo were handled. “All we are saying is to 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 Public Lands Office, the trustee of the site, and the Alamo Trust, a nonprofit organization that oversees the development plan, said Tab Bolam’s ancestral lineage claims do not give them a “constitutionally protected right.” Right” to have a hand in how human remains are handled at the Alamo.
If Tab Bolam were given such a role, lawyers argued that the decision could set a precedent for other people who could trace their lineage back to someone who lived or died in the Alamo.
The courts gave victories to the official Alamo agents, which Tab Bolam appealed as pressure increased on the authorities in public protests and private mediation proceedings.
Their strategy has come close to producing results, although a decision remains elusive.
Two people involved in the mediation proceedings, who asked not to be identified because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the talks, said this week that Texas officials were preparing to capitulate to several demands from Tab Bolam. These included their requests to restore access to the Alamo Chapel for religious ceremonies, to improve the training of Alamo staff and to have a role in discussions about how to handle the human remains found in the Alamo.
The parties even reached an interim settlement, according to court documents filed this week, though the settlement needs approval from the San Antonio City Council and the other parties to take effect. But the Land Office said in a statement on Tuesday that it will continue to fight Tab Bolam in the courts.
“We currently plan to move away from the proposed agreement,” said Stephen Chang, a spokesman for the Land Office. “The proposed mediation – which was not completed – was intended to end these frivolous lawsuits.”
While this legal battle rages, the $400 million renovation plan, which includes the construction of a 100,000-square-foot museum and visitor center, is moving forward under a veil of criticism.
Others 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 legislator who died in the engagement. Brandon Burckhardt, president of This Is Texas Freedom Force, whose members have appeared openly armed around the Alamo to protest changes to the site, said he opposes efforts to put Native Americans at the center of the Alamo story.
“They don’t want to highlight the defenders of the Alamo who fought for 13 days and died there,” said Mr Burckhardt, a former fugitive rescue officer. “Well, I got 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.”
It appears that George B. Bush, the Texas land commissioner, is 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 crucial stages in the state’s indigenous history. Texas was home to hundreds of tribes, such as the Anadarko and Karankawa, when Spanish missionaries in the 18th century arrived in what is now San Antonio.
Alamo burial records include the names of hundreds of individuals from many different tribes. In 1745, for example, priests said the last rites to Kunibunda, an Indian Sivami child. In 1748, Valentino Alfonso, an adult Mesquite Indian, was buried, and in 1755, Magdalena, an adult Lypande Indian.
After Texas seceded from Mexico in 1836, Mirabeau Lamar, who presided over the independent republic in 1838, reversed the policy of appeasement set by his predecessor Sam Houston toward Native Americans.
Mr. Lamar chose instead what he explicitly called a “war of extermination” against the tribes in Texas. As a result of this ethnic cleansing, some indigenous peoples were completely wiped out; Others were eventually forced to move to the Indian Territory in what is now largely Oklahoma.
“There was a state-sanctioned genocide program during the time of the Republic of Texas,” said Raul 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-Coushata, Tigua and Kickapoo.
The Alamo case also raised new questions about who qualifies as indigenous. Similar to other groups that merged, such as the Genízaros of New Mexico and Colorado, some of whom began to identify themselves as indigenous after learning that they were descended from enslaved Indians, Tāp Pīlam decided not to seek federal recognition, arguing that it was up to members of the tribes, Not the central government, to determine if they are Native Americans.
The Tap Plam tribes, whose religious practices blend house rituals with Catholic traditions, have more than 1,000 registered tribal members. Their leaders recently set up a for-profit company to train Native American entrepreneurs in areas such as carpentry and construction. Tāp Pīlam estimates that there are over 100,000 people in San Antonio alone who are descended from the Indians who once lived in the Alamo and other Spanish missions in Texas.
However, the lack of federal recognition worked against the Tāp Pīlam in their lawsuit over the burial grounds. They filed the suit after being banned in 2019 from using the Alamo Church to carry out special annual services during which they asked their predecessors for pardon.
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 treatment standards for any human remains, opting instead to designate a mission-era church as a cemetery. graveyard.
In 2019, archaeologists discovered the remains of three bodies in pits in 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 in Texas. (The Liban Apache, a state-recognized tribe in Texas, was an ally of Tap Plame in the dispute.)
The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, known as NAGPRA enacted in 1990, was intended to provide more granular control over the removal of Native American human remains. But Tab Bolam, who uses birth and death records to show their lineage of Alamo Indians stretching back to the early 18th century, is outraged by the marginalization of Alamo rulers.
As the conflict continued, more people began searching for burial records in the Alamo and finding connections to their ancestors. Tab Bolam estimates that about 80 percent of those buried around the expedition were Native Americans.
The rest constituted people of diverse backgrounds, such as Juan Blanco, a free black man who was a Mexican soldier on the frontier before he was killed by the Apache Indians in 1721. One of the last to be buried at the Alamo, in 1833, was Antonio Elozoa, a Cuban-born commander of Mexican forces in Texas.
Lisa Santos, president of the 1718 Foundations of Families and Descendants, a group of descendants of San Antonio’s founders, said she was shocked to discover that her ancestors are buried in the Alamo Cemetery.
Her ancestors, Bisente Guerra, who died in 1725, and his widow Maria Cepeda, who died less than a year later, are believed to have been buried near a federal building opposite the Alamo.
“I don’t know how to oppose the government when they continue to deny the existence of a burial site where our ancestors stayed,” Ms Santos said. “Sometimes, I stare at the sky and say, What is stopping them from telling the truth?”