The State agency that owns the Alamo and the nonprofit that manages the historic site have asked a judge to dismiss a lawsuit by Tap Pilam Coahuiltecan Nation over how human remains found at the site would be treated. 

In Monday court filings, the Texas General Land Office (GLO) and the nonprofit Alamo Trust claim San Antonio-based Tap Pilam is seeking “preferential treatment for themselves” in demanding to be formally recognized as the lineal descendants of indigenous people buried at the Alamo. Archaeologists excavating areas below the Alamo’s Church and Long Barrack first encountered human remains in August, including teeth and toe bones.

“Apparently, plaintiffs believe (mistakenly) that the specter of federal litigation might help them secure this special treatment,” states one filing by Alamo Trust. “So, plaintiffs filed this lawsuit seeking extraordinary injunctive relief and asserting a host of specious constitutional and statutory claims – all of which fail on their face and should be dismissed.” 

Tap Pilam leaders say they represent direct descendants of members whose ancestors lived at the Alamo when it was a Spanish mission known as the Mission San Antonio de Valero. In its lawsuit, Tap Pilam states that historical records show more than 1,300 people buried at the Alamo, including Native Americans, soldiers at the Spanish colonial presidio, and other settlers and servants made up of various racial groups.  

On Sept. 10, Tap Pilam, one of its leaders, and the San Antonio Missions Cemetery Association sued the Alamo Trust, the GLO, the City of San Antonio, and the Texas Historical Commission, arguing the government agencies violated Tap Pilam members’ civil rights by not included them formally in the archaeology work. 

However, the GLO and Alamo Trust argued in legal filings that Tap Pilam has not proven its members are truly descended from people buried at the Alamo. One filing by Alamo Trust calls Tap Pilam’s complaint “bereft of any factual allegations that plaintiffs are next of kin.”

“The complaint has no allegations that any plaintiff has any relationship with any identifiable remains,” the filing continued. “Without any allegations tying a specific plaintiff to specific remains, Plaintiffs cannot show that they are next of kin.” 

Attorneys for the City and the Texas Historical Commission also asked that the claims against them be dismissed, saying they have only minor roles in the work currently going on at the Alamo. 

In its legal filings, Tap Pilam calls a itself “tribal community of American Indians who trace their ancestry to the Spanish Colonial Missions of Texas and Northeastern Mexico, including Mission San Antonio de Valero.” Raymond Hernandez, a plaintiff named individually in the case, is a Tap Pilam tribal council member “who is a direct descendant of ancestors from Mission San Antonio de Valero.”

The suit is the latest arena in a tug-of-war over the Alamo’s $450 million redevelopment plan, set to be complete in 2024. The project seeks to preserve the Alamo Church and Long Barrack, reestablish the site’s historic footprint, create what proponents call a “sense of reverence and respect for the historic battlefield around” around Mission Plaza, and build a visitor center and museum that tell the full story of the site, among other goals. 

Archaeologists began digging into the Alamo Church and Long Barrack earlier this summer and in August first encountered human remains, according to field reports Tap Pilam obtained through an open records request. 

In its filings, Tap Pilam has asked the judge to approve an injunction that would stop the digs until Alamo officials include the group in an archaeology committee overseeing the treatment of human remains. The injunction also seeks to grant Tap Pilam access to the Alamo Church to perform religious ceremonies, something the group has been allowed to do in the past.

“All similar and related projects currently and, in the recent past, have utilized human remains protocols that allowed the Tap Pilam Coahuiltecan Nation to participate as next of kin,” the group’s amended complaint filed on Monday states. “However, in this case, defendants have selectively applied and interpreted federal laws … in a manner that only grants access to federally recognized Indian tribes and ignores other federal laws and the City of San Antonio’s Unified Development Code.” 

Tap Pilam’s injunction request also seeks to stop the removal of human remains or burial objects from the site and to have tribal monitors with Tap Pilam present during the project, among other requests. Human remains found during recent months have been moved to an environmentally controlled vault, according to archaeology reports. 

In its filing, the GLO called its existing protocol for the treatment of human remains “both extensive and inclusive.” The committee includes members of five federally recognized Native American tribes. No such federal recognition exists for Tap Pilam or any other San Antonio-based indigenous group. 

Brendan Gibbons is a former senior reporter at the San Antonio Report. He is an environmental journalist for Oil & Gas Watch.