AIT executive director Ramon Vasquez.
AITSCM Executive Director Ramon Vasquez introduces the “Making the Invisible Visible” campaign to organize San Antonio's Native Americans. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Local Native American advocacy group Urban Indian SA wants to help strengthen Native American community bonds in the city.

On Friday, Urban Indian SA announced its “Making the Invisible Visible” campaign. The campaign aims to equip Native Americans in San Antonio with community organizing and leadership skills, and encourage them to vote.

Data analyst Madelein Santibañez said the group has been gathering quantitative and qualitative data through surveys and interviews with Native Americans living in Bexar County since February. Nearly 27,000 Native Americans live in the area, making up 1.4 percent of the population.

“The surveys that were conducted kind of address the challenges and needs of native people,” she said. “It was clear we wanted culturally relevant education being taught to our youth, we need our history to be told in gatherings, and advocate for our needs — health care, ceremonial spaces, spaces where we can gather.”

Data analyst Madelein Santibañez.
Data analyst Madelein Santibañez. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Karla Aguilar, development coordinator for the American Indians in Texas at the Spanish Colonial Missions (AITSCM), said the survey data showed that Native Americans in San Antonio primarily were concerned with housing, employment, education, and health care issues. She also emphasized the diversity in Native American culture.

“Native cultures are not monolithic, it’s very diverse and complex,” she said. “But we have a lot in common.”

“San Antonio has always been a confluence of cultures,” she added. “Historically, when people traveled down to the valley or up from the valley, indigenous people always came through San Antonio. And during the Tricentennial, we’ve been trying to make room for us in the narrative, as it’s always been more from a colonial mindset.”

AITSCM Executive Director Ramon Vasquez said it’s important to get Native Americans involved in policy and have their voices heard by lawmakers. He pointed to a federal ruling last week in which U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor struck down the Indian Child Welfare Act, a 1978 law that gives preference in adoption placement of Native American children to biological family members, members of their tribe, or other Native Americans.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, along with the attorneys general of Louisiana and Indiana, joined a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the law on behalf of a Texas family suing to adopt a Native American child they fostered.

“ICWA coerces state agencies and courts to carry out unconstitutional and illegal federal policy, and decide custody based on race,” Paxton said in a statement last Friday.

Vasquez said the Indian Child Welfare Act protects Native American children, who are overrepresented in foster care and child protective services, from being adopted by non-native families.

“Texas is the only state in the country that doesn’t have a Native American commission to make decisions for the urban Indian population,” he said. “We have to be very vigilant about what’s happening, and may people don’t understand the importance of these laws.”

Eventually, Urban Indian SA wants to build a cultural center for Native Americans in the area to provide a place for the community to gather and seek help.

Santibañez explained that the only Native American center in Texas is in Dallas — much too far for Native Americans in San Antonio or nearby counties to access easily. And census data shows that 78 percent of Native Americans live in urban areas.

“We’ve found it’s hard for them to stay grounded in their identity and culture because their families live in different places,” she said.

The “Making the Invisible Visible” campaign will host a community organization training camp from Oct. 19 to Oct. 21, and an early voting rally at the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center on Oct. 22.

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Jackie Wang

Jackie Wang covered local government for the San Antonio Report.