As archaeological and restoration work gets underway at the Alamo, San Antonio indigenous groups are decrying the State’s challenges to their effort to designate parts of the historic site an official cemetery.

Groups led by the Tap Pilam Coahuiltecan Nation are awaiting a decision by the Texas Historical Commission on a request to consider parts of the Alamo Complex, Alamo Plaza, and surrounding properties an official cemetery. The commission will consider the application by the Alamo Defenders Descendants Association at its quarterly meeting Friday in Paris, Texas.

The cemetery designation would provide more formal protections for the burial ground that’s part of the former Spanish colonial mission. Tap Pilam members say that’s critical to making sure their ancestors’ bodies continue to lay at rest and aren’t reinterred elsewhere as part of Alamo restoration work.

At a press event Thursday on the edge of the federal courthouse on Alamo Plaza, Raymond Hernandez, Tap Pilam councilmember and cultural preservationist, said if the cemetery designation is denied, “then we’re going to have to prepare for the next Battle of the Alamo.”

“That one’s going to be fought in the federal courts,” Hernandez said. “We’re not going to stop.”

The tug-of-war over the cemetery status comes out of the Alamo’s long history as a Spanish colonial mission before it was the site of the famous 1836 battle. Besides the remains of fighters in the Texas Revolution and Spanish colonists, past studies have led to the discovery of the remains of Native Americans who lived and worked at the mission formerly known as the Mission San Antonio de Valero.

“They would have been born there, they would have fallen in love there, they were married there, their children skinned their knees there,” said Ramon Vasquez, director of the American Indians in Texas at the San Antonio Missions and a leader of the Tap Pilam Coahuiltecan Nation. He says the remains of more than 1,000 people are buried at the site.

Workers start excavation at Alamo Plaza. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Digging is now underway in the areas of the church and long barrack, top priorities for the State in its Alamo renovations. Since January, Alamo staff and consultants have been getting permits and doing research as part of efforts to preserve some of its most important buildings.

“A lot of it has to do with the construction and sequence of construction of the church and the long barrack,” Alamo archaeologist Kristi Miller Nichols said at a meeting last week of the Alamo Citizens Advisory Committee. “We do know a lot of information from the archival research, but there are still a lot of pieces of information that we’re not sure about.”

Officials with the Texas General Land Office (GLO), which owns the site, and its non-profit custodian, Alamo Trust, say they intend to leave any human remains they find in place, though a protocol developed for how such remains would be treated does leave open the possibility of moving them.

“The Alamo’s philosophy is that the most respectful treatment of human remains is to leave them in place, but the potential for further impacts will be noted during the decision-making process,” the protocol states.

The fight exposes conflicts between local interests and the Alamo’s State managers, as well as the difficulty for Native American groups that have not received federal recognition to be formally included in the decision-making process.

Efforts to declare parts of the Alamo grounds as an official burial site hit a milestone in May, when the Texas Historical Commission designated a large part of the Alamo grounds a “historic Texas cemetery.” However, the designation was largely symbolic.

The Alamo Defenders Descendants Association filed another request later that month. In a June 7 response to the latest cemetery request, the GLO said a more formal cemetery designation would “likely delay or obstruct Alamo preservation efforts.” A GLO attorney also argued that the broader site wouldn’t qualify as a cemetery in part because there are no grave markers or headstones outside of the church.

Vasquez said the group’s intent is not to stop the $450 million renovation of the Alamo. Rather, they want the site to more fully reflect the entire history of the Mission San Antonio de Valero, not just its role in the Texas Revolution, he said.

“We’re not trying to shut down this project at all,” Vasquez told the Rivard Report in a phone interview Thursday. “We’ve been for this project since day one. … We saw that it was an opportunity to tell the entire mission story on the site.”

However, Vasquez’s group has had difficulties in being included in the formal decision-making about the human remains.

The tension became clear at a meeting last week of the Alamo Citizens Advisory Committee, when Vasquez, a committee member, challenged Nichols on the consultation process with federal tribes. He asked about why local Native American groups weren’t included in a plan about what to do with their own ancestors’ remains.

“I feel like there’s more work being done to keep people out of the process than to be inclusive in the process,” Vasquez told Nichols at the meeting.

To develop a plan for how to treat human remains, Alamo staff assembled an archaeology committee whose members include staff of the Los Angeles-based Autry Museum of the American West, the Mescalero Apache, the Tonkawa Tribe of Oklahoma, the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe of Texas, the Caddo Nation of Oklahoma, and the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma. An initial meeting of the committee also included representatives the Cheyenne and Arapahoe tribes of Oklahoma.

“They’re going to bring outside native tribes, and yes, some of them did have people buried here … that had integrated into our community, that became part of us,” Hernandez said at the Thursday press conference. “It’s not likely for these tribes that are coming from other parts of the nation to tell our story. We wanted to help tell their story because we have the records, we have done the research, we have put skin into this game.”

Responding to Vasquez last week, Nichols said that the Alamo is following “the spirit of” a federal law known as the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), even though it’s technically not required. That law requires consultation with federally recognized tribes about the treatment of Native American burial sites.

“What we’ve found is interacting with the federally recognized tribes that … claim heritage to this site as well, they were excited to be involved,” Nichols said at the meeting. “It’s rare that they’ve been involved in these kinds of actions beforehand. But they’re the ones who suggested following the spirit of NAGPRA.”

In February, Vasquez asked Nichols for Tap Pilam to be part of the committee, according to an email he shared with the Rivard Report. The report mentions Vasquez as a representative of the “local indigenous perspective” in his role in the Citizens Advisory Committee, though no local tribal groups were included in the archaeology committee.

(left) Raymond Hernandez, tribal council member and cultural preservationist, and Ramón Vásquez. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

In response to questions about why local indigenous groups weren’t formally consulted, GLO spokesperson Rachel Jones cited in an email, a Texas Attorney General’s Office opinion stating that the interaction of state and federal law does not allow Texas “to enact laws benefitting these Indians” without federal recognition.

“Thus, Texas does not have the ability to grant a local group expressing tribal heritage the same privileges of a tribe recognized federally,” the email read.

A bill that would have granted state recognition to Tap Pilam passed the Texas House in April but did not make it through the Senate.

Vasquez isn’t the only one saying he should have been on the committee. Vasquez also shared an email from Casey Hanson, a regional archaeologist and project reviewer for the Texas Historical Commission, making the same point.

“In my opinion, if they do not include you, as a representative of one of the major descendant communities, then the committee is a complete sham,” Hanson said in the email. “I will make the recommendation again that you are included, but the GLO and the Alamo will do what they want to do.”

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Brendan Gibbons

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