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Presidio County approves plan for handing over historic cemetery to Lipan Apache Tribe

Officials in a Far West Texas border county have voted to hand over ownership of a historic cemetery to the Lipan Apache Tribe, whose ancestors are buried at the small plot in Presidio, Texas. However, the transfer is still contingent on city officials transferring part of the cemetery land to the county first. |  Lea esta nota en español

By Travis Bubenik

In the border town of Presidio, Texas, families who trace their ancestry back to the region’s indigenous Lipan Apache people have worked for years to preserve a small historic cemetery where about 50 of their ancestors are buried.

The Cementerio del Barrio de los Lipanes is at first an unassuming sight: a small hill dotted with rock-covered graves and wooden crosses.

But the cemetery’s history dates to the around 1790’s, when the Prairie Grass Band of the Lipan Apache tribe moved into the region of present-day Presidio County as part of a peace agreement with Spanish settlers.

Tribal members are now set to play a much more direct role in the preservation efforts. On Wednesday, Presidio County commissioners approved a plan to transfer ownership of the cemetery land from the county to the Lipan Apache Tribe of Texas.

The plan is not yet finalized and will require a few more steps, though it is largely expected to move forward without many changes.

The cemetery sits on land that is currently owned in part by Presidio County and in part by the City of Presidio. Under the plan approved Wednesday, Presidio’s city council would first have to transfer the city’s stake in the cemetery to the county. Then, the county would transfer the entirety of the land to the Lipan tribe.

The Presidio City Council is expected to approve its part of the transfer at a meeting on Monday, according to City Administrator Brad Newton.

“We’re ready to sign the deed to the county,” Newton said.

Wednesday’s vote comes after some back-and-forth in recent weeks about the future of the historic cemetery.

In early September, county officials halted an initial plan to transfer the cemetery to the Presidio County Historical Commission after pushback from Lipan Apache descendant Christina Hernandez and others who argued the tribe and family members should have more input in the process.

Local leaders and the families ultimately settled on the current plan to transfer the cemetery lots to the tribe instead of the historical commission.

At Wednesday’s meeting, commissioners did raise some concern that residents of Presidio may not be aware of the plan. But Hernandez, who represents two families whose ancestors are buried in the cemetery, assured officials that the issue had been talked about “in-depth” among the families.

“We just feel that this transfer to the Lipan tribe is in the best interest of the cemetery, as descendants,” she said.

In an interview after the meeting, Hernandez said relatives of those buried at the cemetery are feeling “relieved” that they’ll soon be able to do more involved preservation work - things like building a new fence and conducting underground surveys - other than simply picking up trash at the site.

“We’re relieved that now we will not just be bystanders in our own history,” she said.

Presidio County Attorney Rod Ponton, who brought the matter before commissioners on Wednesday, said he supported the plan for the cemetery because the tribe would be the “best custodians” of the site.

“We want to strictly follow the Texas cemetery laws, because we want to make sure that everything is done right, and that in the end, the Lipan Apache are left with good title and good deeds to their property,” he said.

Travis Bubenik is All Things Considered Host and Big Bend Reporter at Marfa Public Radio.