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Lipan Apache tribal members gather in Presidio to celebrate historic land transfer

In late November, members of the Lipan Apache Tribe of Texas traveled to the Big Bend region to celebrate Presidio County’s transferral of ownership of a cemetery in Presidio to the tribe. They say the land transfer is an important step towards recognizing the area’s Indigenous residents and history.

By Annie Rosenthal

Standing among the graves in Presidio’s Cementerio del Barrio de los Lipanes, members of the Lipan Apache Tribe of Texas met with Big Bend residents this weekend to mark a historic occasion. Some 200 years after Lipanes began buying their dead on what was then a peace settlement between Spanish settlers and the tribe's Prairie Grass Band, the cemetery is now owned by the tribe.

Until recently, the five lots comprising the burial grounds were property of the city of Presidio and Presidio County. The graves were largely maintained by locals whose Lipan ancestors are buried there. But earlier this month, following a renewed push to preserve the historic site, county commissioners and Presidio’s city council voted to transfer their lots to the tribe.

On Saturday, Tribal Chairman Bernard Barcena, Jr., thanked the local officials who facilitated the land transfer. “Hopefully, we bring peace to this area –– for the original purpose of this land, which was an estate of peace,” he said. “And this little portion comes back to a people that was considered dead and no longer viable. But because of the determination of individuals to maintain their cultures, and individual communities throughout Texas, we have survived and we are here.”

The celebration continued with a series of prayers and speeches, including the presentation of a formal commemorative resolution by a representative of state senator César Blanco’s office.

Local historian Enrique Madrid traces his ancestry to the Jumano people, and played a key role in preventing pavement from expanding into the cemetery in the 1990s. He presented a carved walking stick to Christina Hernandez, who grew up visiting the cemetery each year to tend to her great-great-grandfather’s grave. “It’s been a long journey,” Madrid said.

“Thank you for protecting our ancestors,” Hernandez replied. She and her great aunt, Alicia Jimenez, are among a group of descendants of those buried here who are now in the process of enrolling formally in the tribe. They estimate that hundreds of people in the Presidio area trace their ancestry back to Lipanes.

Over the years, many of the rocks that marked the graves here were scattered around the site or carried off to serve as decoration in nearby yards. Presidio residents recently conducted a campaign to collect and return them to the cemetery. On Saturday, as tribal leaders sang a song of blessing, visitors fanned out to place the stones back on their original cairns. Former tribal administrator Oscar Rodriguez, who says his ancestors are buried here, explained that these “sentinel” rocks keep watch over the dead.

Laura Chao and her four teenage children were among those hefting rocks back to each burial site. Chao is a member of the tribe who grew up in Fort Stockton and now lives in Miami, Florida. She said her family traveled all this way for the ceremony because the land transfer is a big deal –– and not just locally.

“As we look at the Land Back [movement] as a whole in the United States, it rarely happens. It's tough, right?” she said. “So for a tribe, a tiny tribe in the middle of West Texas, you know, to get this sacred burial land back, for Presidio County and the city of Presidio to do this, I mean, it's huge.”

Terry Bishop is a member of the Presidio County Historical Commission. He said returning the land was not a difficult choice for local officials.

“That’s part of our job, I feel, is to set things right. And obviously this land has been abandoned and misused. And it needs to be in the hands of somebody who will treat it with respect and protect it,” he said. “And the ones that’ll do that best are the descendants of those who were buried here.”

New preservation efforts are already underway. The tribe is working with the Big Bend Conservation Alliance to fundraise for a fence around the site's perimeter, which will be designed by Chris Cornelius, Chair of the Department of Architecture at the University of New Mexico and a citizen of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin. And the Texas Historical Commission has approved a historical marker for the site that should be ready in the next year.

Looking around the cemetery after the ceremony concluded, tribal member and advisor Darcie Little Badger said she was feeling optimistic. “I thought that perhaps through a long fight, we'd be able to reclaim this land, but I did not anticipate it happening so quickly,” she said. “And just being here and seeing the community, seeing Lipan people on this land that has so much of our sacred history, and knowing that now we will be able to begin in earnest that process of protecting –– not only that, but preserving this for future generations? It does bring a great deal of hope.”

Annie Rosenthal is Marfa Public Radio's Border Reporter and a Report for America corps member.