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“A sacred space”: Architects and tribal community share a plan to protect Presidio's Lipan Apache cemetery

MASS Design Group, a firm known for its social justice-oriented projects, has designed a new boundary structure for the Cementerio del Barrio de los Lipanes. Beyond preventing erosion and protecting the burial site, the architects hope it will honor and call attention to Indigenous presence in the area.

By Annie Rosenthal

For decades, a small cemetery in Presidio was nearly forgotten, increasingly threatened by erosion and encroaching development. But recently, the Cementerio del Barrio de los Lipanes has become the focus of a renewed preservation campaign led by the locals whose Lipan Apache ancestors are buried there.

Last year, the city and county gave the land to the Lipan Apache Tribe of Texas, which is working with the Big Bend Conservation Alliance to protect the site. Now, an architecture firm known for its social justice projects has designed a protective structure for the site — one they hope will “instill acknowledgement of and respect for Indigenous presence in the Chihuahuan Desert.”

Marfa Public Radio recently spoke with the architect leading the project, Joseph Kunkel, a citizen of the Northern Cheyenne Nation and director of MASS Design Group’s Sustainable Native Communities Design Lab.

Highlights from the conversation

On MASS Design Group’s vision of a healing architecture

MASS Design Group has worked on a wide variety of projects aimed “promoting justice and human dignity” — from hospitals in Rwanda to the well-known National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, a memorial to lynching victims around the country. “We believe firmly that architecture’s never neutral, it either heals or hurts,” Kunkel says. 

He and his team members were drawn to the Cementerio del Barrio de los Lipanes because they saw protecting the gravesites as a chance to leverage architecture’s healing capacity.

“The cemetery is a project that I'd say is lifting up a history that has historically hurt this specific community, the burial mounds that have been desecrated over 100 plus years,” he says.

On the communal design process

Over the last few months, Kunkel and his team met repeatedly with a committee of members of the Lipan Apache Tribe of Texas and other Presidio residents to hear their hopes for the design. First and foremost, he says, their charge was to create a clear boundary around the cemetery — a task more challenging than it might sound, given that the gravesites actually extend beyond the current bounds of the burial mound. 

They also hoped that the protective structure would go beyond the idea of a wall — “not necessarily create a barrier, like one might think of the crossing between the border,” Kunkel says. The animating question, he says, is, “How can we invite people in, acknowledge that this is a sacred space that you're entering, and do it in a way that is beautiful, that is dignifying? And that kind of calls attention to [the fact] that this is a Lipan Apache place of significance, both from a past standpoint, and a presence that is here today, and that this will be a place into the future.”

On visiting the cemetery

Visiting the site, Kunkel and his team saw that they weren’t the first to design with the cemetery in mind. “The road actually contorts around the mound, and to kind of see that was pretty dramatic,” Kunkel says. “Knowing that the town of Presidio, when they were laying out roads, knew that there was something of significance here.” 

He sees the architects’ job as furthering that effort, reinforcing the work that locals have put in to protect their heritage and history. “As we continue moving this project forward, it's very much kind of highlighting those points of significance,” he says, “understanding that we just need to give this the attention it deserves.”

The city of Presidio approved the design this week, and construction of the protective structure will likely begin in January.

Annie Rosenthal was Marfa Public Radio's Border Reporter, a role she held in partnership with Report for America. She worked at the station from 2021 to 2023.