Presidio County moves to transfer ownership of cemetery to Lipan Apache Tribe of Texas

Photo by Hannah Gentiles. The historic Lipan Apache Cemetery in Presidio sits on a modest hill situated between neighboring houses, with mostly unmarked graves.

MARFA — At last Wednesday’s commissioners court meeting, Presidio County made progress toward transferring ownership of the Lipan Apache cemetery in Presidio to the Lipan Apache Tribe of Texas. The move to transfer ownership, presented by County Attorney Rod Ponton, represents a significant shift in the county’s approach to dealing with the issue of how to care for the cemetery, which has been threatened for many years by development in Presidio. 

The cemetery is the final resting place for individuals in the Aguilar and Ornelas families, whose descendents can be found all over Presidio — family representative Christina Hernandez has put the count around 500 individuals in the region alone. Previously, Ponton (who is also head of the Presidio County Historical Commission) had proposed deeding the land to the Presidio County Historical Commission, but that plan was scrapped after concerns were raised by the Lipan Apache Tribe of Texas and the Big Bend Conservation Alliance, who have been working together to preserve the cemetery.

The cemetery currently spans two lots of city land and three lots of county land off of Market Street. “It’s basically in the middle of town and neither the county or the city own it as a cemetery,” Ponton explained. “It’s unclear how the city and county ended up with these lots, but it’s probably nonpayment of taxes.”

Official records show the transfer of ownership of the land in 1991 from a Mr. and Mrs. Ramos. Around that time, the city announced plans to widen and pave the dirt road at the base of the burial mound. Community members and the Texas Historical Commission’s Archaeological Stewardship Network stepped in to delineate the boundaries of the cemetery, and city development at the site was temporarily paused. 

Over the next three decades, the surrounding streets were paved, and an alleyway was bulldozed into the burial mound. Utility lines were installed throughout the cemetery. “Now few of the graves are marked by the piles of cairns solemnly gathered by the people who buried their dead there generations ago,” Tribal Administrator Oscar Rodriguez wrote in a paper presented to the Texas Historical Commission in February. “Rock walls made with these stones are visible throughout the neighborhood today.”

The cemetery’s history dates back to the 1790s, when the Spanish government apportioned a reservation for the Lipan Apache near what’s now known as the barrio de los Lipanes. Records of nomadic Apache presence in the area dates back even further to the 1680s, when Jumano leader Juan Sabeata petitioned the diocese of El Paso for a mission in Presidio-Ojinaga.

Sabeata hoped a spiritual and political alliance with the Spanish would help protect his people from the Apaches, who were competing for resources with the Jumanos and the dozens of other indigenous groups who called la junta de los ríos, the area around what’s now Presidio-Ojinaga, home in the 17th century. While many Lipan chose to return to their nomadic lifestyle after the eventual ultimatum from the Spanish government, the Prairie Grass band put down roots. 

Over many generations, they became a part of the blend of indigenous and colonial cultures that make Presidio and Ojinaga a distinctive part of the Big Bend today. Despite their relative assimilation — by the 1860s, U.S. Cavalry visiting the area described them as “friendly” while waging an all-out war against other Lipan bands in the region — some racial stigma remained. 

Hernandez, who has been helping lead the charge to protect the cemetery, remembers a family story from her great-great-grandfather, who is buried in the cemetery. In a break with tradition, his wife was buried at the church. Some members of Hernandez’s family say that as an indigenous man, he wanted to be buried with his people; others say he was not allowed to be buried at the church because of his Lipan identity. 

Hernandez has been working to protect the cemetery practically from birth. From around the time she was two years old, her family sent her to Presidio every summer to spend time with her grandparents. A regular feature of these visits was visiting and cleaning the cemetery, which was referred to in her family as the “Aguilar cemetery” because those ancestors were the only ones whose named grave markers had not disappeared over the years. 

Hernandez — who now commutes every other month between Austin and Presidio — says the move to legally transfer the land back to the Lipan Apache was sparked by frustrations in her family about how to take care of the cemetery without the land rights. “We weren’t able to make improvements because the city and county own that land,” she explained. 

One of the biggest budget items the family wants is the creation of a fence around the perimeter of the cemetery to protect the mound from vehicle and foot traffic. The fence is estimated to cost between $40,000 and $60,000 — a figure that does not include ongoing maintenance. Hernandez says county, city and state officials started to change their tune once they realized the true financial scope tied to the cemetery’s maintenance and preservation.

Ponton’s plan, presented at this week’s meeting, hinged on Texas cemetery law. The county can give away land to be used as a cemetery to a “qualified nonprofit,” but the city isn’t legally able to make that same transfer. Ponton proposed the city give up their lots to the county, and the commissioners court moved to pre-authorize the transfer to the Lipan Tribe once the city filed their deed transfers. That was scheduled to happen at a Presidio City Council meeting on October 18, but the meeting was postponed until November 1. 

Still, the family is hopeful for the future. “We’re no longer bystanders of our own history — that’s what we’ve felt for a long time,” Hernandez said. “The city and county have done a great job of making us feel a part of this process. They recognize that this isn’t a political issue, that this is really the return of property that over the course of history came into their hands. It offers recognition to us and to the people interred in the cemetery that we exist, that we aren’t just some blip in history or that we never existed. It validates us.”