Celebration, reunion as Lipan Apache tribal council travels to Presidio from McAllen for special ceremony

Photo by Sam Karas. Brendan Leyva helps return a sacred sentinela, or sentinel stone, to a gravesite in the Lipan Apache cemetery.

PRESIDIO — Representatives from the Lipan Apache tribal council traveled to Presidio from McAllen last weekend for a special ceremony in the cemetery on Market Street. In the month since the deeds to the cemetery were signed over to the tribe on November 2, the Big Bend Conservation Alliance and the City of Presidio worked together to reclaim stones that had been taken from gravesites over the years. The graves are marked by sentinel stones, or sentinelas, that were used instead of traditional Western crosses or engraved markers. Their purpose was both spiritual and practical: the stones would keep watch over the grave in a metaphysical sense and also deterred animals from digging them up. 

The cemetery’s history dates back to the 18th century, when the Lipan Apache were granted a reservation in the Presidio-Ojinaga area as part of a peace settlement with the Spanish government. Members of the Ornelas and Aguilar families — whose descendants number in the hundreds in the area today — can definitively trace their ancestry to the burial mound, but there may be other families interred there, too. It’s hard to say, as many of the graves are unmarked and the cemetery has been threatened for years by city development. In the past few decades, a number of homes and an alleyway were built over existing graves. 

Elvira Hermosillo, Presidio’s community liaison for the Big Bend Conservation Alliance, walked the streets with Mayor John Ferguson to spread awareness. Many people in the neighborhood had taken rocks from the cemetery without realizing it was a cemetery. “We handed out informational flyers to explain the meaning of the rocks,” she said. “We told people, ‘If you or someone you know took rocks from the cemetery, we ask that you just please return them. You don’t have to tell anyone, just go drop them off.’”

City administrator Brad Newton was personally responsible for the reclamation of a large number of rocks from a neighbor. A new police recruit had bought a house on the same block as the cemetery, and a rock wall was preventing him from receiving propane deliveries to his new home. Many of those rocks were suspected to have come from the cemetery. “It was a win-win,” Newton said. “He wasn’t in love with the fence. It was on [a city] easement, so it was really easy to get a front-loader in there and scoop up all the rocks and create a new driveway for him that wasn’t in the cemetery.” 

At Saturday’s event, tribal members and the cemetery’s neighbors were invited to a small ceremony to bless the rocks and return them to the burial mound. It was the first time many tribal members, most of whom are based in South Texas, had been to the site. A few members of the council had visited the cemetery back in 2013, when the site had been threatened by a paving project on Market Street. “When we came, there were bike trails and ATV trails up here,” recalled Robert Soto, vice chairman of the Lipan Apache tribe. “There were definitely parties out here, a lot of broken bottles.”

In light of the long struggle for formal recognition and protection, the mood on Saturday was one of optimism and celebration. “We don’t come here to worship the graves,” tribal chairman Bernard Barcena explained. “We come here to honor them in a good way, which is to preserve this place and the memories of those who are buried here.” Barcena, Soto and other representatives from the tribe performed traditional songs around a large drum. They invited Nakai Flotte, who has family roots in Presidio-Ojinaga and in Manuel Benavides, Chihuahua, to bless the ceremony with a prayer in the Lipan language. Flotte made smoke in a small bowl and dusted her hands with mesquite pollen, forms of protection from spiritual influences.

Flotte holds a PhD in anthropology from Harvard and is currently a postdoctoral fellow in Latino and Native American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. She’s used her high-powered academic background to spearhead efforts to restore the Lipan language, long considered extinct. “I was the first to pray in the language in hundreds of years,” she explained. “We lost our language. But spirituality involves language––you can’t learn about our spirituality without learning the language.” 

Flotte’s work to reconstruct the Lipan language centers around the oral history of Augustina Zuazua, a Lipan woman who was forcibly removed from her home in Zaragoza, Coahuila by the Mexican army and eventually came to land at the Mescalero Apache reservation in 1903. The Mescalero and Lipan Apache have long been neighbors in the Big Bend — the Spanish granted them reservations across the river from each other as part of the peace settlements that led the cemetery’s Lipan families to permanently settle in the area. Despite keeping close quarters, their cultures and languages are related, but distinct.

When the linguist Henry Hoijer interviewed Zuazua in 1939, he was amazed to learn just how distinct. Thanks to Zuazua, we know that the Lipan word for “rock” is tsí, and that their name for the Rio Grande was gonitséí, roughly translated to “big river” like its Spanish counterpart. “We haven’t talked in so long, people don’t know how to make the sounds,” Flotte explained. “They aren’t common in Spanish or English. So that’s the first initial part, teaching people how the vocabulary works. And then later reconstructing the language.”

For Flotte, reconstructing the Lipan language is part of a larger project to honor the importance of indigenous identity in the culture and history of the borderlands. Enrique Madrid — a Jumano historian from Redford who was present at Saturday’s ceremony — is fond of reminding people about a 1999 DNA study from Sul Ross State University and Texas A&M that suggested that the average Ojinaga resident is 91% Native American by ancestry. That 91% isn’t always part of the narrative. “At one point, it was illegal to be Native here,” Flotte explained. “We’re so invested in looking to the south — Mexico, Mexico, Mexico — we forget that our [Lipan] ancestors came from the north, from Canada. Let’s move beyond that, beyond our nationality.”

Darcie Little Badger is another academic with Lipan roots who was invited to speak at Saturday’s ceremony. She and her mother, Hermelinda Walking Woman, are advisors to the tribal council. “My degree in geoscience can attest that rocks tell stories — their composition, their grain size, their color, their shape. Everything about them speaks to the world that created them,” she said. “And just like we impact the land, the land impacts us. And just looking at this land here, and the rocks and the people, I see a story of endurance and strength.”

As a geoscientist, Little Badger is especially interested in the origin of the sentinelas — their diversity suggests that Lipan people generations ago carried them considerable distances from different sources. “What really surprised me are the number of rocks that have been returned,” she said. “It just shows that there is a desire to make this land whole again.” 

For many of the tribal council members visiting from South Texas, the project to reclaim the cemetery led them to reconnect with other communities of Lipan Apache they didn’t know existed. For tribal chairman Barcena, it was especially personal. “Christina [Hernandez] had written me an email about the things she’d seen out here, about trying to protect this site,” he recalled. “When I found out about that, I didn’t realize that I had family ties out here, in Shafter.” He discovered that his great-grandfather’s sister was married to one of the original investors in the Shafter mines. 

For Barcena, the natural beauty of the Big Bend mirrors traditional Lipan cosmology. Elders had long spoken of Lipans “crossing the river” after death, a river of stars in the Milky Way galaxy. “What makes this land so special? I’ve often seen photos of the Milky Way taken out here at McDonald Observatory,” he said. “It really brings home that point, of our people making that journey.”

He spoke at length for the small audience gathered in the cemetery on Saturday about the importance of the land being transferred to the Lipan Tribe. “We don’t have a blood quantum, our tribe is by descendancy,” he explained. “Blood quantum” refers to the US government’s policy of restricting tribal membership based on how directly an individual is related to other registered tribal members. For the Lipan—who are not a federally recognized tribe—that practice has limited their political power, especially in Presidio, over 600 miles away from the tribal office. “Now our people have a voice,” he said. “Now the remains that have been scattered will have a voice and a home to be returned to. Hopefully other states will have the same consideration our people have had and see that their sites are returned.”

“This is a very emotional time for me,” he added. “This is huge for a little town in a big county in Texas.”