3-D modeling, ground penetrating radar to inform improvements at Lipan Cemetery

Selina Martinez operates the 3-D scanner at the Lipan Apache Cemetery in Presidio. Photo by Sam Karas.

PRESIDIO — Every six minutes and ten seconds, Selina Martinez would pick up the tripod and walk a few yards, moving counterclockwise around the cemetery. The scanner — a sleek black bulb on three legs — whirred. The sound was faint but suggested just how complex the process was and how hard the little machine was working to read the rugged Presidio desert and the centuries of history beneath its feet. 

The Lipan Apache Tribe of Texas and the Big Bend Conservation Alliance have been fundraising to begin necessary improvements to enclose and protect the burial site on Market Street. They’ve hired experts to do the necessary surveys that will inform the architect’s plans. Chris Cornelius, an Indigenous architect currently based in New Mexico and a star in his field, will use the results of a topographic 3-D modeling survey and ground-penetrating radar to design a fence that will protect the site. Tribal members also hope that the fence will eventually be adorned with educational materials that teach the public about the history of the Lipan Apache in Presidio and how to help protect their legacy. 

The city of Presidio has been gradually swallowing the cemetery on Market Street for generations. Walk around the mound and the evidence is there: ATV ruts, dog tracks, remnants of beer bottles. In a history-making series of sessions, the city and county of Presidio moved in the fall of 2021 to transfer ownership of the site to the Lipan Apache tribe of Texas. There were ceremonies and celebrations, but now that the dust has settled, the tribe and their fundraising allies are dealing with the financial and logistical reality of trying to enclose the site. 

Martinez, a Pascua Yaqui architect-in-training from Scottsdale, Arizona, kicked off the process with her 3-D scanner, a Leica BLK360 that she purchased after winning the NDN Collective’s Radical Imagination grant in 2020. The NDN Collective, which helped popularize and launch the Land Back movement to “return Indigenous lands to Indigenous hands,” didn’t have a direct role in repatriating the cemetery to the Lipan Apache Tribe of Texas, but the parallels are clear. “It’s a little bit of decolonization here in Presidio,” said Christina Hernandez, a family representative for the cemetery, whose Ornelas and Aguilar ancestors are interred in the mound. 

Martinez continued through the process of creating the 3-D scan. “Leica is a well-known camera company, but a lot of people don’t know they also make geothermal devices like this,” she explained. As it oscillates, the scanner uses that technology to create a 3-D cloud of points, which are uploaded to an app called Cyclone that renders a preview of the model. Martinez carried a tablet around the site that links to the scanner’s built-in wifi. “I’ll do some post production of the data so that it’s easy to utilize and view. But I’m not going to import it onto any larger data set — it shouldn’t be owned by universities or the government, it should be owned by the client, which is the tribe.” 

For all the sophistication of the device, there are still a few technological hurdles: the scanner can’t see behind bushes or solid objects, so Martinez had to reposition the tripod strategically around many of the overgrown mesquite bushes that dot the site. Martinez has struggled with headstones before, in a previous scan of a cemetery she conducted at a Yaqui gravesite in Guadalupe, Arizona, on the outskirts of Phoenix. “There aren’t solid gravestones here, so that’s kind of nice,” she said, gesturing toward the simple wooden crosses that adorn the few marked graves. 

As she worked, curious townspeople drove by and waved. Around noon, Samuel Sanchez Baeza approached the mound, struggling to duck his tall, lanky frame under the barbed wire fence. Baeza owns a stockyard where cattle are unloaded in Ojinaga, and crossed the river to look for his grandfather, who he’d heard was buried in the mound. His grandfather was indio, or Indigenous. “If I took off my boots and put on sandals, I’d be indio,” he said in Spanish. 

He showed everyone in the cemetery a photograph of his abuelo, Nabor Sanchez Tavarez, taken in 1914. The photograph shows a dashing young man with the thick mustache that was all the rage in Pancho Villa’s Mexico, wearing a belt of cartridges for the pistol on his hip. As word about the restoration efforts in the cemetery have spread, more people like Baeza have started poking around Presidio, looking for their ancestors. Though enrollment in the Lipan Apache Tribe of Texas is closed to the public, the families who worked to save the cemetery have been personally invited to apply. 

For Shelley Bernstein, executive director of the Big Bend Conservation Alliance, keeping each leg of the project Indigenous-led has been a top priority. “For BBCA, it’s really important that we hire Indigenous creatives on this project,” she said. “We would like to see this extend to the contracting process as well. We need Indigenous leaders to be making decisions on sites like this. Because it’s not just a partnership with the Lipan Apache Tribe of Texas — it’s creating a new mentality that forms the core of the organization.” 

Though Martinez does not have family ties to Presidio, she was drawn to the project because she’d worked to survey important Yaqui historical sites and felt there was a similarity between her ancestors’ history and that of the Lipan Apache. Both groups are border people with ties to both Spanish and American colonial legacies that gradually erased Indigenous narratives central to the region’s story. “It’s really just a wall,” she said. “But it has big impacts. Like I can’t talk to people — I can’t speak Spanish, I can’t speak Yaqui. So that’s a big thing I have to overcome.”

Martinez’s 3-D model will be paired with the next project that’s planned for the cemetery: a ground-penetrating radar survey that will help the team determine where the location of unmarked graves are. That’s especially important in the Market Street cemetery, where an alley and a street were paved over a significant portion of the original burial ground. The device, which Bernstein describes as looking “like a lawnmower,” is a little more invasive and requires permitting from the Texas Historical Commission to operate. 

“We’re not in the red yet,” Bernstein said, but still worries about funding big-ticket services still needed to create the protective fence. “Somebody donated $50 the other day, and I was like, thank you. We need that.”