Portraits from the Big Bend: Nakaya Flotte, advocate and student of traditional Lipan Apache culture

Nakaya Flotte, a sociocultural anthropologist who grew up in Presidio-Ojinaga, at the Marfa Gardens. Flotte works as a traditional ecological and cultural knowledge consultant, offering indigenous perspectives of the West Texas landscape to various community projects around the Big Bend. Photo by Mary Cantrell.

FAR WEST TEXAS — After more than a decade in academia studying sociocultural anthropology, Nakaya Flotte, who grew up in Presidio-Ojinaga, is entering into a new phase of her career, prioritizing broadening West Texas’ understanding of indigenous ecological and cultural knowledge through a variety of community projects.

Flotte, who is currently based in Austin but travels frequently to the Big Bend region, is working as a freelance consultant and has recently contributed her efforts to the ownership transfer of the Lipan Apache cemetery in Presidio from the county to tribe descendants as well as the ongoing Judd Foundation/Big Bend Conservation Alliance grasslands project

Flotte said at the root she is looking to expand the collective cultural understanding of the region beyond the widely-discussed history of Mexico, as told by Spanish conquistadors, to bring more awareness to West Texas’ earlier occupants, including the Plains Lipan Apache peoples, which were one of dozens of indigenous groups that are generally classified as the Jumano, Apache and Comanche. 

“That’s not the entire story. There’s much more complexity and many other cultures that are also part of that. I think that West Texas would definitely benefit quite a lot in understanding that indigenous people are still there and that we still have knowledge,” said Flotte.

The Big Bend Sentinel recently met with Flotte at the Marfa Garden, a small native plant sanctuary complete with casitas and a walking trail, to discuss her bi-national upbringing, lasting connections to the Big Bend region and career as an anthropologist moving forward. 

Flotte spent the first 15 years of her life living in Ojinaga and first moved to Presidio in eighth grade. At Presidio High School she was a student of Patt Simms, science teacher and advocate of the Chihuahuan Desert ecosystem, who passed away in 2020. Growing up along the U.S./Mexico border, Flotte was eager to spread her wings after graduating high school and moved to Austin in 2008 to study at the University of Texas. 

“As a young queer person, I was just trying to leave and go to the city,” said Flotte, who is a transwoman. “I really paid attention in school just to be able to leave.” 

Flotte said being a first generation student entering Texas’ capital city from a rural community was a culture shock initially, but her commitment to academic rigor earned her  a degree in cultural anthropology in 2012. After a stint living in the Bay Area in California, Flotte decided to apply for graduate school to continue her studies. 

She was accepted into a number of programs around the country, but opted to move to Boston to study at Harvard University, where she went on to earn a PhD in anthropology in 2021. During her time at Harvard, Flotte researched immigration and border externalization, volunteered to assist migrants seeking asylum and worked as an ethnographer interviewing unaccompanied minors with the nonprofit Kids in Need of Defense (KIND) in El Paso. While the work was heavily rooted in community involvement and field research which benefitted Flotte in her overall education, she ultimately felt the work lacked a vital connection to her own experiences. 

“The project was a bit too distant for me from my own identity,” said Flotte. “I was pressured at Harvard, because I’m an anthropologist — they push you to work on other communities that are not necessarily yours.” 

Flotte, as of late, has found a deeper appreciation for her craft by working on projects closer to home — like last fall, when she helped with the ownership transfer of the Lipan Apache cemetery back to the tribe. By connecting cemetery plots to current families residing in Presidio, primarily the Aguilar and Ornelas families, Flotte said some locals were spurred to think differently upon realizing the extent of their family’s lineage in the region. 

“It’s changing everything in Presidio,” said Flotte. “A lot of people, it changed the way in which they see themselves and that in turn changes the way in which they see their homeland.” 

Flotte is also working to revive the long lost language of the Lipan Apache with the goal of one day creating a dictionary. Flotte, working without the benefit of comprehensive knowledge passed down for generations or any formal texts, has taken the time to research the language via archives, books and oral histories. A Navajo language class she took while studying at Harvard has also aided her efforts. 

“Every time I go to a bookstore I go to the Native American section and look for anything that’s Lipan Apache. I have so many books that have a paragraph or two paragraphs, maybe a page on Lipan Apaches,” said Flotte. “From there we gather new words that we don’t know and we add them to the database.”

Working with a cousin who lives in South Texas and shares her interest in reconstructing the language of the Lipan Apache, Flotte dove into a variety of research materials, including a 1903 interview between linguist Henry Hojier and Augustina Zuazua, a displaced Lipan woman living on the Mescalero Apache reservation. Talking to elders and researching archival materials can help piece together a more complete picture of the language’s nuances, said Flotte. 

For example, Lipan Apache, who were also referred to as prairie grass people, used the word łįbai to describe the coloration of the native grasses, which in part led their migrations. While older generations might be familiar with the concept of the color of the grass as meaningful, they might be unaware of the exact term, said Flotte. 

“We have knowledge. We have just lost a lot of the specificities of it. It’s a matter of being open to being wrong and to having people give you contradictions,” said Flotte. 

The work Flotte is performing with the help of others will hopefully one day lead to federal recognition of the Lipan Apache tribe, she said. The tribe submitted an application in 2012 but has yet to hear back on their status from the federal government. If federal recognition were achieved, the tribe would likely have access to additional funding sources. The tribe only recently became recognized by the state of Texas in 2019. 

“Federal recognition might not happen in my lifetime. But it can definitely happen in the future because of the work we’re doing right now. [Future generations] won’t have to relearn all these things from scratch,” said Flotte. 

Flotte is also working in the region as a consultant offering an indigenous perspective on the Judd grasslands project, a partnership between the Judd Foundation and Big Bend Conservation Alliance to open a public park slash grassland preserve in Marfa. 

Flotte is in the process of writing up recommendations for signage, educational materials and a land acknowledgement text, which will include information such as what the grasslands meant to indigenous peoples, different ways they interacted with the land and the language they used to describe it. Flotte said in addition to sharing her hard-won knowledge of the colloquial or indigenous names for certain flora and fauna, another key focus of the work is to emphasize the need for conservation of the land.

“I don’t think I’ve seen signage in West Texas that includes indigenous traditional ecological knowledge, I think it’s quite innovative,” said Flotte. “It’s also going to allow for the sacred aspect of the land and teach people there the ways in which we can relate to the land because after all, we have to be able to take care of it.” 

The grasslands project is conducting ongoing community engagement efforts in the form of meetings, which have already taken place among invited community members and will be opened up to the community at large this fall, said Shelley Bernstein of Big Bend Conservation Alliance.

While Flotte herself will not be present for the community meetings, she is keeping in mind ways to make everyone feel welcome in the space and said there will be some barriers for the project organizers to overcome in order to successfully attract members from across the community.

“People that don’t always interact with public greenspaces — elders, people with disabilities, local indigenous people, people that are lower class — tend to see green spaces as these wealthy places where only the wealthy have access to,” said Flotte. 

Flotte said as a transwoman who didn’t always feel a sense of community growing up, for a while she was uneasy about returning home to the Big Bend region, but now envisions herself returning frequently to collaborate on projects.

“I think there’s value to me being queer,” said Flotte of her role as a sociocultural anthropologist and consultant. “It just adds to my ability to be more tolerant, and my ability to be more open minded, and find beauty in places where people might not find beauty or knowledge.”