Lipan Apache Cemetery project to be completed with Mellon Foundation grant 

Cementerio del Barrio de los Lipanes mid-construction during the architect’s walk through of the site at the 2023 Agave Festival. Image courtesy MASS Design Group.

PRESIDIO — This Monday, the Big Bend Conservation Alliance announced — in collaboration with the Lipan Apache Tribe of Texas — that the Lipan Apache Cemetery project in Presidio will be completed early next year with the help of funding from the Mellon Foundation. A portion of the $650,000 grant will go to a study that will help local groups identify and prioritize the needs of Indigenous communities in Far West Texas. 

The cemetery — located on Market Street in Presidio — was active through the 19th century as the final resting place of local Lipan Apache families. The only family names confirmed at the site come from the Aguilar and Ornelas families, but many more Presidians can probably trace their roots to the small, dusty plot.

Over the years, the cemetery was lost to the city’s expansion and to general neglect. A small group of families banded to take care of the site, which was the victim of vandalism and of development on top of the burial mound. 

Christina Hernandez — a descendent of the Aguilar family buried at the cemetery — grew up clearing trash from the site and tending to the graves. As she grew older, she became concerned that the cemetery would continue to suffer from incursions from urban development and decided to do something about it. 

With the help of the Big Bend Conservation Alliance, Hernandez and her family and friends  worked with the Lipan Apache tribe to preserve the site. The first phase was convincing the city and county to deed the land to the Lipan Apache, and then an extensive design process unfolded. 

The Lipan Apache Cemetery project is both a preservation project and an educational initiative. Joseph Kunkel of MASS Design Lab — an Indigenous lead design firm — helped create a master plan with local input. 

The design employs gabion wall construction to help stabilize the burial mound and set it apart from the rest of the street. Those walls will create a walking path to help guide visitors respectfully through the site. Interpretive materials along the path will help newcomers engage with Lipan Apache history and culture. 

As the driving force behind the project, Hernandez was excited to see the project near completion. “The way we are framing the project is that it’s a living history, it’s a living culture — we’re still here,” she said. “While we’re commemorating and putting up this memorial to our ancestors, it’s really an opportunity to educate.” 

The grant from the Mellon Foundation will go to reimburse MASS Design Group, the Big Bend Conservation Alliance and other entities who have contributed to the project in-kind. The grant will also help reimburse a land reclamation study — contrary to the name, the research isn’t just about returning land to Indigenous people, but identifying needs within these communities to help empower them economically and politically. 

Hernandez was thrilled by the local response in Presidio. Folks from across town without personal ties to the cemetery had contributed time, money and good wishes to the effort. “Seeing people willing to give what they have has really been very heartwarming,” she said. “It has made me feel like we’re really doing something together.”