The Texas Observer

Bringing the Dead Home

Ramón Vásquez can’t tell you exactly how many of his relatives have been dug up. He can’t tell you how many are now stored in climate-controlled rooms at museums or universities.

And he can’t tell you how many more will be unearthed when shovels hit the ground at construction sites in and around San Antonio’s historic colonial missions.

Vásquez is a member of the Tap Pilam Coahuiltecan Nation, a tribe that still calls South Texas and Northern Mexico home. When Spanish colonizers arrived in the region in the 18th century and met the Coahuiltecan tribes, they didn’t violently force them off their lands or kill them on sight—for the most part. Instead, the Spanish built missions like San Juan and Valero, more commonly known as the Alamo, and attempted to convert Indigenous communities to Catholicism. Some were then buried on the mission grounds as Catholics.

By the 20th century, archeology and anthropology students in Texas were taught that the Coahuiltecan were extinct. In fact, a popular university-level textbook published in 1961 and widely used for several decades stated that the tribes had “dwindled to almost nothingness” and been “destroyed by disease or absorbed into the Mexican population.”

Yet the Coahuiltecan remain. The tribe has never been recognized by the federal government and the State of Texas doesn’t have an official process to designate tribal recognition, leaving Vásquez and other tribal members in a legal limbo when it comes to repatriating the remains of their relatives. Under a federal law called the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), passed in 1990, institutions such as museums and universities that receive any federal funding and hold Indigenous remains in

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