Brendan Gibbons / Rivard Report
Members of the Tap Pilam Coahuiltecan Nation are suing the State of Texas, making good on their promise to take the fight to court over Native American remains at the Alamo.
The lawsuit filed Tuesday in federal court in Texas’ Western District alleges that the Texas General Land Office, the nonprofit Alamo Trust, and the City of San Antonio are ignoring federal laws that would require “the participation of next of kin and Indian tribes regardless of federal recognition.” Tap Pilam members say their genealogical research proves they are the descendants of Native Americans who lived at San Antonio’s Spanish colonial missions and are buried there, including at the Mission San Antonio de Valero, better known as the Alamo.
“What we’re trying to do is give some teeth to the meaning of the cemetery,” said Mickey Killian, who traces his ancestors to Native Americans at Mission San Juan and Mission Espada. “I think the truth is irrefutable. There are people buried here.”
A GLO spokesperson declined to address the complaint in an email Tuesday, saying the agency does not comment on litigation.
In an emailed statement, City Attorney Andy Segovia said the City, Alamo Trust, and the GLO “are following the strict legal protocols set forth by the Texas Health and Safety Code as it relates to the possible discovery of human remains at The Alamo.”
“This means the project will obtain the necessary permits for archaeology and the protection and preservation of designated burial grounds,” Segovia’s statement continued.
Tap Pilam has not received federal recognition as a Native American tribe, a sticking point in the dispute over remains. Both sides have said they want to leave any remains encountered during the archaeological excavation in place at the Alamo, though a protocol developed under the guidance of the Alamo Trust leaves open the possibility that remains could be moved.
The protocol came out of an archaeological committee assembled by Alamo Trust staff. The committee’s members include staff of the Los Angeles-based Autry Museum of the American West, the Mescalero Apache, the Tonkawa Tribe of Oklahoma, the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe of Texas, the Caddo Nation of Oklahoma, and the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma. None are tied to San Antonio-based groups that claim indigenous ancestry.
Raymond Hernandez, a Tap Pilam tribal council member, is named as a plaintiff in the complaint along with Tap Pilam itself, and the San Antonio Missions Cemetery Association. The lawsuit also takes issue with decisions by the GLO, Alamo Trust, and Texas Historical Commission not to consider the site an abandoned cemetery, subject to legal protections under Texas state law.
At a press conference, which was held on the steps of the federal building across from Alamo Plaza on Tuesday, Hernandez told the story of his and family members’ decades-long efforts to honor and safeguard remains at the Alamo.
“If it was your family’s history and cemetery … would you not be standing here?” Hernandez said. “If it was a Bush that was buried here, you don’t think [Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush] would be screaming like a stuck pig?”
The lawsuit comes after archaeological work began this summer at the Alamo’s Long Barrack and chapel as part of its $450 million redesign. The Texas Historical Commission has given the Alamo historic cemetery status, a largely symbolic designation that doesn’t come with legal requirements for the treatment of human remains.
In past legal disputes with Tap Pilam and groups that claim to be descendants of Texans who died during the Battle of the Alamo, the GLO has said that official cemetery status would derail the redesign project.
Ramon Vasquez, director of the American Indians in Texas at the San Antonio Missions and a leader of Tap Pilam, said the group supports the Alamo redesign and doesn’t want it stopped, even though he acknowledged that official cemetery status might lead to delays or changes. He argued that the redesign should more fully reflect the role of indigenous people in Spanish colonial Texas, Mexico, and the early United States.
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance that we have to tell the full story of the site,” Vasquez said.