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As the state of Texas prepares to undertake a restoration and preservation project at the site of the Alamo, Native Americans are pleading for the government to designate the area a cemetery and are asking officials to use DNA testing to identify remains.
In 1836, a group of around 200 Texans faced off with 1,600 Mexican soldiers commanded by General Antonio López de Santa Anna in San Antonio at the Alamo mission fort. All of the Texans were killed defending the garrison.
In the early 20th century, the site soon became a shrine to those who lost their lives without any consideration of the Native Americans who are buried on the grounds. It’s been declared a Texas cemetery, but not a Native American cemetery even though the Native Americans were living in Texas long before Europeans came to the New World.
Now Native Americans want their ancient burial ground to be protected, which is why the group American Indians in Texas at the Spanish Colonial Missions has filed a legal notice that could force an archaeological dig and DNA testing that would establish if the site is truly a cemetery that needs protecting.
“We feel like we’ve exhausted all of our efforts,” executive director Ramón Vásquez says.
The group is specifically objecting to a set of guidelines that prohibit DNA testing from taking place if human remains are found during the project, meaning any sets of remains would go unidentified and could end up being improperly reburied. After all, every culture and religion has burial customs and beliefs that should be honored. But they wouldn’t be honored if we never perform DNA tests.
According to Phys.org:
The new guidelines authorize the Alamo to get a court order to remove human remains if found and, if necessary, rebury them elsewhere in “an appropriate location,” in consultation with property owners, the Texas Historical Commission and an archaeological advisory committee.
But there’s no guarantee that process would include input from the American Indians in Texas or the San Antonio Missions Cemetery Association, two affiliates of the Tap Pilam Coahuiltecan Nation, which counts 1,000 members nationwide with ties to 10 indigenous nations in Texas.
“We would have never agreed to these protocols,” Vásquez said.
The Alamo plaza has never been excavated by archaeologists, so it’s very possible that ancestors of the Tap Pilam Coahuiltecan Nation are buried there, and their burial customs dictate that even the smallest remains should be buried where they died.
Consultant group GTI Environmental stated in an Alamo archaeology report:
“All inanimate and animate objects have a life force with a life span, then dies, and is buried where life ceased to exist, even something as small as a tooth.”
The protections offered by designation would prevent Texas from ever plowing the grounds under for new construction. Of course, state and local officials oppose this effort, even going so far as to try and dismiss it based on mere technicalities.
“The GLO and Alamo Trust worked on a human remains protocol that seeks to respect the cultural significance of the site and to acknowledge the legal requirements associated with the treatment of human remains when, and if, they are discovered on the site,” Deputy City Attorney Edward F. Guzman said in a statement.
“The greatest concern is that archaeological work that is necessary to preserve the Alamo church and Long Barrack may not be approved or implemented in a timely manner because the construction of ‘improvements’ on the ‘cemetery’ property might be restricted by law.”
“We believe that the notice is faulty due to its filing outside the mandated time frame and other technical errors, and should have no real effect on the land,” Guzman continued. “However, this notice could function in a similar manner to a cloud on title. It would place limitations on property owners’ decisions regarding surrounding businesses, and probably affect property values.”
What matters more than property values is making sure human remains are found, properly identified and respectfully buried according to their customs. There could very well be Catholics buried on the grounds.
Would Texas deny them their religious customs as well?
This isn’t the first time the handling of Native American remains has been disputed. In 1990, the federal government passed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act in an effort to settle the dispute once and for all. The Act requires the return of remains to tribes for proper reburial. Frankly, the law should apply to the Alamo as well. And that’s why Texas is resisting DNA testing.
DNA tests would help restore Native American heritage that has been lost for centuries and allow descendants to give their ancestors the burial and respect they deserve. None of us would want anything less for our own relatives.
In fact, even archaeologist James Ivey agrees that DNA testing should be done.
Ivey, who apparently “knows more about the Alamo’s subterranean assets than anyone still living,” says that such testing would help us learn more about the site’s history and that not doing so would keep that knowledge away from us forever.
“I agree with the need for appropriate and respectful treatment of Native American remains, and I think it’s a good idea to have tribal representatives involved in the overview of the archaeological process at the Alamo,” Ivey said.
“However, the rules and regulations presented in this document will be almost crippling to any archaeological investigation when—not if—human remains are found.”
In a counterclaim, the Texas Land Office and Alamo Trust insist that DNA testing would be unethical even though the Native Americans themselves are requesting it, and saying that such tests are “unlikely to provide any more certainty about the deceased’s existence other than their ethnicity.”
But the whole point is to find out the ethnicity so that it can be determined if the site should be designated a Native American cemetery.
But the Alamo Trust is so desperate to prevent Native Americans from reclaiming their heritage and honoring their ancestors that they are also claiming that DNA testing and archaeological excavations would violate sacred burials.
“You’re actually destroying the sacred burial,” Alamo CEO Douglass W. McDonald said. “We have sought in these policies to follow ethical standards that are higher than what the law requires.”
If the site is a “sacred burial” as McDonald claims, it’s even more reason to grant the Native American group’s request to designate the Alamo as a sacred cemetery so that the burial can’t be disturbed ever again.
We can not deny Native Americans access to their history and heritage. Not again.
For too long, they have been dealt injustices that can never really be atoned for, so the least we can do is make sure human remains are DNA tested and that the Alamo site is designated an ancestral Native American cemetery.
It is the right thing to do.
Featured Image: Wikimedia