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Lipan Apaches commemorate historic Presidio cemetery

March 2nd, 2017 under Features
P cemetery event 03

(staff photos by CAMERON DODD) Members of the Lipan Apache Tribe of Texas drummed and sang at the historic cemetery in Presidio on Saturday morning as part of a commemoration ceremony.


PRESIDIO — A new chapter in Presidio’s ongoing path toward historical and cultural preservation was opened Saturday. Local residents and elected leaders joined representatives from one of the indigenous tribes whose ancestors visited and lived in the area to commemorate a native burial ground that for years was unrecognized in the middle of town.

At least 40 people attended a Saturday morning ceremony led by members of the Lipan Apache Tribe of Texas in honor the historic Lipan Apache cemetery on Market Street in Presidio. Tribal leaders spoke and conducted a cleansing ritual on the burial ground.

Native Americans in the Lipan Apache tribe began visiting the area that is now Presidio more than 1,000 years ago. Some eventually settled here. The residential neighborhood west of Presidio Elementary School once was known as the “Barrio de los Lipanes.” The Lipanes who lived there practiced their traditional religion and weren’t allowed to bury their dead in the Catholic cemetery. So they made their own. Only a few of the graves are still marked, but some descendents of those buried in the cemetery are alive.

Some Presidio residents occasionally leave flowers on their ancestors’ graves, but other than that the cemetery was in general state of neglect, strewn with garbage and broken glass, until recently.

Lipan Apache Tribe of Texas Vice Chairman Robert Soto wafts tobacco smoke toward Presidio County Historical Commission member Patricia Runyan during a ceremony Saturday at the historic Lipan Apache cemetery.

Lipan Apache Tribe of Texas Vice Chairman Robert Soto wafts tobacco smoke toward Presidio County Historical Commission member Patricia Runyan during a ceremony Saturday at the historic Lipan Apache cemetery.

The Lipan Apache Tribe of Texas, along with the Presidio County Historical Commission, the Center for Big Bend Studies and the City of Presidio, started taking more a more active role in the preservation of the cemetery in 2014, when a survey of the site led by Alpine archeologist David Keller identified at least 45 graves in the cemetery. The site was then recognized as a State Antiquities Landmark. The Center for Big Bend Studies is pursuing funding to bring in ground-penetrating radar to identify all the graves in the cemetery.

In 2016, the Presidio City Council approved an ordinance closing the alleyway behind the cemetery to traffic and all-terrain vehicles in 2016, but the rest of the cemetery was still in disrepair.

Members of the Lipan Apache Tribe of Texas arrived in Presidio last week and spent much of Friday cleaning the cemetery. They also erected a temporary wire fence to protect the site while a more period-authentic fence is designed and constructed. The Lipan Apaches hosted a community gathering and storytelling event in Daly Park on Friday night. Tribal council member Oscar Rodriguez spoke briefly on the history of the Lipan Apaches in Presidio, and members of the tribe drummed and sang near a bonfire.

The Saturday morning ceremony brought together Lipan Apache tribe members from across Texas with residents of Presidio and the Big Bend area. Rodriguez welcomed everyone and thanked the community for its support in preserving and recognizing the cemetery’s historical and cultural importance. Presidio Mayor John Ferguson read a proclamation passed by the city council recognizing the historic cemetery and the Barrio de los Lipanes.

“The city is interested in doing anything we can to return the cemetery back to the Lipan,” Ferguson said. “We’re not sure what it’s going to take to do that, but we are very much in favor of returning it to its rightful owners.”

The tribe members again sang and drummed. Tribal Council Vice Chairman Robert Soto spoke on the site’s significance and performed a cleansing ceremony, burning natural tobacco and wafting the smoke with eagle feathers. Soto read a song he wrote about his first visit to the Presidio cemetery in November last year. “My people rest, my people sleep. You were once forgotten, but now you are found. You will never be forgotten.”

Soto, who lives in McAllen, first visited Presidio in November last year, he said.

“My great, great, great grandfather used to camp here, not permanently, but they’d come here and live with the Lipan,” Soto said. “So all of a sudden I had not just a historical connection but a personal connection. I don’t know if any of my relatives are buried here, but they were here back in the late 1700s to early 1800s. And they made their homes here in the Barrio de los Lipanes. Right here.”

Soto and members of his tribe held a private meeting at the cemetery on Friday. “We performed a cleansing ceremony, to say that this place will be desecrated no more. We want to keep working at the preservation. You’re going to see some of our people come here.

“This will be a very important historical place here,” Soto said. “This is holy ground, sacred ground.”

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