‘A sense of renewal’: Caddo Mounds historic site reopens 5 years after tornado destroyed property

“We’ve come back,” says Caddo artist Yonavea Hawkins. “We’re just as strong.”

By Sean SaldanaMay 31, 2024 12:50 pm,

ALTO – On the day that the Caddo Mounds State Historic Site reopened in mid-May, Yonavea Hawkins sewed turquoise beads onto a pipe bag.

“I learned from my mother how to make her Caddo dresses,” she said. “Then when I became an adult, I wanted to learn how to make those things myself.”

Hawkins, a Caddo artist who specializes in beadwork and cultural items, lives in Oklahoma City but every once in while makes a trip to piney East Texas to visit the Caddo Mounds, a place once inhabited by her ancestors.

Yonavea Hawkins showcases traditional moccasins she made by hand.
Sean Saldana / Texas Standard

“We were removed from our homelands,” Hawkins said. “We come back from Oklahoma to be a part of the festivities that they have.”

Archaeologists and researchers split the Caddo into three confederacies broadly by region: the Hasinai, Kadohadacho and Natchitoches.

The Caddo Mounds once belonged to the Hasinai, an Indigenous group that used to occupy land in the Neches and Angelina river valleys. Now the site is on the National Register of Historic Places and managed by the Texas Historical Commission.

In 2019, nearly the entire property was destroyed when an EF-3 tornado hit on Caddo Culture Day, an annual celebration honoring the Indigenous community that once settled in the area. The storm left one person dead and between 30 and 40 others injured, including Hawkins.

“The building blew up and everything went black. I was knocked unconscious. When I came to, it was dark. I realized after my eyes adjusted that I was buried in the debris,” said Hawkins, who broke three ribs and ended up needing dozens of stitches around her knees and hands.

The Texas Legislature was in session at the time, and lawmakers immediately allocated $2.5 million to the site’s restoration.

This month’s reopening was an all-day event about “the importance of restoring the site and the resiliency of the Caddo Nation,” according to the historical commission, and was attended by Caddo Citizens and around 300 members of the public, as well as a few East Texas historical societies, politicians and state bureaucrats. Caddo drummers performed a song in honor of veterans, and volunteers demonstrated friction fires, atlatl dart throwing techniques and flintknapping.

“The rebuilding is a sense of renewal,” Hawkins said. “We’ve come back. We’re just as strong.”

Sean Saldana / Texas Standard

A selection of stone tools created by Alan Shadow.

The Caddo in Texas: ‘There were a lot of skirmishes’

When Mirabeau Lamar assumed the presidency of Texas in 1838, he made the removal of Indigenous communities one of his top priorities.

“The white man and the red man cannot dwell in harmony together,” Lamar said in his inaugural address. “Nature forbids it.”

When Lamar took office, the nascent Republic of Texas was deep in debt and struggling to assert its autonomy as a new country. That didn’t stop him from spending $2.5 million on a war to flush Indians out of East Texas. By the time he left office, he had been largely successful in his efforts.

“The Indians,” historian T.R. Fehrenbach wrote, “Lamar considered merely trespassing vermin on Texas soil.”

Historically settled near rivers, the Caddos were one of many Indigenous communities that found themselves caught on the tide of empire.

In pre-Columbian America, the Caddo lived in grass-thatched houses, hunted deer, and occasionally conflicted with other Indigenous communities. They were also expert farmers who grew crops like maize, beans, squash and tobacco.

A variety of nuts the Caddo collected and ate in pre-historic America.
Sean Saldana / Texas Standard

“Once you start farming, you’re stuck to that land for a lot longer,” said David La Vere, a history professor at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. “That’s a big point: hunting people and farming people. And the Caddos were farming people.”

Having permanent settlements meant that the Caddo were able to develop complex social systems – a chiefdom with nobles and commoners, La Vere said.

At one point, Caddos may have numbered around 200,000 in an area bounded approximately 70,000 square miles across current-day Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Arkansas. But disease, warfare, drought and forced relocations dramatically reduced the population in the following years.

Caddos spent much of the mid-19th century relocating as anglos pushed west. It’s unknown exactly how many Caddos were in Texas then, but Caddo historian Phil Cross puts the figure between 500 and 1,000.

“Caddos pretty much had to pack up and go to other places,” Cross said.

In 1854, Texas Caddos, along with affiliated tribes, were moved to the Brazos River Reservation, a 72-square-mile tract that was maintained by the federal government near current-day Graham.

Around 2,000 Indians – including some Anadarko, Tonkawa, Waco and other Indigenous communities – lived on and farmed land for a few years before relations with Anglo settlers started to sour.

“There were a lot of skirmishes around there,” Cross said. “Caddos and other Indians being killed, and vice versa with the Texans.”

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In 1859, the Brazos Reservation was vacated and the Indigenous communities living there were escorted to Oklahoma, where the Caddo Nation is currently headquartered.

“Everyone gets their own Trail of Tears, it seems,” La Vere said. “And the Caddo got theirs.”

At one point, the Caddo numbered in the hundreds. Today, there are around 7,000, meaning that their culture is going through a revival.

“We’ve reaffirmed that our culture is up here,” said Cross, who was born and raised in Oklahoma. “But it’s down [in Texas] too.”

Prehistoric sites like the Caddo Mounds are a reminder that long before European contact, society existed in the Americas.

Sean Saldana / Texas Standard

Inside the grass house at Caddo Mounds, a volunteer demonstrated prehistoric fire-starting techniques.

The archaeology tour: ‘There’s still so much to learn’

Archaeologist Victor Galan wraps up a tour of the site in front of the Burial Mound, where an estimated 90 people are buried. Sean Saldana / Texas Standard

On the day the Caddo Mounds reopened, archaeologist Victor Galan – one of the dozens injured on-site in 2019 when the tornado hit – arrived in an electric wheelchair decorated in flame decals.

“I was basically picked up with the tornado and either slammed down on my head or into a wall,” Galan told the Standard. “And that paralyzed me from the shoulders down.”

Galan has been involved with the Caddo Mounds since 2014, when his wife, Rachel Galan, was hired to work on the site by the Texas Historical Commission.

Victor Galan was one of several people there when disaster struck who made the trip back out to the Mounds for the grand reopening.

“For some folks, it did provide a closure that we’ve come back,” he said. “We’re looking to the future.”

Galan, along with Caddo Citizen and scholar Lauren Haupt, led a group of about 30 people on an archaeological tour through the prehistoric site.

“Texas comes from the Caddo word taysha, which means friend,” Haupt told the crowd at the start of the tour. “That’s how you all get your state motto ‘friendship.’”

It’s believed that roughly 200 Hasinai Caddos began to inhabit the area around AD 800.

“The reason they lived here is because it’s only that two feet of sandy loam before you get down to clay,” explained Galan. “Which means as you grow, plants appear on the surface and their roots go down that two feet and they can get water during the summer.”

Archaeologists believe that the three mounds on site in East Texas – temple, ceremonial and burial – were constructed through a communal effort.

“They would have been digging out material with scapular hoes or other tools,” Galan said. “They would have put [material] in baskets, brought it to where the mound was going to be, and dumped it there.”

Sean Saldana / Texas Standard

Two women dressed in traditional clothing danced as Caddo drummers played near the grass house during the reopening ceremony earlier this month.

Like many pre-Columbian societies, the Caddo passed down information orally, meaning that many aspects of their daily life have been obscured by land dispossession, biased historical accounts and death.

“We often joke that this earth is stained red with the blood of our ancestors,” Haupt told the crowd. “And that’s partly a joke, but very much also true.”

By the time Europeans first made contact, the mounds themselves had been abandoned, but Caddo still lived in and farmed the area.

Authoritative records on the Caddo are thin, meaning that archeologists, historians and members of the Caddo Nation are still working to put together a more complete picture of Caddo religious beliefs, farming techniques and cultural practices.

“There are things that we don’t like to say will never be found,” Galan said. “But there are things that are very hard or maybe nigh impossible to find.”

A replica grass house that was built in 2022 after the tornado hit.
Sean Saldana / Texas Standard

Galan and Haupt are both officers with the Friends of Caddo Mounds, a nonprofit that partners with the Texas Historical Commission to maintain and promote the site. The group helped with the rebuild of a model grass house that was destroyed by the tornado.

“They were the ones who actually raised the money to reconstruct the grass house,” said Joseph Bell, the commission’s executive director. “They were the volunteers.”

The grand reopening concluded in front of the burial mound, where it’s estimated that around 90 Caddos have been laid to rest.

“There’s still so much to learn out here,” Galan said as the tour came to a close.

Correction: A photo caption accompanying this story previously misspelled Alan Shadow’s name.

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