Drumming and the rhythmic clinking of wooden seed pods drowned out the sound of cars rushing past the J.J. Pickle Research Campus on a Monday evening.
Dozens of people had gathered at the entrance of the campus to witness as members of UT Austin’s student-led Aztec Dance group made an offering to their ancestors. They danced in front of an altar, where bouquets of flowers and bowls with traditional sacred medicines were carefully placed across two colorful blankets.
Three cardboard boxes sat at the altar’s head, representing the remains of three Native Americans who died thousands of years ago. The physical remains were stored nearby, at the school’s archeological research lab.
For the past four years, members of the indigenous Miakan-Garza Band in San Marcos have been asking UT to return the remains to them for repatriation.
UT denied the tribe’s request for the remains in June, largely because researchers classified them as “culturally unidentifiable,” meaning they couldn’t find a shared group identity between the remains and any living tribe, including the Miakan-Garza.
In a July letter to interim UT President Jay Hartzell, the Miakan-Garza said the denial “disregards an opportunity for a historic gesture towards indigenous people in Texas by returning stolen ancestral remains for final re-interment in their burial homeland.”
Coahuiltecan is a collective name for the small, autonomous bands of Native Americans who lived in Central and South Texas in the 16th century before the Spanish conquest. The Miakan-Garza, who founded the Indigenous Cultures Institute in San Marcos, identify as a Coahuiltecan tribe.
“Who has been in Texas where these culturally unidentifiable remains have been dug out? Who has been here for 14,000 years? The Coahuiltecan people,” Maria Rocha, executive director of the Indigenous Cultures Institute, said.
Though they lack federal recognition, they were acknowledged as members of the Coahuiltecan people in a Texas House resolution in 2013.
“So just, logically – something was dug up here. We’ve been here 14,000 years,” Rocha said. “They’re our ancestors.”
The Miakan-Garza believe that when someone dies, only their physical body dies; what begins after is a spiritual journey.
“When the remains are disturbed, it disturbs the spiritual journey of the spirit. And the spirit, it’s out there in limbo, in agony, in pain,” said Mario Garza, principal founder of the institute. “So that’s why we feel it’s our obligation to repatriate, to rebury the physical remains of that individual.”
For Rocha and Garza, this work is a religious obligation.
“Even if we don’t win, what will UT benefit from beating indigenous people out of their ancestors’ remains?” Rocha said.
The Miakan-Garza have been doing repatriation work for decades. In 2016, they received culturally unidentifiable remains from Texas State University through the federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act despite not having federal recognition. They also worked with the City of San Marcos to establish a repatriation cemetery for unearthed Native American remains.
But UT said it doesn’t have enough evidence to link the remains to the band, so it legally can’t turn them over.
“The law requires certain standards be met, and, in this case, the facts simply cannot justify the requested repatriation,” Hartzell’s office wrote in a response to Garza. “The law does not allow repatriation simply because a group is willing to bury the remains.”
Rocha said it feels as though the university has intentionally disregarded their request and is leaning on legal technicalities as justifications for its decisions.
“We believe and we’ve experienced in the past, time after time, when an institution doesn’t want to help you, they put these obstacles in the way until you get discouraged and you go away,” she said. “And that has been our experience with UT Austin.”
At last week’s demonstration, spectators left offerings at the base of the altar: small bouquets of flowers, a couple oranges, a dollar bill. Many said they felt the fight was just beginning.
The issue should matter to people regardless of whether they are indigenous, said Jessica Sánchez Flores, co-chair of the graduate Native American Student Association at UT, “because we are talking about ancestors. And these could be anyone’s ancestors.”
Cheyenne Grubbs, who is on the board of the undergraduate Native American Student Association, said she hopes Hartzell has the conviction to “do what’s right” and return the remains.
“There’s people hurting,” said Grubbs, who belongs to the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. “There’s people feeling a lot of emotions. And I hope you know that there’s answers to ease that pain. And it’s just doing what’s right.”