San Antonio is known for Tex-Mex, the Riverwalk, and the Alamo. But for many Texans, it might come as a surprise to learn that according to the 2010 census, San Antonio was actually the city with the 10th largest population of Native Americans per capita.
With the world heritage designation just behind them, and San Antonio’s tricentennial celebration only a year in the future, the city’s missions have been at the forefront of local and national news.
For Ramon Vasquez all this recognition reminds him of his ancestors. He’s Executive Director of the American Indians in Texas at the Spanish Colonial Missions and a member of the Tap Pilam Coahuiltecan nation. He says the remains of his ancestors lie underneath the very walls they helped build.
“You see all those people out in front of the Alamo right now?” Vasquez says. “There’s a thousand people buried in front of the door. They have no clue. There is nothing there to say ‘this needs to be a place of reverence.’ And those people buried there had nothing to do with the battle of the Alamo.”
Despite efforts by his and other tribes in Texas, Vasquez says his ancestors remain overshadowed by what he calls a John Wayne mentality. He says the battle of the Alamo has won out in depictions of Texas history in popular culture.
“If you’re lucky, you’ll find a paragraph in our history books for the state of Texas,” he says.
The invisibility of Native Americans in the state is why Vasquez says his own tribe was considered extinct until about 30 years ago. He says this absence of Native American voices in Texas has occurred because of an identity loss created by the mission-ization process of the Spaniards.
“Through that process, you were taught to hate the native in you,” he says.
Vasquez says it was difficult for many Native Americans to reclaim their identity even after Mexico won its independence from Spain. Now, he says, many Native American descendants opt to identify themselves as Mexican or Tejano.
Janeen Comenote is executive director of The National Urban Indian Family Coalition. She says that in Texas, the designation Native American gets complicated.
“You know, many of the people who your average American would just say ‘Mexican’ are actually indigenous people. We didn’t put the border there,” Comenote says.
“The term Native American or tribe denotes a body of indigenous people who had their land taken away by the U.S. federal government during expansion and entered into treaty negations,” she says “So because the indigenous folks from Texas, and particularly the southern border of Texas, never entered into treaty negations, they wouldn’t be considered native American under U.S. law.”
Though there are federally recognized tribes in Texas, Comenote says that none of these are native to the state – they were relocated from elsewhere in the U.S. The tribes that were native to Texas were themselves relocated to other states or have yet to receive federal recognition.
Comenote says all that is making an already difficult problem of reclaiming identity even harder.
“Because there’s a lack of sort of a tribal-base population, it’s fairly easy for the state to not really have to pay attention to American Indian issues,” she says.
For example, the state put an end to the Texas Indian Commission back in 1989.
Though Vasquez says it’s harder to gain visibility without the help of state-sponsored organizations, he hopes Tejanos and Mexican-Americans will reclaim their roots themselves.
San Antonio resident Ron Gutierrez is doing just that. He decided to get his DNA tested to prove his indigenous ancestry.
“I think it gathers more support for the Native Americans – to see that we’re really just one people and not different people,” he says. “You know, the way we look at them as just being logos and stuff like that, you know it just shows how insignificant sometimes we can make people feel.”
Gutierrez learned that he is 31 percent Native American.
“It’s really hard to decide or figure out what kind of culture you want to be from, because we are from so many,” he says. “But I like what Ramon Vasquez told me, was that you have a choice of who you want to be and what you want to be.”
Gutierrez and Vasquez hope more people will choose to be identified as Native American. It may just be the first step in getting more recognition for a history they say is too often overshadowed – whether by missions or other Texas legends.