In Presidio, the effort to preserve an Indigenous cemetery is finally complete

In the beginning, relatives of the people buried in El Cementerio del Barrio de los Lipanes hoped to protect the Lipan Apache burial ground from further decay. Three years later, they’ve created a memorial that helps visitors understand its past — and look to the future.

By Annie Rosenthal, Marfa Public RadioApril 23, 2024 9:45 am, , ,

From Marfa Public Radio:

For years, descendants of the people buried in El Cementerio del Barrio de los Lipanes had one modest goal.

The small cemetery in Presidio dates back centuries — at least to the 1790s, when the Spanish established a peace settlement for a band of Lipan Apache people in the area. As the city grew up around it, the burial ground became part of a Lipan neighborhood, or barrio, which gave the site its name. But in recent decades, parts of the mound were paved over, and it was all but abandoned.

“There were four-wheeler tracks all through the cemetery, there was trash and broken bottles from some late night happy hour,” remembers Christina Hernandez, who’s been visiting her relatives there since she was a kid. “We really thought that we could just fence the property to keep it safe.”

Three years ago, Hernandez and other descendants found supporters for that effort in the Big Bend Conservation Alliance — and the local government. In November 2021, the city and county of Presidio made the historic decision to give the land to the Lipan Apache Tribe of Texas, saying tribal members would be its “best custodians.”

Carlos Morales / Marfa Public Radio

Dr. Robert Soto, vice-chairman of the Lipan Apache Tribe of Texas, addresses the crowd during the celebration of the protection project on March 23, 2024.

Together, the new coalition of descendants, tribal leaders, and conservationists started to dream bigger — and three years later, the cemetery is almost unrecognizable.

Before, it was an unmarked lot, easy to miss. Now, the first thing you see from the street is a huge, welcoming pillar, and a sign that reads “Ye Inde Dá´lahéé’yéh Diyíín.”

In Lipan, Dr. Nakaya Flotte explains, that means “bienvenidos a este lugar sagrado, or welcome to this sacred place.”

Flotte is an anthropologist from Presidio and Ojiinaga whose ancestors are also buried here. She’s the one who wrote the signage around the memorial. She says she wanted people to recognize the site as important, and to understand its context.

Carlos Morales / Marfa Public Radio

From left: Oscar Rodriguez, Roberto Lujan, and Xoxi Nayapiltzin thank the community members who supported the protection project. They're among the local descendants who've been working to protect the site and plan for its future.

Beyond the welcome sign, she points out a state historical marker — the result of years of back and forth with the Texas Historical Commission. Flotte says she’s particularly proud that the text was drafted by another descendant, Oscar Rodriguez — a rare collaborative effort between the historical commission and enrolled members of a Texas tribe.

Further into the cemetery, Flotte shows off other panels. One details the efforts to defend the site from development over the years. Another offers information on life and death in Lipan culture.

“Here, I talk about how you shouldn’t really mention that person’s name when they just passed away. But then after that, it’s common to go visit and pay respect to them to wherever they’re buried,” she says.

As the protection project developed, even the idea of a fence got more complex. Flotte says the descendants wanted the space to feel welcoming. And right here, where you can see straight across the Rio Grande to Mexico, they didn’t want the protective structure to feel like a border, or a wall.

Carlos Morales / Marfa Public Radio

Signs around the cemetery offer historical and cultural context in English and Spanish.

That posed a creative challenge for Mayrah Udvardi, the lead architect on the project. “We wanted to make sure that we were creating a porous barrier that would keep the burial mounds safe,” she says.

Udvardi’s firm, Mass Design Group, is focused on what they call “healing architecture.” They’re best known for designing the National Lynching Memorial in Alabama, and they worked with the Lipan Apache Tribe and families to design this one.

Walking through the cemetery, Udvardi shares the design they settled on — short stretches of wall that wrap around the site, offering the visitor a clear path without fencing you in.

“Once we pass through the threshold, the path widens, and gives us an opportunity to approach a pile of Sentinel stones that’s in the first corner of the undulating gabion wall,” she says.

The walls themselves are made of these “sentinel stones” — large round rocks traditionally placed on top of the graves to guard the remains. Their role is both symbolic and practical: if animals dig into a burial site, the sentinels fall into place to protect it.

At the top of the burial mound, Christina Hernandez points to two graves covered in the stones.

“We’re standing next to my great-great grandfather and his brother. And they’re the only graves within the cemetery that have their names,” she says.

Carlos Morales / Marfa Public Radio

Only two graves in the cemetery are marked with names — those of Christina Hernandez's great-great-grandfather, Felipe Aguilar, and his brother. Hernandez and her relatives tended to the graves for years before the protection project began.

For decades, Christina and her family were some of the only people regularly tending to the cemetery. Christina’s dad, Juan, says they saw that sentinel stones from the graves were disappearing.

“Some had been taken. People had them as yard decorations and stuff like that. It was crazy,” Juan says.

In 2021, local conservationists and city officials went door to door asking neighbors to give the stones back. Lipan Apache tribal leadership traveled from South Texas to join locals in a blessing ceremony, returning the rocks to the site.

“The clean-up was just amazing to see,” Juan says. “Children, people older than myself out here carrying rocks and placing the rocks back on top of the graves.”

That kind of community engagement has been ongoing. This spring, other descendants visited several classes at Presidio Independent School District to talk about the cemetery, bringing local students here to learn about it.

Annie Rosenthal / Marfa Public Radio

Lipan Apache tribal members and Presidio residents return sacred sentinel stones to gravesites in November 2021.

That means a lot to Juan. His ancestors were forced to assimilate to survive here. Now, thanks to this memorial, he thinks a new generation finally has a chance to talk about that — and they no longer have to pick between heritage and home.

“Seeing them excited about this, and learning about what is their culture, I think it’s a great thing,” he says. “This is not just a final resting place, but it’s a great thing for Presidio.”

The protection project is now complete, but there is one part of the cemetery that’s still evolving. As you walk down the mound from the graves, you come to an empty stretch of ground, and a bench. Sitting there is Xoxi Nayapiltzin, who says this area has been set aside for the repatriation of remains.

Nayapiltzin is among the elders here working to recover his Indigenous heritage. As he explains, the cemetery may now be the best recognized Indigenous burial site in Far West Texas, but it’s not the only one.

Carlos Morales / Marfa Public Radio

A corner of El Cementerio del Barrio de los Lipanes has been set aside for the reburial of Indigenous remains recovered from around the Big Bend region.

Over centuries, people have unearthed Native people’s remains from places around the region — including some remains that share Nayapiltzin’s DNA. He’s now working with tribes and institutions like universities to get those remains returned, and to rebury some of them here.

“A lot of our ancestors right now are resting, if you will, in places that are not actually cemeteries,” Nayapiltzin says. “But we hope to bring them home now.”

That effort’s still taking shape — but even now, Nayapiltzin is glad people can come to see the site. He says it has a message for visitors.

“We’re still here. It’s us that are taking care of them,” he says. “It is still our responsibility as stewards of this land, to take care of our ancestors and to take care of the land.”

That work has been happening here for decades — quiet and nearly invisible. But now, walking the path this community has laid through the cemetery, it’s impossible to miss.

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