In 2011, the 1,200-year-old skeletal remains of a young man were unearthed by a team of archaeologists on the banks of the San Marcos River in Texas, just northeast of San Antonio. The remains were brought to a facility at Texas State University where they were tested and stored along with the bodies of more than 100 other Native American remains. Husband and wife, Mario Garza and Maria Rocha, descendants of the Coahuiltecan Indians, have been engaged in a tireless legal process under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) to obtain the body and rebury him in the earth where he belongs. Journalist Mary Huber investigates the process and explores the Coahuiltecan’s ties to the sacred springs of San Marcos.
In the curve of Spring Lake in the Sink Creek swamplands of San Marcos, Texas, there stands a small ticket kiosk made of plywood and plain lumber. A renovated wood kayak hangs from the ceiling by chains and clanks in the breeze outside. For $9 a ride, tourists can board a glass-bottom boat to see the hundreds of tiny natural springs at the bottom of the lake, which pop from the Edwards Aquifer and burst like beads in a pot of water before it boils.
As the kiosk was being built, on a September day in 2011, construction crews dug into the porous clay ground, wet from the headwaters of the San Marcos River, to lay a utility line. In addition to the ticket kiosk, their development plans outlined two bathrooms — one for men, one for women — with plumbing that connected to a sewage system that was already in place. When the backhoe hit the soil, there, less than six and a half feet into the ground, preserved in the damp earth, were scattered fragments of human bones.
Construction came to an immediate halt, just as it always does when workers stumble upon a prehistoric skeleton, which has happened before in this region where Native American peoples lived abundantly.
You could fill a cemetery with the bodies that have been dug up here: two women, rounded in the fetal position on top of one another about four miles away along Purgatory Creek; a man nearby them, resting under a layer of rocks arranged like a monument; and two, unidentified remains that were found underwater in a fish hatchery at the mouth of the river near Joe’s Crab Shack. Each found its way to the first floor of the Trinity Building on the southwest Texas State University campus.
Native Americans who live in the area have tried to rebury these exhumed remains. They have lamented the six bodies, as well as 114 others at the university’s curation facility and the more than 4,000 in research labs across the state of Texas. The combined total of Native American human remains possessed by museums and universities in the U.S. reaches into the millions. Theirs are the remnants of a lost civilization, buried just beneath the ground.
At the bottom of Spring Lake, poking up out of the white silt on the lake’s bed, you can still see the rebar grid from the archaeological efforts through the glass-bottom boats. Tilapia and spotted gar swim between the steel rods, and a forest of calcified trees slowly turns to stone on the river floor. Between the thick spread of algae and cabomba flowers, divers have found bottle caps, Spanish coins, cowboy spurs, belt buckles, bison bones, stone tools, pottery shards and thousands of tiny arrowheads. At the center of the lake is Deep Hole, a series of high-pressure springs on the Balcones fault line that have simmered continuously for millions of years.
In the center of Deep Hole, like a small plug in a giant bathtub drain, there is a black and white circle called a Secchi disk which scientists have installed to measure the water’s transparency and clarity. Some indigenous Coahuiltecan Indians refer to Deep Hole as an “umbilical cord”. They say their ancestors were born here, dancing joyfully behind a great deer and a procession of water birds as they traveled from the underworld, through the mouth of the springs, into Mother Nature herself.
A 4,000-year-old rock painting on the side of a steep cliff in the Rio Grande Valley tells the story of this birth in pictures. It illustrates the life of a people who traveled seasonally from the coastal valleys of northeastern Mexico up to the Edwards Plateau in west-central Texas, a people whose rich cultures died alongside the Spanish missions in the 1800s, after they had been absorbed into Mexican communities or perished from warfare and disease. Some held fast to their indigenous customs through the years, but others are only now awakening to them, in the Native American Church, in traditional peyote ceremonies and through oral histories passed on by word of mouth. The Coahuiltecans call their birth in the springs their napako, their “journey”, and of all the holy waters in this part of Texas, this is their most sacred.
In the 1940s, there was a theme park in San Marcos called Aquarena Springs, a tourist spectacle where women dressed as mermaids and a pig named Ralph swam underwater near the sacred springs. There’s nothing left of Aquarena Springs now, simply the tall tales that local folk tell their children. The submarine theater went out of business in 1994, and the university purchased the park and turned what used to be a resort hotel into the Meadows Center for Water and the Environment. They built a nine-hole golf course and Texas Bobcats Stadium. The university continues to run the glass-bottom boats over the springs daily between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., at which point tourists come to ride the ferries and hear stories of this place and the Native Americans who lived and died here: how they made their camps by these waters and burned fires in stone hearths under winter skies, how they left for stretches of time to hunt bison and gather the fruits of the prickly pear cactus and returned to the river to bury their dead.
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Mario Garza remembers standing on the sixth hole of the San Marcos golf course, very near to the patch of earth where construction workers found the “ticket booth remains”. In the distance, he recalls pilots steering glass-bottomed boats out on the water. They circled toward each other like bumper cars, just shy of colliding. The trunks of 200-year-old trees rose out of the water, upon which, Garza remembers, Texas river turtles were sunning themselves.
At 5-foot-5-inches tall, Garza looks unassuming, but he’s passionate and excitable, often to the point of aggressiveness. He has gold-rimmed glasses, weathered skin and wears his grayed hair in pigtail braids, wrapping them from the base of his skull to the top of his chest with red knit fabric. He has seven piercings adorned with mescal beads from a Mountain Laurel tree. The piercings, which he got as a young man, travel the length of his ears, each one depicting a direction — north, south, east, west, upward, downward and, finally, center, where the soul resides.
“Can I stay during the exhumation and pray?” Garza had asked Jon Lohse, who led the team of Texas State University archaeologists who had begun to flood the site back in 2011 after the ticket booth remains were discovered.
“Of course,” Lohse answered.
Sometimes Garza’s wife, Maria Rocha, would join him. Just two fingers shorter than her husband and 100% indigenous, Maria has salt and pepper hair, round cheeks and warm features. She traces her origins, much like her husband, back to the Coahuiltecan Indians who called Central and South Texas home.
The piece of land where the bones were discovered and where the ticket kiosk now stands is considered an “abandoned cemetery” by the state of Texas. Before anything in the area could be touched, health and safety codes required that it be “de-dedicated,” a court-ordered procedure that strips the land of its official cemetery status, allowing the body to be legally excavated. Archaeologists had applied for permits from the state registrar and the Texas Historical Commission granting them permission to remove the skeleton from the ground. This paperwork-heavy, bureaucratic process took three months.
Once everything had been stamped and approved, on December 9th, 2011, the remains of a man about 25 years of age who had died of unknown causes nearly 1,200 years ago, were pulled from the earth, bone by bone. Garza remembers the excavation took five days. Archaeologists wrapped each bone and fragment in household aluminum foil. They put the foil in plastic bags and the plastic bags in an acid-free cardboard box. They sealed it and on the side of the box wrote “41HY160” in black Sharpie, denoting the specific archaeological site where the bones were discovered.
The archaeologists brought everything back to a university lab where they reconstructed the mostly cranial bones with glue. Judging by the man’s blunt chin, strong brow and the wear in his teeth and third molars, the team of archaeologists determined his sex, biological profile and approximate age at the time of death. The wear on his teeth was consistent with a Native American hunter-gatherer, common in this area during the Late Archaic Period.
When all the testing was complete, the team put the man’s remains back in the cardboard box and put the box on a shelf where it has been left for the past four years. In that time, Garza and Rocha have fought tirelessly to have him returned to the earth.
As lead stewards for a non-profit organization called the Indigenous Cultures Institute, they are devoted to educating people in this region about the Coahuiltecan Indians and indigenous customs. Since 1991, they have reburied more than 200 of their ancestral remains that ended up in the hands of universities and the Catholic Church.
“We believe people have a spirit,” Garza said, matter-of-factly, “and when a person dies, the spirit starts a journey, a different journey. And when the remains are dug up, it disturbs the journey of that spirit. The spirit is not going to be at rest until the bones are returned to the ground.”
“When we say our ancestors, it’s like saying your mom and dad,” Rocha added. “They’re our moms and dads. People don’t really understand that core belief. And if we could only show it to them, how personal it is, you’d think they would understand.”
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These sentiments have been shared by Native Americans for centuries, since budding scientists first began robbing Indian graves to perform quasi-experiments in the 1800s and large museums like the Smithsonian sent droves of collectors to archaeological digs at the turn of the century to gratuitously round up human remains and cultural objects and add them to their permanent collections. A surge of Native American activism grew alongside the Civil Rights Movement, as the government began to force Indian assimilation and terminate relationships with tribes.
In 1971, a highway construction crew in Iowa unearthed twenty-six Caucasian bodies and one Native American woman and child, the latter of which was promptly shipped off to the state archaeology department. The other twenty-six were reburied in a local cemetery. Outraged that the skeletal remains of Native Americans were treated differently from Caucasian remains, Maria Pearson, a Yankton Dakota Indian, protested to Governor Robert D. Ray, finally gaining an audience with him after having sat outside his office in traditional attire. When the governor asked what he could do for her, Pearson responded, “You can give me back my peoples’ bones and you can quit digging them up”. The controversy led to the passage of the Iowa Burials Protection Act of 1976, the first legislative act in the United States that specifically protected Native American remains. Maria Pearson, with the help of her husband John, had carried out the first successful legal repatriation for a set of Native American human remains. Widely known today as the Pearson Incident, it stimulated the birth of the repatriation movement.
A wave of protests reached the doors of the country’s most esteemed museums, continuing unabated through the 1980s. When it was revealed that the Smithsonian was holding more than 18,000 Native American remains in their collection, outrage soared and a surge of sympathy began to swell within the government. In 1990, President George H.W. Bush signed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, or NAGPRA, into law.
Widely recognized as a landmark piece of human rights legislation, it created a process by which tribes could obtain their ancestral remains and other sacred objects from museums and universities and repatriate them. All institutions that receive federal money — from the Smithsonian to state universities to the Department of Defense and Department of the Interior — are required to take full inventories of the human remains and funerary objects in their possession and post these on the federal register. The information is publicly available to any Indian tribes who seek repatriation. When caretakers can prove that a set of remains is culturally tied to a particular tribe, they are obligated to release them for reburial.
When the law was passed, there were a number of initial complaints by scientists who had claimed the government was sacrificing scientific research at the hands of politics and imprudent religious assertions. But after twenty years in effect, NAGPRA looks to have instituted a change in the scientific community and its long-contentious relationship to indigenous peoples.
There is still widespread debate about its successes and failures and challenges inherent in the law that people like Garza and Rocha are all too familiar with. In fact, a large portion of inventoried remains are marked “culturally unidentifiable” when scientific methods and research fall short of conclusively linking bodies to specific tribes. These often sit on shelves for years, unclaimed.
When federal institutions do reach out to tribes for repatriation, they usually only contact the tribes who are federally recognized. There are 566 tribes recognized by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Only three of which are in Texas. There are hundreds more Native American groups in Texas that are still not credited as Indians, resulting in years of disenfranchisement and discrimination added to an already painful history of Indian removal, migration, warfare and disease.
Garza and his tribe struggle with this burden. They are recognized by the state of Texas as Indians but not by the federal government. Therefore, Texas State University has no legal obligation to include them in the NAGPRA process. But, seeing Garza praying by the gravesite that day in 2011, Lohse, who oversaw the Center for Archaeological Studies at the time, took sympathy. “After these [remains] are all studied, maybe we can give them to you to repatriate,” he had said. “Why don’t I send a letter inviting you into the process?”
Four years after that initial invitation, Garza boarded a plane to Amherst, Massachusetts to testify before the NAGPRA review committee to officially take possession of the ticket booth remains. He was accompanied by Luis Aguilar, a close friend and confidant, and also a Coahuiltecan, whom he met during a repatriation project in the border town of San Ygnacio more than a year ago. A woman had been dug up during a road project, and the two men helped lay her to rest.
When they stepped off the plane in Massachusetts, the cold wind whipped across their faces. It was the first week in March, but the temperature had not climbed above five degrees. They checked into a hotel that occupies the top two floors of the Murray D. Lincoln building at the center of the University of Massachusetts. Out of the windows was a stately view of the campus pond and its surrounding lawns, pock-marked with maple trees.
There are seven people on the NAGPRA review committee — three attorneys, two anthropologists, an archaeologist and a traditional Indian spiritual leader from the Umatilla tribe in Oregon. After a lunch recess, at 1 p.m., they called action item number one on the docket: the CUI disposition request by Texas State University and Dr. Mario Garza. Garza stood beside Todd Ahlman, the representative from Texas State.
Ahlman started: “In Hays County, there are no federally recognized tribes with aboriginal or tribal land claims.” Unsure, he added, “I don’t believe that we have any federally-recognized tribes in Texas.”
“In Texas, yes you do,” an attorney fired back. A temperamental start.
Garza spoke in Ahlman’s defense, adding that, of the three federally-recognized tribes in Texas, none have been in the area more than 300 years, much less 1,200 years, when the man in question was buried by Spring Lake. “I stand corrected,” the attorney responded, curtly.
Garza went on to explain the significance of the San Marcos springs in the Coahuiltecan creation story and the long, oral history that culturally identified the man in the grave as one of his people’s distant ancestors. When Garza concluded his testimony, the chair asked for a motion.
“I would move that we approve the proposal to repatriate the set of remains as proposed by Texas.”
“I second the motion.”
“All in favor?”
A resounding, “Aye.”
Aguilar quickly sent out a text message to Rocha.
“All voted ‘YES’.”
The review committee has made decisions much like this one since NAGPRA’s formation in 1990. It has worked for fair implementation of the law, settling disputes between tribes arguing over repatriation rights, answering questions about how to handle culturally unidentifiable remains and improving the consultation process between federal institutions and indigenous peoples. In the twenty-five years since NAGPRA was adopted, they have recommended only eleven times to confer remains from a museum or university trust directly to a non-federally recognized group. None of these dispositions had occurred in Texas until now.
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Rocha was home with her and Garza’s three German shepherds when the message from Aguilar came through. Reflecting on that moment, her cheeks flushed rosier than usual. Her voice grew high and giddy. Although she is 67 years old, when thinking about their victory in Massachusetts, she seems more like a 12-year-old girl. But her celebration was short-lived. The day after Garza won his case with the federal government, the Alabama-Coushatta tribe of Texas sent a letter contesting the decision.
They did not claim the remains for themselves. They instead objected to a state-only recognized tribe being awarded the same benefits reserved for those sovereign Indian nations recognized by the federal government. “If we were federally recognized, this would be over,” Garza said, disheartened.
The Secretary of the Interior still has to complete an independent review of the case and submit her final recommendation, after which time a 30-day waiting period will open for objections, giving the Alabama-Coushatta a chance to re-voice their opinion. In the meantime, Garza and Rocha are working with the city of San Marcos to obtain a plot of land for a repatriation cemetery, enough space to accommodate the six Coahuiltecan bodies at Texas State and the others that might potentially be found in the years to come, as the small town of San Marcos grows into a city.
While the bureaucratic fight might seem like the hard part, Garza cringes when he talks about the reburial itself. “When you begin to touch these bones, they really start to have an affect on you,” he said. “I can’t keep doing it.”
Rocha remembered the San Ygnacio reburial from a year ago. She remembered the way the woman’s bones looked all packaged in bags and then poured out onto a canvas cloth. “When you see something like that,” she said. “You realize that this was a young woman who died. And had a life. And maybe children. And somehow was buried. And then she was dug up.” She remembered calling the woman “sister.” It came unexpectedly, from no place in particular, except maybe deep in her gut. “A connection formed, like a visceral thing.”
Today, Garza and Rocha stand at the edge of Spring Lake, between a past as old as the first light of dawn and a future that stretches deep into unknowing. Rocha fills a gourd with clear spring water, the earth steady under her feet, the wind in her hair and a spark of fire held in her chest. They are joined by Luis Aguilar who begins beating rhythmically on a drum. Garza takes off his wide-brimmed hat and sets it on the ground next to him. He clasps his hands in prayer.
“Na ham kam
Rocha’s song climbs over the Mexican buckeye trees. A rattle, like a snake, winds beyond the wetlands. And the drumbeat pounds like thunder into the river.
She takes water from the gourd and presses it to Garza’s palms, in blessing.
“We will remember
The Sacred Springs.”
From the place where they stand on the bank of the San Marcos river, you can see the ticket booth. It’s open for business. It’s spring, and families are here to ride the glass-bottom boats. A few meters away, beneath the earth, a PVC pipe runs through what was once a young man’s grave. There is nothing above ground to mark the spot — no monument, no headstone. If he ever makes it out of his cardboard box in the laboratory, he’ll rest that way in the earth again, somewhere near these warm waters and the gushing springs where he was born.