Conflict over Alamo burials, Native American worship could continue after settlement talks break down


As Thanksgiving approached, it emerged state officials were ready to settle a dispute with a Native American group seeking access to Alamo Church for religious ceremonies.

This peace was short-lived.

The 5th Court of Appeals was due to hear the case filed by the Tap Pilam Coahuiltecan nation last month, but lawyers for both sides said they had “reached an agreement in principle” in a November 22 court document.

“Therefore, oral argument in this case is no longer necessary,” said the lawyers, offering to file a motion to dismiss the lawsuit within 60 days.

In 2019, Tap Pilam was banned from holding its annual commemoration ceremony – honoring the tribe’s ancestors buried at the historic site and asking forgiveness for disturbing their remains – inside the Alamo church. The tribe filed a lawsuit against Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush and former Alamo Trust CEO Douglass W. McDonald, claiming they had violated the religious rights of the tribe.

Tap Pilam requested access to the state-owned building for his religious ceremonies and to have a say in the management of the human remains found at the Hispanic-Indigenous mission.

On Thanksgiving Day, a New York Times article reported on the tentative settlement, anonymously citing “two people involved in the mediation process.”

But the Texas General Land Office, which partners with the Alamo Trust to oversee operations at the historic site, said it may not sign a deal because Tap Pilam violated the terms of the settlement. The draft mediation agreement, intended to end the “frivolous lawsuits” filed by the group, has “not been finalized,” Stephen Chang, director of communications at the Land Office, said in a statement.

“We came prepared to negotiate in good faith; however, Tap Pilam has already violated the terms and conditions of the mediation. Their actions are fatal to the entire deal, and we are currently planning to withdraw from the proposed deal, ”he said.

Chang said he had nothing to add to his statement when asked how Tap Pilam violated the terms and whether speaking anonymously about mediation was a violation.

Tap Pilam’s lawyer Art Martínez de Vara did not comment on the trial. The appeals to Manuel Mungia, lawyer for McDonald’s and Alamo Trust, were not returned.

Last year, U.S. Chief District Judge Orlando Garcia dismissed the lawsuit, saying Tap Pilam’s claims were benefits that are generally not available to the public.

Tap Pilam’s attorneys have appealed his ruling and said they are ready to take the lawsuit to the US Supreme Court, which may hear the case or rest a 5th Court ruling. call from New Orleans.

“The GLO has won every case that Tap Pilam has brought against the state,” Chang said. “Courts have consistently rejected Tap Pilam’s claims because of their baseless claims.”

The tribe began holding the ceremony in 1995 after reburying the remains of an ancestor in the chapel. In doing so, the elders of Tap Pilam pledged to hold a ceremony of forgiveness and remembrance each year.

“This stems from the religious belief that those whose burials have been disrupted are also disrupted on their spiritual journey into the afterlife,” the lawsuit says.

Each year, they were allowed to enter the church for the ceremony until 2019, when Alamo officials told them the building was only open for public visits. Since then, the tribe has held their ceremony outside the church, with a few members then entering the site with tourists.

Tap Pilam’s lawsuit alleges Bush and McDonald violated the group’s civil rights by excluding it – because it is not federally recognized – from the Alamo mission’s archeology advisory committee, which oversees a protocol treatment of human remains on state property.

A Travis County district judge dismissed a similar lawsuit between Tap Pilam and Alamo Trust in May.

Church records document more than 1,300 burials at the San Antonio de Valero Mission, which became a Spanish military outpost known as El Álamo in the early 1800s. But the number of people buried there from native bands linked to hunter-gatherers known collectively as the Coahuiltèques is disputed.

Tap Pilam estimated the proportion of Coahuiltec burials at 80 percent. But the Alamo Trust submitted data to the historic commission last year, which placed it at no more than 47%.

Researchers believe there were also burials, especially of soldiers and military families, documented by Spanish army chaplains in records from the 1790s to the early 1800s that have since been lost.

This year, the state’s 8th Court of Appeals ruled that an ongoing $ 400 million renovation of the Alamo was not an “active threat to human remains” at the site in a lawsuit. by the Alamo Defenders Descendants Association. The Texas Supreme Court dismissed the association’s injunction request in April.

Meanwhile, construction continues at the Alamo. The plans include highlighting the siege and battle of 1836 and telling the story of the inhabitants of the native mission, the Spanish brothers and other figures of the origins of San Antonio. The use of the Alamo after the battle as a depot for the US Army and its evolution into a historic site for visitors and a space for community gathering will also be included.

Kate Rogers, who took over from McDonald’s in March as executive director of the Alamo Trust, did not comment on the legal issues, but said the project was “going full speed ahead.”

The trust has raised around $ 5 million privately after securing $ 50 million from the legislature and $ 25 million from Bexar County for the $ 140 million museum, slated to open in 2025. The trust has inaugurated in August an exhibition hall of nearly 20 million dollars and 24,000 square feet which is expected to open in the fall of 2022.

A new temporary open-air exhibition, reproducing a wooden palisade where the original fortification stood in 1836, is set to debut in the square before Christmas.

“We are moving forward in a very positive direction,” said Rogers. “There has of course been a controversy in the past, and everyone is well aware of it. “

Previous iterations of the project contained several elements that turned out to be unpopular. For example, one plan called for using vertical glass walls or handrails around the plaza and lowering the site 18 inches. The current plan marks the outline of the historic mission with surface cobblestones, short walls or other inconspicuous elements without dropping the square.

A proposal to move the Alamo Cenotaph has met with strong opposition, and experts are now expected to repair the monument without moving it. The historic buildings of Crockett and Woolworth will be reused on the west side of the square as part of the new museum when authorities considered demolishing them.

The city is also no longer considering allowing two-way traffic on Losoya – a proposal being protested by downtown business owners who use the busy southerly street for deliveries. A traffic survey determined that changes to Losoya are not necessary as the permanent closure of part of Alamo Street on June 1 to improve ambience and safety in the square had little impact on the city. traffic in the city center.

Many people involved in the project, including members of the Bexar County Commissioners Tribunal, said they wanted to see Alamo’s story told from different angles, including that of Hispanic, Native American and black populations.

The trust has hired 18 historians and plans to consult 30 to 40 more before completing a 500 to 700 page narrative script for a 100,000 square foot museum and visitor center.

The city has an email address for sending questions and comments:

” We’re only just starting. There will be lots of opportunities for people to weigh in, ”Rogers said.


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