Apr 23, 2021

Preservation without Reservations: Land Grabs of Past Rob True Native Texans of Indigenous History

Reporting Texas

If one traverses the interstates and highways that stretch the vast plains, red rock deserts and towering mountain ranges of the American West, they’ll see the usual, personalized road signs welcoming travelers to states like the Dakotas, Montana, Wyoming.

More than anywhere else in the country, however, travelers in the west might, too, see signs signaling they are entering the lands of fully sovereign tribal nations (variously called tribes, nations, bands, pueblos, communities, and Native villages). Further south, roads wind through the painted buttes of Navajo Nation, the largest reservation in the country which spans 17.5 million acres of Utah, Arizona and New Mexico. Nationwide, the U.S. government recognizes some 100 million acres of tribal land – totaling an area larger than all but three states.

The government owns nearly 250 million acres of land in the continental U.S., mostly in states west of the Great Plains. The Bureau of Land Management oversees this land and opens it to the public for conservation and recreation. The government also owns Native American reservation lands, but holds them in trust for the interests of their respective tribal nations.

Texas, however, is a different story.

Take a couple steps off nearly any highway spanning its 270 million acres, and you’re bound to be trespassing on someone else’s property. Over 95% of the state’s land is privately owned, resulting largely from the removal of Native peoples in the 19th century. Despite its huge size and a history of hundreds of Indigenous tribes inhabiting its present-day borders, Texas has only three federally-recognized reservations – those of the Alabama-Coushatta, the Kickapoo and the Ysleta del Sur Pueblo. Hundreds of non-federally recognized tribal communities exist here, left without allotted land to practice self-autonomy or the funding to preserve cultural traditions.

El Capitan peak in Guadalupe Mountains National Park rises above Culberson County, which is larger than Rhode Island and Delaware combined. Photo by Brooke Nevins

Kelly McDonough, a professor of Native American and Indigenous Studies at the University of Texas at Austin and who is of Anishinaabe descent, says the process of petitioning for recognition is a long and arduous one, often taking decades to reach a conclusion.

“One of the things that’s required to be a federally recognized tribe and to have your legal complaints heard in federal courts is that, as a tribe, you prove relationship to land since time immemorial – forever and ever,” McDonough said. “Most people have been dispossessed of their lands, and so they haven’t had an unbroken line of connection to a land, because they’ve been removed from it.”

Federal recognition of a tribe acknowledges its right to self-autonomy, and provides land protection, college scholarships and funding for cultural preservation. According to the National Congress of American Indians, self-government is crucial “if tribal communities are to continue to protect their unique cultures and identities.” As a result, Texas’s non-federally recognized tribes continue to face roadblocks in their demands for reparation and assistance following centuries of dispossession. Indigenous organizations around the state, however, have created other outlets to retain an organized community in increasingly urban settings, and have developed educational programs and cultural events to promote unity, regardless of status in the eyes of the U.S. government.

History of Dispossession

The U.S.  began to significantly dispossess Native peoples of their land in the 1820s, when pressure from settlers and the military mounted against eastern tribes to move westward. Through a series of treaties, these tribes traded lands for self-governance.

In 2014, Kevin Gover, the former director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian and a citizen of the Pawnee Tribe of Oklahoma, discussed the museum’s “Nation to Nation” exhibit, which presented the history of “promises, diplomacy and betrayals” in the treaty processes between the U.S. and Native peoples.

“The treaties were not a grant of rights to the Indians,” Gover said during the discussion. “They were, in most respects, an acknowledgement of rights that preexisted by virtue of the national sovereignty Indians possessed in the first instance, even when nobody else believed in them, even when the very…objective of American policy was the deculturation of Indian people.”

The Dawes Act of 1887 famously brought these negotiations to an end, forcibly converting communally-held reservation lands into small tracts of land for individual ownership. Around 90 million acres, or two-thirds of all reservation land at the time, were distributed to settlers, usually without compensation. In the 1950s, Congress passed a series of laws that terminated recognition of over 100 tribes, devastating their economies and natural resources. Indigenous communities were encouraged to relocate from reservations to urban areas.

Courtesy Outdoor Alliance

In the following decades, tribes began to organize politically and defeated the policy of termination, gaining collective power in federal policymaking. A new era saw the acknowledgment of hundreds of tribal lands, including three in Texas.

But Hi’ilei Hobart, an assistant professor at UT Austin studying Indigenous foodways and settler colonialism, said resettlement dispossessed Native people of their cultural customs that were tied directly to specific geographic locations and landforms – what scholar Mishuana Goeman describes as “storied landscapes.”

“The environmental elements of traditional territories are embedded in our stories, epistemologies, and social worlds,” Hobart said. “Land, and space, is – of course – not interchangeable. The logic of forced removal reflects that very fact.  Through removal policies, Indigenous nations lost access to traditional foods and place-based cultural practice.”

The Story of Indigenous Texas

The Alabama-Coushatta reservation in the Big Thicket of East Texas is the oldest reservation in the state, established in 1854. In the 1780s, the Alabama and Coushatta tribes migrated from the southeast into the Spanish-controlled territory of present-day Texas. In 1821, the new Mexican government recognized the tribes’ claims to the land after their role in the Mexican War of Independence from Spain, as did the Republic of Texas government after it won its independence from Mexico in 1836. The United States did not recognize the tribe until 1987.

The desert reservations of the Ysleta del Sur Pueblo in far West Texas and the Kickapoo Traditional Tribe of Texas in South Texas were established much later in 1968 and 1983, respectively. The Tigua people of the Ysleta del Sur Pueblo hold two housing communities and several tracts of land near the Hueco Tanks in El Paso County. The 120-acre Kickapoo reservation sits just south of Eagle Pass at the Mexican border.


Like the other 571 federally-recognized tribes around the country, these three tribes hold formal relationships with the U.S. The spirit of tribal sovereignty is one’s ability to govern and to foster the health and safety of its citizens. They function in their own government institutions, police departments and tribal courts, which can enforce determination of citizenship, a separate set of civil and criminal laws, taxes and regulation. It is also responsible for providing services like education, environmental protection and the maintenance of infrastructure.

However, even federally-recognized tribes continue to struggle legally over land rights. In 2017, the Ysleta del Sur Pueblo sought judicial confirmation of a particular 111-acre tract of land in El Paso. The city disputed the claim, arguing that while the Spanish and Mexican governments have affirmed the Pueblo’s right to the land centuries prior, the Texas and U.S. governments never did. The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals that sits in New Orleans and presides over Texas held that federal courts did not hold jurisdiction over the case and that it was up to the state of Texas to recognize the tribe’s claim. The state has largely ignored the case.

McDonough says acquiring even small gains in tribal lands remains a goal of many federally and non-federally recognized tribes.

“The community doesn’t necessarily have to live there,” she said, “but they can have programs of revitalization and supporting your own people. You need the opportunity to farm a land, or have a business. Recovery of land is one of the most important first steps [to recognition].”

For non-federally recognized tribes, being American Indian – the term used by the Bureau of Indian Affairs – is not necessarily a matter of heritage and culture, but rather a political and legal designation. A member of a tribe can fully identify as Native American but still not be recognized by the government as such and therefore cannot receive the benefits that come with that legal status.

McDonough believes that, as a result, many members of unrecognized tribes struggle to balance the assertion of their own identity with the need for funding to protect their cultural institutions.

“There are some tribes that don’t want recognition, because they don’t think they need to be recognized by the federal government,” McDonough said. “They’re like, ‘I know I’m Indigenous, I know this is my tribal land. I don’t need you to say, “Oh, I agree, too.’ But in order for treaties to be honored, for the most part, and for benefits … you need to be from a federally-recognized tribe.”

Texas’ “Invisible Population”

Today, one in three Native Americans live in poverty, and those on reservations experience higher rates of unemployment, domestic and gang violence, substance abuse and health issues like heart disease and cancer compared to other ethnic groups.

However, nearly 80% of the country’s Native American population live off tribal lands, mostly in urban areas. Ramon Vasquez, a member of the Tāp Pīlam Coahuiltecan Nation in San Antonio, Texas, says Indigenous people in cities face the same socioeconomic disparities, but lack access to services and resources that are more readily available to those geographically consolidated on tribal lands. Victims of these issues but anonymous among the millions of residents that call San Antonio home, Vasquez deems urban Indigenous people America’s “invisible population.”

This dispersion makes cultural preservation and community organization particularly difficult, but Texas tribes are adapting to the needs of their urban members.

Vasquez is co-founder and executive director of the American Indians in Texas at the Spanish Colonial Missions, a San Antonio nonprofit that provides unique civic engagement, health and wellness, youth development and cultural preservation services to Native Americans spread throughout the city.

“Because a lot of metropolitan areas are not designed or equipped to deal with the cultural needs of their [Indigenous] population,” Vasquez said, “one of the aspirations is to have gathering places that are sensitive to the different cultural needs of the different American Indians that make this place our home.”

AIT’s Warrior Roots Program provides leadership training in community organizing, political activism and cultural promotion to young Tāp Pīlam members to foster an urban network “capable of mobilizing to protect and defend [themselves] accordingly.”

“You either have to have money or you have to have masses in order to bring about change in Texas,” Vasquez said. “So one of the things – because we don’t have the money – that we do is we work to develop leaders to mobilize different communities.”

True to its independent spirit, Texas is owned by Texans. The government simply doesn’t own land here to grant tribes, even if they achieve federal recognition. Like many other tribes, the Tāp Pīlam Coahuiltecan Nation has foregone the petitioning process for recognition and has instead adapted to the culture of privatization.

Vasquez says the tribe has legal, corporate and political branches that fundraise with the intent to purchase private land for developing consolidated Indigenous communities – a sort of self-established, non-federal reservation.

Until then, he works to bring the past and present experiences and contributions of Native Texans to the forefront of San Antonio’s, and the state’s, historical memory.

“We have to rehumanize our history,” Vasquez said. “We have to remind people that there were people here that built these beautiful missions that are world heritage sites, that led the pathway to building this city, which led to the building of this state.”