The Forgotten People

Unassimilated and unappreciated, the Kickapoo Indians of Eagle Pass struggle against the realities of the modern world––poverty, addiction, even laws against hunting their sacred deer––to stay in harmony with the spirits of the grandfathers.

THE KICKAPOO INDIANS LIVE IN A WORLD that barely resembles yours and mine. I began to understand this one day in April 1994 in the parking lot of a shopping center in Eagle Pass. Eric Fredlund, an anthropologist who had befriended the Kickapoo, was taking me to El Nacimiento, the Mexican preserve and adopted holy land of the small border tribe. He went inside a store to buy some sunglasses and cigarettes, leaving me in a Chevy Blazer with Joe Hernandez, our driver, guide, and translator. Joe’s Kickapoo name is Ta-Pe-A-ah, which he translates roughly as Woody Bramble of Blackberries, Spreading Outward From the Roots. He was 23 then, five feet ten with thick, broad shoulders, a laborer’s build. He wore boots, jeans, a cap, and sunshades that masked a large, shy face. There is a Lake Kickapoo in the part of Texas where I grew up, and just to break the silence, I asked Joe if he knew the place. He looked back over the seat and replied quietly, “No. We’re kind of allergic to lakes.”

I blinked and asked him what he meant. “When I was a kid,” he said, “I used to drive up to Del Rio a lot, to that big lake there, Amistad. But my dad told me he didn’t want me going up there. That lake, it makes big rains.”

I mused on that cryptic remark as we crossed the Rio Grande and drove south from Piedras Negras into the Coahuilan chaparral. Allergic to lakes? The Kickapoo came from the Great Lakes; they speak Algonquian and still tell stories of French explorers who found them around Lake Michigan in the early 1600’s. Their migration to the borderlands of Texas and Mexico—which made them citizens of two nations—is one of the most remarkable odysseys in North American history, and they undertook it to sustain a religion and a way of life that abound with supernatural beings and events.

Yet Texans know the Kickapoo—if they know them at all—only as a poverty-stricken people who for decades lived as squatters under the international bridge at Eagle Pass. (Since 1987 they have occupied a bleak 123-acre reservation on the outskirts of town.) They are seldom mentioned in a Texas frontier lore that is dominated by Comanche, Apache, and Cherokee; it is a common belief today that Texas has just two Indian tribes, the Alabama-Coushatta of the Big Thicket and the Tigua in El Paso. Yet the Kickapoo have played a lively role in Texas history, and their culture is arguably more intact than that of the better-known tribes. In anthropological circles, the Kickapoo have a reputation as the most unassimilated tribe in the contiguous United States. Along the border one sees them driv-ing pickups, wearing shades, listening to country or rap music, but even in those moments they perceive a spiritual world to which most of us are blind.

I had been reading a monograph Fredlund was drafting about his work with the Kickapoo. “One informant told me of an incident,” he wrote, “that occurred when he was traveling in the Midwest in a pickup truck with an elderly male relative. In the distance they saw a tornado heading in their direction at a high rate of speed. The man instructed him to stop the truck and get out quickly. The old man then said a prayer to the ‘grandfather’ who was the tornado. The funnel cloud rose off the ground and passed over their heads, returning to earth a half mile beyond where they stood, and resumed its path of destruction. The older man explained that there is no reason for a Kickapoo man to fear a tornado provided one is in harmony with the nature and the spirits of the grandfathers and knows how to get the latter’s attention.”

The troubles of contemporary Kickapoo are legion, but two in particular imperil their existence as a distinct culture. Deer hunting is a sacrament among the Kickapoo; in their religion a father cannot bestow a tribal name on an infant unless he can contribute to the rite four slain deer. The animals are scarce at their Mexican preserve and rare as polar bears on their U.S. reservation, eight miles downriver from Eagle Pass. Mexican law tries to accommodate their need, though game regulations and posting of private property there have recently grown more restrictive, but in Texas the dual constraints are unrelenting. Few Kickapoo earn more than $7000 a year, and even if they could afford a private hunting lease, babies are born year-round, not just during the state’s hunting season. They get caught poaching and are fined $500, to them an impos-sible sum, so they work it off on county road gangs. What else are they going to do? Let their children go nameless?

The second crisis, addiction, threatens to do what 350 years of hardship could not: extinguish the traditional Kickapoo way of life from the earth. Like many Native Americans, the Kickapoo seem incapable of moderate social drinking. Their elected council discourages alcohol consumption on both reservations, though of course that doesn’t solve the problem. But the intoxicant that terrifies the elders is common spray paint. About 450 people are legal members of the Texas Kickapoo tribe. At least 80, most of them adults, are addicted to paint fumes. Fredlund worked for a state drug abuse agency, and one of his duties was to write a grant proposal on the Kickapoo’s behalf to the federal Center for Substance Abuse Treatment. His proposal had won a five-year $2.6 million grant that made Eric a celebrated figure among the Kickapoo.


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