The little hillock in Presidio does not look like a cemetery. The place is surrounded by modest houses stuccoed white, peach, or gray, and a lone line of wire strung on T-posts is all that demarcates it from the rest of the neighborhood. The cemetery has neither a gate nor a sign. The graves amid the desert scrub and gravel are humped cairns of round red and gray volcanic rocks, some of which have rolled away from their original placements. No other markers, dates, or other identifying information exist except for two adjoining plots, where small, side-by-side metal crosses bear hand-painted names: Manuel B. Aguilar and Felipe E. Aguilar.
The neighborhood is pleasantly noisy on an April afternoon. Roosters at opposite ends of the block announce themselves to each other and then do it again, and again. A white pit bull’s chain rattles as he turns and deposits himself into the shallow bed he’s scratched into the dirt. For many minutes there is a rhythmic clang of metal on metal, until someone yells “¡Pinche!” and the clanging stops. The hillock looks like the kind of empty lot that kids cut through on their way to someplace else, or like a spot where day-drinkers might congregate between the creosotes now in sweet yellow bloom. And indeed, there’s evidence of that activity on the pebbled ground, which is littered with busted brown and green glass. At first glance, it’s not an important place.
This is the Cementerio del Barrio de los Lipanes, the grave site of about fifty people, some of whom likely trace back to Lipan Apaches who lived in the area when Spanish colonizers established the missions and forts that existed here centuries ago. Oscar Rodriguez, the tribal administrator for the Lipan Apache Tribe of Texas, stands within the cemetery, holding his hat in his hands. His dark, silver-streaked hair is tucked behind his ears. He grew up partly in El Mulato, Chihuahua, seventeen miles down the Rio Grande, and he regularly visited his relatives in Presidio. “There used to be an arroyo there that is now a road,” Rodriguez says, gesturing toward the adjacent houses. “This area was once a Lipan encampment on both banks of the arroyo.”
Somewhere beneath these rocks lie his great-great-grandparents and other ancestors too, though he does not know their exact locations. “It’s very significant to us. The cemetery commemorates the legacy of the Tall Grass band of the Gray People.”
Presidio lies snug in a region known historically as La Junta, for the joining of two rivers. Just northwest of town, the Rio Conchos flows from Mexico and empties into the Rio Grande. That influx of water, and the area’s wide, arable floodplains, make plants and animals more abundant and sustainable here than in more arid and severe parts of the Chihuahuan Desert. Hunter-gatherers in prehistoric times took note. “There have been people in that area for twelve millennia,” says David Keller, an archaeologist with the Center for Big Bend Studies at Sul Ross State University.
Starting about eight hundred years ago, some of those people made La Junta a more permanent home, building houses and farming in the floodplains. “There was significant agriculture going on upstream near El Paso,” says Keller. “One theory is those people came down here and founded a satellite village complex, or Indigenous people here borrowed that technology and established it.”
Farming along the river is still practiced in the community of Redford, where Enrique Madrid’s family has lived for generations. Madrid has spent his life studying the stories and peoples of his native La Junta. “The desert was really rich,” Madrid says. “The climate was habitable. There were fish in the river, deer to hunt, places for gardens, and all the right rocks for making arrowheads or grinding stones. Though it wasn’t an easy life, it was an ideal place to live.” He adds, “Then it went downhill when the Europeans showed up.”
Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, the shipwrecked Spanish explorer, and the three other members of his wandering party walked into La Junta in 1535. Among them was an enslaved Moroccan called Estevanico, believed to be the first person of African descent in what is now Texas. They encountered a hub of five or so small trading villages along the Rio Grande and the Rio Conchos, whose residents grew beans and squash and spent part of the year hunting bison. Though the Native people spoke a common language and lived in distinct bands or family groups that had individual names, Cabeza de Vaca called them simply “people of the cow,” for the bison hides they wore. They were, he wrote in 1542, “the most obedient we found in this land, of the best disposition, and usually very healthy.” Another Spaniard, Antonio de Espejo, journeyed through La Junta in 1582. One thousand inhabitants, he wrote, welcomed his group’s arrival.
After that, everything started to change. Over the next two hundred years, the Spanish presence intensified across Mexico and the Southwest. Colonial armies sporadically built, abandoned, then built again numerous forts, or presidios, including Presidio del Norte at La Junta. Catholic friars likewise established missions. Spanish slavers raided Native American villages to supply forced labor at mines. With remarkable adeptness and alacrity, Native Americans seized upon the horses reintroduced to the continent by the Spaniards, integrating them into their culture and warfare and greatly expanding the tribes’ mobility and range. Their migration and search for buffalo and horses commonly resulted in clashes with the Spanish, and with each other. The Comanche, in particular, harried the Lipan, who drifted from their original homeland into Texas. “We lived for centuries on the Great Plains,” says Rodriguez. “Our name means Gray People who come from the north. We retreated to West Texas.”
Faced with the Spanish occupation of La Junta to the south and the warring presence of the Comanche to the north, Mescalero and Lipan Apaches in the region were forced to consider an alternative to their nomadic lifestyle. In 1789, the local Spanish commander Colonel Juan de Ugalde proffered a peace deal to the Mescalero. In exchange for calm relations, food, and protection, the tribe could live on a reserve of La Junta land. Within a year, the Little Breech Cloth and Tall Grass bands of Lipan were offered the same deal. The Mescalero and the Little Breech Cloth didn’t stick around, but some of the Tall Grass Lipan did, at a plot of territory in what is now Presidio. “The area appears on some maps as an early Lipan settlement—el Barrio de los Lipanes—about a mile from the Catholic church,” says Madrid.
As Presidio del Norte evolved, part of it became a town simply called Presidio. It began to stretch downriver toward the Apache settlement, which a census enumerator referred to as “Lipanes” in the 1880 count. Gradually, paths became streets. Houses came, and shops, and schools. Utility poles, dumpsters, cars and trailers, and people. Whereas Lipanes had once been its own spot on a map, it became enveloped by Presidio, one neighborhood among many in this little border community. “Presidio filled in,” Madrid says. “The cemetery ended up in the middle of town.”
When Rodriguez visited relatives in Presidio as a child, his walks around the neighborhood often took him past the cemetery. “That was the late sixties,” he says. Over time, the cemetery started to dissolve into the landscape of the city. The neat piles of stones atop the graves grew looser. Paved streets, an alley, and newly constructed houses may well have obscured or covered graves. And, too, people seemed to forget the intention of those rocks being set in this place. “Used to be,” he says, “when I was young, all the graves had clear boundaries. A lot of the cairns have been turned into rock walls at neighborhood houses or put as decorations in people’s stucco. People have picked up the stones and carried them away.”
Action was needed before the cemetery was lost. Keller began to formally document the site about a decade ago, which led to its designation as an archaeological landmark. The city council later voted to protect the place, and in 2017, a small crowd of Presidio residents, local government reps, and members of the Lipan Apache Tribe—along with Rodriguez, Madrid, and Keller—listened as Mayor John Ferguson stood amid the graves and read a resolution recognizing the cemetery as “the final resting place of Lipan Apaches” whose descendants “have continuously lived in Presidio County and Big Bend region since the 1600s.” When he finished, the tribe members began to drum. “It was,” Rodriguez says, “the first time in more than one hundred years that Apache drums were heard in Presidio.”
Yet this is a cemetery that has almost no names associated with it. The neighborhood is called Barrio de los Lipanes in a sort of collective memory. How can anyone be sure that this is truly a burial ground for Native Americans? Couldn’t it be anyone in those graves?
Rodriguez argues that the story is bigger than just a cemetery. For hundreds of years, a profusion of forts sprang up across Mexico, Texas, and the Southwest to aid in colonizing territory by subjugating Native Americans. Some of those forts still stand as historical sites—Fort Leaton, for instance, or Fort Davis—which, to Rodriguez, are the physical representations of one side of the narrative. There is no corresponding symbol for the same complicated story from the perspective of the Native Americans. “So, the people on the other side of the conflict, the Indians, somehow disappeared?” he says. “That didn’t happen. The cemetery marks the presence of the Lipan being here. It’s an undeniable artifact of our presence. Otherwise, all we have are the forts that were built to push us out, built to attack us.”
Rodriguez, Madrid, and supporters such as the Big Bend Conservation Alliance hope to protect the cemetery and set it off from the neighborhood by building a low wall or fence around its remaining boundaries. An effort is likewise in progress to place a state historical marker at the site. Madrid, who routinely finds ceramic pot shards on the banks of the Rio Grande, just a few hundred yards from his house, recommends a long and multifaceted approach when considering this history. “Native American history is Texas history and American history. The cemetery must be respected. The story of that little cemetery in Presidio—it’s one piece of a huge period of human history, a magnificent, tragic human story on this border.”
At the top of the little hillock grows a mesquite tree whose lower trunk is hidden by a thicket of prickly pear. In an Apache custom, small sachets of colored cloth have been tied to the tree’s branches to honor the dead. Standing between the rock graves may seem a little lonely, but signs of life are all around. A flattened beer can of indeterminate brand. An empty tub of whipped cream. A stray snarl of rusted barbed wire. There’s love here too: these sun-blasted plastic flowers were left here by someone, for someone. Beyond the ragged screen of cactus and creosote that borders the cemetery, an unseen woman calls out to another. “Sí, gracias a Dios,” and the answer to her is muddled and indistinct. She calls out again. “Adiós, mi amor, adiós.” A car door slams, an engine starts. “¡Adiós! ¡Adiós!”
Other than the two Aguilar graves, this cemetery is wordless. That doesn’t mean, though, that the people whose feet trod this earth, who yearned and birthed and fought and cried and loved and struggled and who now lie under its rocks, passed from life to death without consequence or meaning. In this way, acknowledging the cemetery despite its mysteries is far more important than knowing precisely who is buried where. “That cemetery is human history,” says Madrid. “We’re all the same species. Your people are there too. Next time you go, you may want to leave a flower for the human beings who are buried there.”
This article originally appeared in the July 2021 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Native Soil.” Subscribe today.