Internship at the Indigenous Cultures Institute:
The Importance of Religion and Repatriation
I conducted an internship with the Indigenous Cultures Institute during the Fall 2016 semester, working as their Repatriation Project Intern. On September 6th, 2016, the Miakan – Garza band was approved for reburial grounds in the City of San Marcos. This was a historic success because the City of San Marcos became the first Texas City to establish repatriation grounds for the reburial of indigenous remains. My work with the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) database allows the Institute to obtain the remains through an organized manner that can ease much of the stress from a lengthy process. This report will describe the organization, the history of the Miakan – Garza Band, discuss my work with the NAGPRA database, and explore the impact of repatriation work and how it affects not only the Indigenous Cultures Institute, but also the Native American community as a whole.
INDIGENOUS CULTURES INSTITUTE
The Indigenous Cultures Institute is a non-profit organization founded in 2006 by Dr. Mario Garza and Ms. Maria Rocha. The organization is “dedicated to the research and preservation of the culture, arts, traditions, ceremonies, and languages of… Coahuiltecans” (Indigenous Cultures Institute ). The Indigenous Cultures Institute members maintain their culture through educational programs, especially for Mexican – American children in the San Marcos area. While working with Dr. Garza and Ms. Rocha, I have learned how important it is for them to not only immerse the youth in educational programs but also in the Native languages and values held by their ancestors and descendants today. Although they have a summer camp in order to teach the youth about their past, they also focus on sacred sites located along the Sacred Springs. The protection and preservation of the river is extremely important to the Miakan – Garza band and it exhibits the love they have for their culture as well as the passion they have to protect Mother Earth.
There are four major sacred water sites that the Miakan – Garza band seeks to conserve: tza wan pupako (Barton Springs in Austin), ajehuac sohuetiau (Spring Lake in San Marcos), saxōp wan pupako (Comal Springs in New Braunfels), and yana wana (the Blue Hole headwaters of the San Antonio River). Their hard work and perseverance for the conservation of these sacred water sites came from the interest in the “ancient pilgrimages to the sacred peyote gardens in South Texas” (Indigenous Cultures Institute).
The four major sacred water sites relate to the Coahuiltecan creation story. They say that the Coahuiltecans were born in the Sacred Springs located in San Marcos, Texas. The beautiful painting at the end of this section demonstrates what the Sacred Springs looked like at the time of their birth. In the middle, one can see what is called the Deep Hole. Coahuiltecans refer to this as the “umbilical cord” because it is in that spot where Mother Nature and the Coahuiltecans are bound in spiritual belief. When the Coahuiltecan ancestors were born, they came out of the springs “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” (Compass Cultura). Because the Sacred Springs constitutes the location of their origin story, it is considered the most sacred amongst the many sacred water sites.
HISTORY OF THE COAHUILTECANS
Although the Miakan – Garza Band identifies as Coahuiltecan, it is important to understand that “the term Coahuiltecan masks considerable ethnic and behavioral diversity” (Texas Beyond History). To be of Coahuiltecan descent, this would mean that one’s ancestors came out of this geographic area. Collectively the peoples of the South Texas Plains region are known as Coahuiltecans, despite the fact that “they spoke diverse dialects and languages” (Texas Beyond History). This large group of what the Spanish called “naciones” – what we might call tribes today – were located in the South Texas Plains and northeastern Mexico, where an abundance of prickly pear and peyote were found during certain times of the year. Texas Beyond History points out that the landscape consisted of “hundreds of small, highly mobile groups of hunting and gathering peoples” who were acknowledged in written history in the 16th century.
Regarding the history of the Coahuiltecans, the Indigenous Cultures Institute and archaeological accounts differ in key respects. Dr. Garza and Ms. Rocha firmly believe that they are the ancestors of the Toyah phase Indians and, before that, the Paleo – Indians. This would mean that they have occupied that area for 13,000 years or more. Because several of the languages spoken throughout the area were distinct, this solidifies the establishment of Coahuiltecan society before they were acknowledged in written history, because “places where language ‘isolates’ are spoken are likely places where people lived continuously for thousands of years” (Texas Beyond History). This discrepancy is not necessarily a disagreement between the Indigenous Cultures Institute and archaeological accounts, but instead concerning the difference between the acknowledgement of the lineage of the Miakan – Garza Band which can only definitively be proven by archaeologists through written history. This is why there are different dates: one is a cultural date that is known due to cultural connections and lineage that was passed down orally, and the other relies on artifactual evidence alone.
THE NATIVE AMERICAN GRAVES PROTECTION AND REPATRIATION ACT AND HOW IT AFFECTS REPATRIATION
The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) is single – handedly the most important piece to the puzzle of repatriation for the Miakan – Garza Band. NAGPRA provides a process for repatriation, penalties for noncompliance and illegal trafficking, and grants from the federal government to aid in the expensive process of documenting and repatriating cultural objects.
NAGPRA was passed on November 16th, 1990. There were many events that led to the passing of NAGPRA, including the Native rights movement in the 1970’s led by the American Indian Movement which is a Native American civil rights organization and the approval for repatriation of human remains from the Smithsonian granted by Congress in 1989 (Indians of the Midwest). The NAGPRA Submission Process comprises six parts. First, Indian tribes, Native Hawaiian organizations (NHOs), or lineal descendants of the remains must submit a claim or request and have a consultation with other Indian tribes and NHOs in order to verify the claim. Then a board comprised of NAGPRA officials, and possibly university officials involved with the claim, review the evidence only applicable for claims of kin or cultural affiliation. If the claim has been approved the Indian tribes, Native Hawaiian organizations (NHOs), or lineal descendants draft and submit a notice for publication to begin the transfer of control and finally the transfer of possession (Repatriation/Disposition Process). With only six steps to achieve repatriation successfully, it seems like it would be simple enough, but in actuality these six parts also have parts within the parts that can make the process last for years on end. Although NAGPRA seen as a step forward for the rights of Native Americans, it has actually been the source of many issues for this lengthy process the Miakan – Garza band has continued to endure.
One of the largest problems I have observed while working with NAGPRA in Texas is the fact that the Act only applies to graves found on Federal or Indian Reservation Lands. The percentage of land that is publically owned is a mere 4.2%. According to Dr. Garza, this means that 95.8% of the land is private and therefore does not have to concede to the NAGPRA rulings. This intensifies the repatriation process and, from what I have learned, cuts out the middleman, NAGPRA, and leaves the decision of where the remains and objects end up in the hands of the property owners.
Although the majority of institutions in possession of remains would likely be open to returning the remains to their respective tribes for repatriation, the process gets sticky in places. This is because the institutions are required to send out documentation to all possible tribal ‘matches’, but this also means that tribes can document their desire for possession of the remains in the hopes of obtaining them. NAGPRA represents more than laws and processes, it is the representation of an entire culture; For Native Americans, NAGPRA holds a cultural meaning as well. The remains and objects of Native American ancestors represents their beliefs and directly affects their feelings, thoughts, and desires as a community of people who are trying to maintain peace in their Native American society and afterlife. There is a spiritual need for the community to keep their ancestors in the place they were buried. Spiritual burial grounds, during their period of use, were intended to maintain their position throughout eternity. For the Native American community, the place at which someone is buried marks the spot for the beginning of their ancestor’s spiritual journey to the afterlife. Although NAGPRA does not promise to help return the remains to its exact excavation location, it is up to the adherents to do their best to place the remains as close as possible to its original place of origin in order to help the deceased individual’s spiritual journey continue. NAGPRA also allows museums, schools, and other organizations to work closely with Native American communities and build a working relationship with one another through this repatriation process. This not only helps potentially ease cultural tensions, but it also allows Native Americans to have access to what is rightfully theirs and share their history with people along the way.
WORKING WITH THE NATIVE AMERICAN GRAVES PROTECTION AND REPATRIATION ACT DATABASE
The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act database allows anyone to view where remains and artifacts are excavated, the minimal number of individuals (MNI) or the number of associated funerary objects (AFO) were present, along with any notes that may have been taken. This includes a collection history, which commonly state who excavated the remains or how the remains got into the possession of the institution where they are stored. One of the problems I continued to experience is that much of the information can end up being blank, because the remains could have been illegally possessed and donated to the institutions, or information like age and culture are not recorded. To have blanks in the database is understandable, but what was most important for the Miakan – Garza band is where the remains were excavated, where they are being held, and how many are there.
When looking at the Culturally Unidentifiable Native American Inventories Database (CUI Database), one of the most important aspects I was concerned with was the Minimum Number of Individuals, otherwise seen as MNI. This is vital to the repatriation work I am conducting because although “funerary objects, sacred objects, and objects of cultural patrimony are all materials that may be considered for repatriation,” human remains are the most important to the Indigenous Cultures Institute (National Museum of the American Indian). The minimal number of individuals allows us to physically understand how many Native American ancestors have been uncovered and even where they are currently being held. Dr. Garza and Ms. Rocha consider these spreadsheets valuable, because these allow the organization to locate individuals in the hopes of returning them to the closest possible location from which they were excavated. Often, when the minimal numbers of individuals are recovered, the numbers of associated funerary objects are also recorded. I found that the category of associated funerary objects varies drastically. Some of the objects found included baskets with a mummified infant (excavated from Reeves county) to a plethora of assorted beads, bones, potsherds, etc.
The Miakan – Garza band taught me that they believe that, when a Native American body has been dug up from its burial site, the soul goes into a state of distress. This occurs because the body is now being separated from the soul that began its journey into the afterlife in the exact place that it was buried. It is as if you have a long string tied to a tree branch and someone cuts the end of it, and now the rest is dangling in the wind until it can be caught and tied back to the tree branch. Once the remains are reburied, the soul can continue its journey, thereby keeping the soul in a state of equilibrium. By knowing the minimal number of individuals and exactly where they came from, the Indigenous Cultures Institute is able to work with other tribes or bands to return their ancestors to their sacred land. That is a future goal of the organization. For now the spreadsheets I have created allow the Miakan – Garza band to locate their ancestors and return them to the repatriation site designated for them by the City of San Marcos.
The usage of the spreadsheets is an incredibly important tool that enables them to achieve different objectives. The first is that it clearly helps them with the objective of reburying the bodies back to its original place. Second, it allows the Miakan – Garza band to interact with other tribes in the Texas region. Although their efforts of repatriation are beginning in San Marcos, they would eventually like to branch out to other tribes and build a relationship with them. This is not only useful when reducing the social stress between tribes, but it also helps keep the Native community focused on preserving their culture and history. By working together to get a majority of the remains back to where they belong, they will be working towards becoming a cohesive group of peoples who have been marginalized for far too long. Third, the spreadsheet allows Dr. Garza and Ms. Rocha to narrow down their searches and try to attain certain remains at certain times. Although they have a list of all the counties in possession of excavated Native American remains, they can narrow down their focus to a minimal number of counties (for instance Hays and Travis county to begin with) along with the few remains that are possibly Coahuiltecan. Overall, the spreadsheets may be mundane to look at or work with, but the importance of the data is unprecedented.
THE IMPACT OF CULTURALLY UNIDENTIFIABLE REMAINS
Culturally unidentifiable remains are important to different people for different reasons. On the one hand, schools and museums consider them important tools for educating the public about Native American culture and human variation. On the other hand, the remains are important to the culture and religion to which they belong. It is easy to see both sides of a quite common conversation in the anthropological world. However, after working with the Indigenous Cultures Institute, it became clear to me why the culturally – unidentified remains are so important to the Native American community. Everyday there are new buildings, houses, etc. being built and a common occurrence is that bodies or objects are found when construction occurs above, below, and in between the burial sites. There are already a multitude of minimal number of individuals and associated funerary objects being held in cardboard boxes across the United States, and the main goal of the Indigenous Cultures Institute is to reduce the number of culturally unidentifiable Native American remains collecting dust. With over 3,400 sets of remains in Texas alone, the Miakan – Garza band believes that this causes a great deal of distress for the soul to which the bones belonged. For the Native American community as a whole, the diaspora of unidentified remains not only makes it harder to get them returned to where they belong, but it also exhibits a lack of consideration and compassion to the Native American community from American society. Monetary and intellectual greed play a large role in the separation of ancestors from their modern day protectors. I say this because the money and studies that stem from Native American remains often trump the spiritual rituals and wishes of the native peoples.
My internship at the Indigenous Cultures Institute has not only provided the opportunity to get to know and understand a culture which often times remains guarded to those seeking educational opportunities, but Dr. Garza and Ms. Rocha gave me an inside view at the demanding process of repatriation. Often times students only get to learn about the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, but I got to work with the act first hand and observe how it affects different religious and cultural aspects of the Native American community.
Overall, the importance of repatriation and how it affects the Miakan – Garza Band has been exhibited in many ways. With the description of the Indigenous Cultures Institution, the history of the Miakan – Garza Band, my work with the NAGPRA database, and discussion on the impact of repatriation work and how it affects not only the Indigenous Cultures Institute, but also the Native American community as a whole; it has become clear as to why the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act is vital to maintain religious and cultural values.
Bazan, Susan Klein and Vangie. “Indigenous Cultures Institute.” Indigenous Cultures Institute. Accessed December 08, 2016. http://www.indigenouscultures.org/.
Huber, Mary. “Resting in Peace | The Fight to Rebury Remains in Texas.” Compass Cultura. June 15, 2015. Accessed December 08, 2016. http://compasscultura.com/resting-in-peace/.
“Indians of the Midwest.” Indians of the Midwest. Accessed December 08, 2016.
“Repatriation.” National Museum of the American Indian. Accessed December 08, 2016. http://nmai.si.edu/explore/collections/repatriation/.
“Repatriation / Disposition Process.” NAGPRA Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. Accessed December 08, 2016. http://nagpra.umich.edu/repatriation-disposition-process/.
United States. National Park Service. “National NAGPRA Home.” National Parks Service. Accessed December 08, 2016. https://www.nps.gov/nagpra/INDEX.htm.
“Who Were the “Coahuiltecans”?” Texas Beyond History. September 18, 2006. Accessed December 08, 2016. https://www.texasbeyondhistory.net/st-plains/peoples/coahuiltecans.html.