The city of Presidio, Texas, is making amends for the historic neglect of a Lipan Apache cemetery.
The tiny city of about 5,000 residents, which sits on the U.S.-Mexico border opposite the Rio Grande from Ojinaga, Chihuahua, on February 25 celebrated the rescue of a cemetery that for decades was lost to modern progress. The cemetery—now little more than a mound—is the sole surviving marker of a Native community that once thrived in this area, tribal administrator Oscar Rodriguez said.
“Now people consider it an old relic, an archaic site,” he said. “It’s taken us a long time to raise awareness and save the cemetery.”
The cemetery contains 35 or 40 distinct graves, according to city data, though only two grave markers remain standing. The last burial took place in 1949, signaling the figurative end to a community of people who lived in southwest Texas since the late 18th century—but contemporary Lipan still trace their heritage to the plot, Rodriguez said.
“We’re not talking about an archaic cemetery,” he said. “These are not theoretical ancestors, but real people buried in the 1700s and 1800s. People know they have ancestors buried there.”
The site lies in the heart of an old Lipan Apache settlement established by the Spanish in 1790 as an attempt to end the centuries-long war with the Apache. In 1880, the settlement was renamed Lipanes, but later became known as Barrio de los Lipanes, a neighborhood within the city of Presidio.
As the city grew, it built on top of the old Apache camp and the cemetery, Rodriguez said. By the early 1900s, the city had surveyed the area and divided it into lots, slicing through the burial mound to install water lines, pave streets and erect buildings.
The cemetery, roughly the size of four city blocks, fell into disrepair and eventually the city graded an alley through it—all this despite protests from the Lipan, Rodriguez said.
“Graves were disturbed and whatever was in the path of the ditch digger, that was destroyed,” he said. “Our people never forgot the cemetery was there, but it was encroached upon.”
In 2012, the tribe mounted a concerted effort to protect the cemetery. It partnered with the Texas Historical Commission and the Presidio County Historical Commission to designate the site as a State Antiquities Landmark. The title was awarded in 2014.
“It’s not what you normally think of as a historic site,” said Trisha Runyan, a member of the Presidio County Historical Commission. “What I learned was that people know who is buried there. There are only two marked graves, but so many people have ties there.”
Calling the cemetery “emotionally important,” Runyan said the county historical commission hopes to research the area—possibly with sonar equipment to locate and identify all the graves.
In 2016, the city of Presidio voted to close the alley that cut through the cemetery, Mayor John Ferguson said. It worked with the tribe to plan a commemoration ceremony in February—which included construction of a temporary perimeter fence—and pledged to protect and restore the cemetery. A second ceremony planned for the fall will celebrate the installation of a permanent fence and a historic plaque at the site.
Ferguson lives four city blocks from the cemetery, he said. For 10 years, he drove past the site regularly.
“I felt bad about it because it was neglected,” he said. “Now, as mayor, I’m glad to be able to support the tribe and give the cemetery proper attention. We want to do the very best we can to make sure the site is protected and is once again a sacred place for the people.”
The site already is becoming a tourist destination for Lipan Apache and other people, Rodriguez said. He predicts the site will gain in popularity once the cemetery is restored and historic markers are in place.
“There’s been greater awareness in the community and a lot more interest even among the Lipan in their own history,” he said. “Commemoration of the cemetery is a great little reminder that the land used to be a Lipan Apache settlement.”