He got off his warrior horse and walked to the middle of the camp and opened the deerskin with his knife. As the contents fell to the ground, there came upon our people a silence as we saw that the hair of the Long Robes (Catholic priests) and Long Spears (soldiers) lay before us. My father raised his spear and said, “Los alcoholes del viento aquí yo chief de Naz`tazea del Carrizo, le traemos el ofrecimiento de nuestros enemigos. Demando esta pista como la pista nosotros fue tomada una vez de. Y nunca nos iremos otra vez. Excepto con muerte.”
“The spirits of the wind, here I, chief of Naz`tazea del Carrizo, bring you the offering of our enemies. I claim this track as the track we were once taken from. And we will never leave again. Except with death.” -Testimony of Manuel Cavazos of the Carrizo, sole survivor of the Devils River Massacre and great-great-grandfather of Juan B. Mancias, tribal chair of the Carrizo/Comecrudo Nation.
'We’re still here'
On June 3, U.S. Customs and Border Protection issued a statement announcing a section of the border wall currently under construction in the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas will be rerouted slightly to avoid disturbing graves in the Eli Jackson Cemetery of San Juan, Texas.
“It has never been CBP's intent to disturb or relocate cemeteries that may lie within planned barrier alignment," the statement said.
The announcement came in response to a public outcry that the border wall’s construction would plow right through the cemetery. Descendants of the cemetery’s founder, several political and environmental groups, and the Carrizo/Comecrudo tribe were afraid the historic graves would be damaged or desecrated.
The news came as a pleasant surprise to the residents of Yalui Village located adjacent to the cemetery where members of the Carrizo/Comecrudo tribe and their allies have been living since January 21.
“We’re still here,” Tribal Chair Juan Mancias told Indian Country Today when asked whether the village would now be disbanded. “We’re not going anywhere.”
About ten people currently live in tents at Yalui. Others sleep in towns nearby and come to the village during the day. Visitors regularly come from other parts of the country to volunteer for a few days or weeks. On average, about 15 people are at the camp on any given day.
They monitor construction activity on the border wall and keep watch over the cemetery, which was established by Nathaniel Jackson sometime after his arrival in 1857.
The cemetery, named after Jackson’s son Eli, contains about 150 graves from both the Union and Confederate sides of the Civil War, as well as veterans from World Wars I and II and the Korean War. Jackson’s descendants, many of whom married members of the Carrizo/Comecrudo tribe, also have graves there.
Earthjustice, a non-profit environmental law firm, filed a lawsuit in March against President Trump. The plaintiffs include the Carrizo/Comecrudo tribe, Jackson descendant Ramiro R. Ramirez, and several other organizations. The suit alleges President Trump caused the plaintiffs undue suffering by unlawfully declaring a National Emergency to force Congress to fund the wall.
It’s about more than the cemetery
Construction of the border wall will mark the third time Western civilization has damaged the Carrizo people with imaginary borders and intrusive infrastructure. According to a document discovered in the Texas Railroad Commission archives by current Carrizo/Comecrudo Tribal Chair Juan Mancias, a clan of the tribe was chased north across the Rio Grande River by Spanish soldiers and Catholic clergy in the late 1700s.
At one point, warriors led by Mancias’ great-great-great-grandfather, Chief Naz`tazea, led a raid on the encroaching Spanish. As recounted above, Chief Naz`tazea and his men returned to the tribe with a deerskin satchel filled with the scalps of Catholic priests, which he called “Long Robes” and Spanish soldiers, which he called “Long Spears.”
He told his people that never again would they leave their land, “except with death.”
The Devils River Massacre, 'Our Wounded Knee'
During the years after the raid, the Carrizo fought the Spanish alongside members of the Apache and the Kickapoo, with whom they had made an alliance. They fought because the Spanish regularly captured Native people and turned them into slaves.
Twelve years after the initial raid on the Spanish, the Carrizo, Apache and Kickapoo warriors engaged in a battle with them again. This time they returned to their village on Devils River after having lost two-thirds of their men.
According to the Texas Railroad Commission document discovered by Mancias, the Spanish entered the Carrizo village at Devils River one night in 1801 on horseback and slaughtered everyone there.
The son of Chief Naz`tazea, who was later known by his Western name, Manuel Cavazos, recounted in the document the horror of the massacre.
“As we slept, the Long Robes and Long Spears came into our camp during the night with horses and trampled and murdered our people. They raped our young sisters and murdered them in front of their elders before murdering them too. They put our little ones on spear tips and held them up for all to see. My sister was with child and Long Spears cut her with their knives where her unborn baby slept. The Long Spears gathered all the bodies of my people and burned them. Some were still alive and I could hear their screams.”
Manuel Cavazos, Mancias’ great-great-grandfather, who was only 11-years-old at the time, lay beside the river with a spear in his back, mistaken for dead by the Spanish soldiers. The next morning Cavazos awoke and discovered his village was gone, burned to the ground. The corpses of his people had been buried in one communal pit.
Many decades later, a railroad survey team discovered a burial mound that contained the skeletal remains of 325 people. Railroad officials tracked down a Carrizo elder they thought might know who the remains belonged to. That’s when Manuel Cavazos recounted the massacre he witnessed as a young boy. His testimony was dutifully recorded, filed away, and forgotten.
“It’s our Wounded Knee,” Tribal Chair Juan Mancias later said.
The spirit of a modern warrior
The encroachment and brutality of Western civilization has visited upon the Carrizo/Comecrudo again in the form of the border wall. The 18-foot high barrier with 150 to 200-foot buffer zones on each side cuts right through land along the Rio Grande occupied by the tribe for an estimated 10,000 years.
Twenty-eight federal laws, including the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act and the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, have been waived by the Department of Homeland Security to expedite the wall’s construction. Sacred peyote fields and ancient, undiscovered burial sites will be legally destroyed along the wall’s path.
“This is the third time something like this has happened to us,” Mancias said. “The first was the massacre at Devils River. The second was the coming of the railroad that unearthed the remains of our slaughtered relatives to clear the way for train tracks. And the third is this border wall.”
Mancias and his tribe have established several camps along the path of the impending border wall. They say they are ready to lie down in front of construction equipment if necessary. They are not political or environmental activists. They are Carrizo/Comecrudo, also known as the Esto’k Gna, who are protecting the land they’ve lived on for thousands of years. And, according to Mancias, they will not back down.
Currently, Yalui Village struggles with oppressive heat, lack of electricity and supplies, and too few volunteers. Those wishing to donate to their cause or help at one of their camps are invited to contact them via the Yalui Village Facebook page.
Frank Hopper is a Tlingit, Kaagwaantaan, freelance writer, born in Juneau, Alaska, and raised in Seattle. He now resides in Washington, D.C.