Indigenous Peoples of the Coastal Bend’s Comment on the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act

The Indigenous Peoples of the Coastal Bend (IPCB) is an intertribal community group in Corpus  Christi, Nueces County, Texas. The tribes that are in this group include Karankawa Kadla, Lipan  Apache, Mexica, Comanche, and Coahuiltecan. We applaud the proposed changes to the  NAGPRA regulations that give greater weight to geography and traditional Indigenous knowledge when determining affiliation, and we believe that these and other changes will facilitate repatriation in many cases. However, we recognize that U.S. institutions hold tens of thousands of ancestral remains that will remain unaffiliated even after these new criteria are applied. Like many others who have posted comments on these proposed changes, we believe that consultation with non-federally recognized tribes is absolutely necessary for the return of these remains. We, therefore, urge the Department of the Interior to create an open path within  NAGPRA regulations for consulting with non-federally recognized Indigenous peoples who can establish cultural and/or geographic affiliation with their ancestors’ remains.  

The remains of 277 Indigenous people from Nueces County are held by seven institutions in four states. This is more than any other Texas county. Though only one of 254 such counties, the remains from Nueces alone make up more than eight percent of the Texas total currently held by museums. The museums have determined that these human remains are unaffiliated, but they actually belong to the Karankawa and their ancestors, the only Indigenous people with a  continuous and significant historical presence in Nueces County. The Karankawa consisted of five groups whose territory extended along the Texas coast from Galveston Bay to Corpus  Christi Bay and inland some thirty miles or more on the coastal plain. A total of 516 Native remains from these ten coastal Karankawa counties are held by thirteen institutions. This comprises over fifteen percent of Texas’ Indigenous remains, though these counties make up just four percent of the total number of counties and an even smaller fraction of the total area of the state. All of these remains have been deemed unaffiliated by the museums, yet all of them are likely Karankawas or ancestral to the Karankawa. The return of these ancestors would constitute a major step forward in fulfilling the promise of NAGPRA.  

Between 1996-2005, the remains of seven people were removed from the Cayo del Oso cemetery in Corpus Christi during a road improvement project by the Texas Department of Transportation  (TxDOT). At that time, the Gulf Coast Indian Confederation, a group of local Indigenous people,  sought to consult with TxDOT on the basis of the Confederation’s geographic affiliation with the cemetery. Their application was rejected because they were not a federally recognized tribe, nor  

could they establish cultural affiliation or lineal descent with the remains. Parties on both sides agreed the remains were ancestral to the Karankawa, but the Karankawa were then believed to be extinct. TxDOT consulted with five federally recognized tribes – Apache, Comanche, Kiowa,  Mescalero Apache, and Tonkawa – none of which could establish cultural or geographic affiliation with the remains. As a result, they were designated unaffiliated by the museum and are still in their collection today.  

This was a painful experience for the members of the Confederation. Instead of finding the justice and healing envisioned by NAGPRA, they experienced exclusion, even belittlement, from a cold bureaucracy. To their credit, local Indigenous people have not forgotten their obligation to care for the ancestors removed from the Cayo del Oso. Each year their chief spokesman, Larry  Running Turtle Salazar, a Mescalero Apache, and Corpus Christi spiritual leader, organizes a  prayer march to remember the dead, appease their spirits, and pray for their return. 

Perhaps these prayers are being answered. Circumstances have changed since the early 2000s,  giving hope for the potential return of these remains to their coastal burial ground. Over the last decade, over 150 people have come forward to claim and/or demonstrate Karankawa descent.  They call themselves Karankawa Kadla or mixed Karankawa. Contrary to the assumptions made in 2005, the Karankawa are not extinct. They are still here. They are revitalized. And they are prepared to work with institutions for the final disposition of their ancestors’ remains if the  Department of Interior will open a door in the regulations for consulting with non-federally recognized tribes in cases where no recognized tribe can establish geographic or cultural affiliation.  

In light of the disproportionately high number of Indigenous remains removed from the  Karankawas’ ancestral homeland; the painful history of exclusion experienced by non-federally recognized Indigenous peoples at the hands of institutions that hold their ancestors’ remains; and  the recent revitalization of the Karankawas as a people; the Indigenous Peoples of the Coastal  Bend recommends the following change to the proposed revisions:  

1. That in the case of all unclaimed human remains and associated funerary objects in the  custody of museums, whether or not they were found on federal or tribal lands;
2. Which are unclaimed because no federally recognized tribe has or can establish  geographic or cultural affiliation under the new rules;  

3. Museums may consult with non-federally recognized tribes or Indigenous groups for their disposition and reinterment if those tribes or groups can demonstrate geographic and/or cultural affiliation with the unclaimed remains and objects.

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