The recent opening on the eastside of downtown San Antonio of the American Indians in Texas at the Spanish Colonial Missions [AITSCM] center is a significant accomplishment. San Antonio is one of a few cities where such centers exist. San Antonio mission families, many of them with Indian and Latino legacies, made this center possible by forming the nonprofit AITSCM in the early 1990s.
Ramon Juan Vasquez, the director of AITSCM since 1998, speaks daily to visitors about a rich history of the San Antonio Mission Indians, a topic that has long been misunderstood or taught as an afterthought in Texas classrooms. Many of the historical books about San Antonio provide little information about the first people of Texas. In my research on the first residents of this region I found a vast scholarship gap and many historical misconceptions. Thus, I am including some historical background that explains why American Indians and the missions where they lived are as important to San Antonio as other more popular tourist sites such as the Alamo.
The Tāp Pīlam Coahuiltecan Nation has been in the San Antonio region for centuries. Coahuiltecans and their ancestors lived along the banks of the San Antonio River some 12,000 years before Spaniards intruded on their territory in the late 1600s. The Spanish Governor of Texas, Governor Domingo Teran, noted in 1691, that the native people called themselves Peyaye [Payaya] Indians and lived in what he described as “rancherias.” There were hundreds of rancherias in this region. The Coahuiltecan Indians, who called the San Antonio River “Yanaguana” (Land of the Spirit Waters), lived in those rancherias. “Guana” in the Coahuiltecan language and “wana” both meant water. Various tribes moved back and forth across the Rio Grande from what is present-day Texas into present-day Mexico for centuries before the arrival of the first Spanish Colonial settlers in the late 1600s from the northern Mexican states of Nuevo Leon and Coahuila.
Following the founding of the settlement of San Antonio de Valero in 1718, the Spanish Governor of the Texas territory, Don Martin de Alarcon named the Xarame chief, Santiago Ximenes, as the Alcalde and First Governor of the Indian nations. The mention of Santiago Ximenes and Nicolas Ximenes who served in 1703 in Mission San Juan Bautista on the Rio Grande suggests that some of the Indians living in the San Antonio missions also came from other regions. The first large infrastructure project for the new pueblo of San Antonio included the irrigation of agricultural fields the missions. The massive undertaking required digging large ditches from the San Antonio River to the mission lands and surrounding Indian agricultural compounds.
I learned recently from a Texas Public Radio interview that the Indians of [Bexar] were given the keys to their missions on March 5, 1731. Although the San Juan Capistrano Mission had its origins in 1716 in East Texas [Nacodoches County], the East Texas Mission was relocated to the San Antonio River in 1731.
The Texas State Historical Association notes that In 1762 at least 203 Native Americans resided at San Juan Capistrano. The mission owned 1,000 cattle, 3,500 sheep and goats, and a horse herd of 100. Construction of a separate church was begun, but it was never completed, and services were held in a large room in the monastery.
The Spaniards introduced cattle, pigs, goats, and sheep to the Americas, but in the missions of San Antonio, Indians raised the animals to feed the community. The Indians also raised horses and oxen utilized for transportation, exploration, and warfare. In much of South Texas the mission Indians were among the first “cowboys” or vaqueros. The mission Indians were excellent horsemen and were needed to round up cattle and wild horses. Over time, San Antonio grew as more mestizos–those of Mexican and Indian heritage– moved from the Mexican interior states. Thus, it can be argued that the mission Indians, who made up the majority of San Antonio’s population, were the first true cowboys of the West.
One of the AITSCM’s principal goals is to educate their own community, as well as all Texans about the Native American contributions to Europe and Africa. When the Spanish first encountered the Indians of the Americas they found gardens and cultivated agricultural fields. The exchange of food and animals began from the first encounters. Corn, potatoes, and beans represented
some of the greatest contributions of native Indian food of the Americas to the rest of the world. By the 1700s, Indians living on the mission fields of San Antonio survived and fed the Spanish padres and soldiers with traditional New World products such as corn, potatoes, beans, squash, peppers, peanuts, tomatoes, and pumpkins. Scholars note that food products from the Americas contributed to an agricultural revolution in Europe and Africa.
The Modern Era
In 1994 the Tāp Pīlam Coahuiltecan Nation families from San Antonio’s five Spanish colonial missions and missions of Northeastern Mexico organized as the American Indians in Texas at the Spanish Colonial Missions [AITSCM]. Historians have established that the Tāp Pīlam Coahuiltecans are descendants of the aboriginal people who populated South Texas and
Northeast Mexico centuries ago.
Olivia Sanchez, a native of Von Ormy, Texas which is located 20 miles south of San Antonio, is the mother of Ramon Vasquez y Sanchez and grandmother of Ramon Juan Vasquez. Ramon Juan Vasquez is a third-generation American Indian activist and community organizer. His grandmother, Olivia Sanchez, one of the leaders of the Native American Voter’s League in the 1930s, fought for inclusion of Native Americans in Mexican Patriotic Celebrations in San Antonio. The Mexican Consulate, supported by LULAC, the influential Mexican American social and legal organization, excluded Mexican Indians from the ceremonies on Mexican Independence Day in San Antonio. An early criticism of the Mexican Patriotic Clubs centered around their decision to deny participation of Mexicans of Indian heritage in their social and patriotic activities.
Ramon Vasquez y Sanchez made an early
commitment to Tāp Pīlam Coahuiltecan Nation heritage and served as one of the founders of the American Indians of Texas. A current exhibit at AITSCM by the talented artist Vasquez y Sanchez reveals a deep love of his American Indian culture. The missions are a major theme of the art works by Vasquez y Sanchez.
The Vasquez family were among the mission families who became more active in the late 1960s following the destruction of the mission Indian burial grounds at San Juan Mission by a team of university archaeologists. The university research team excavated the burial site of the mission Indians and removed the remains of more than 150 individuals. The human remains were parceled out to various universities and museums. Thanks to the Tāp Pīlam Coahuiltecan Nation and AITSCM’s efforts, the ancestral remains were returned and reburied at San Juan mission in the late 1990s. The AITSCM has also been the leading voice opposed to proposed efforts by Alamo officials to pave over the cemeteries surrounding the Alamo.
Today Ramon Juan Vasquez is committed to maintaining health, education, and cultural programs at the AITSCM for the America Indian people of San Antonio. He believes that Texas history books either neglect the Indian presence or distort important past events. Karla Aguilar, a member of the Auteca Paguame tribe of the Tāp Pīlam Coahuiltecan Nation, told Texas Public Radio that “generations of San Antonians have been shamed out of their heritage.” She spoke of an identity crisis in SanAntonio among Latinos and American Indians, noting: “To this day, people would rather identify their ancestral lineage as Canary Islander rather than Native American because there’s this underlying prejudice against being Indian, or la indiada.”
As American Indians urbanize in great numbers across the United States, there is a need for health, social, and cultural programs. Although the Indian Reservations have important historical meaning for many American Indian groups, large cities where jobs and educational opportunities are more plentiful continue to attract young American Indians. The nonprofit American Indians in Texas at the Spanish Colonial Missions [AITSCM] Center in San Antonio is emerging as a model institution for making life better for Native Americans and preserving their history and cultural heritage