Tribal Council Says Alamo Management Violated Religious Freedom

Ramon Vasquez, spokesperson for the Tap Pilam Coahuiltecan Nation, speaks at a press conference in San Antonio, Texas, on Tuesday, Sept. 10. (Daniel Conrad / CNS)

SAN ANTONIO – (CN) – An indigenous nation, a member of its tribal council and the San Antonio Missions Cemetery Association filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday morning against the Alamo’s management and related government agencies, claiming these entities violated the nation’s constitutional right to freely exercise their religion.

On Saturday, Alamo administrators cited safety concerns when they barred the Tap Pilam Coahuiltecan Nation from concluding “La Semana de Recuerdos,” an annual remembrance ceremony honoring the ancestors they say are interred under the Texas mission. Saturday would have marked the 25th such celebration.

“For the past 24 years we’ve been greeted by smiling Rangers, welcoming us into the chapel,” said Ramon Vasquez, spokesperson for the group. “This year we were greeted by chains and 14 uniformed officers. Our children had to witness that.”

There was an intermittent drizzle as Vasquez stood between the corner of the Alamo plaza and the U.S. federal bankruptcy court to address journalists at a Tuesday morning press conference in which he likened the legal battle to a “David and Goliath scenario.”

“We were taken back to the ’50s, with no other reason than to say that it was for our own safety,” Vasquez said. “Yet, in the same letter that they denied us access, they tell us that it is only open to the public tours.”

While the lawsuit notes the denial to the Alamo chapel Saturday, much of it takes aim at the $450 million Alamo “reimagination plan,” which will close streets near the Alamo, convert businesses across the street into a museum and move the Alamo Cenotaph, an almost 60-foot-tall statue memorializing those who fought for Texas in the 1836 Battle of the Alamo.

An Alamo spokesperson told Courthouse News that the management does not comment on pending litigation.

Vasquez has served as a member of the Alamo Citizens Advisory Committee, which played a significant role in crafting the reimagination plan. The lawsuit says that the Texas General Land Office and Alamo Trust Inc., which manages the site, refused to incorporate proper human remains protocols or follow cemetery protection laws in the plan. 

There is a question as to whether the Alamo counts as a cemetery at all. In July, the Texas Historical Commission denied official cemetery status to the Alamo, unanimously passing a resolution stating that “some evidence of human internment” may exist, but “until archaeological investigations confirm the presence of interred burials, the cemetery remains unverified.”

In retort, the nation’s members point to the mission’s “surviving burial book,” which they brought to Tuesday’s press conference. It lists more than 1,300 names of indigenous and other people buried at the mission, the group says.

The lawsuit notes that a 2005 Bexar County Cemetery Survey indexed one such cemetery as “Alamo Cemetery,” and that this same site is listed in the Texas Historical Commission’s Historic Sites Atlas as “deemed worthy of recognition as a Historic Texas Cemetery.”

Other Tap Pilam leaders spoke at the conference.

“I’ll ask you this. Do you believe for one minute that if it was your family’s history … would you not be standing here?” asked Raymond Hernandez, the council member named as an individual plaintiff in the lawsuit, at the press conference. “This is humiliating. This is shameful for me because the next generation is going to have to continue to struggle.”

“To ask us to ignore what we know – in terms of the cemetery, in terms of 1,300 people being buried there – and to erase that history, those names and their physical resting place, is genocide,” Vasquez said. “I don’t know how else you can call it.”

The federal government has not recognized Tap Pilam as an indigenous tribe, which the group says should not be an obstacle to their involvement in forming preservation protocols. A bill that would have granted state recognition to the Tap Pilam Coahuiltecan Nation was passed by the House but never left a Senate committee before the Texas legislature adjourned in May.

The plaintiffs are asking the court to enjoin defendants from excluding the nation from the Human Remains Protocol committee, from proceeding with construction entailed in the Alamo reimagination plan until the indigenous group is “included in the project,” and for nominal damages, attorney fees and court costs.

The lawsuit, filed in the San Antonio division of the Western District of Texas, names Alamo Trust Inc. and its CEO Douglass McDonald, the Texas General Land Office and its commissioner George P. Bush, the Texas Historical Commission, and the City of San Antonio as defendants.

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