Texas Parks & Wildlife Magazine   


Common Ground

Scholarship program brings Native Americans together with archaeologists at weeklong archaeological field school.

By Rae Nadler-Olenick

Last June, as Menard's residents celebrated the 250th anniversary of Mission /Presidio San Saba - settlements founded in 1757 for the purpose of Christianizing the local Lipan Apaches - a present-day Lipan stood on a riverbank beneath a bluff examining two chipped flakes of flint he'd picked up off the ground.

"This is all new to me," said Domingo "Ringo" Carrillo, an elder of the Lipan Apache Band of Texas, who with his wife Donna was in Menard attending the Texas Archeological Society's (TAS) annual Field School under its Native American Scholarship Program.

Carrillo, 68, grew up in a Lipan neighborhood of Kingsville immersed "about 50-50" in his traditional heritage. He learned about the natural world around him, but not the cultural artifacts, like stone points, from an earlier time. And he recalls a youth in which his people were pressed to Hispanicize and forbidden to speak their own language.

The Carrillos were among 18 Native Americans, aged 7 to 68, from six native groups, who took part in the 2007 Field School.

Since 1962 several hundred archaeology buffs of all ages, professional and avocational, have gathered each June at sites around the state for a week of serious work, education and fun. But until a few years ago, indigenous Americans had rarely attended. Relations between predominantly Anglo archaeologists and the native peoples whose artifacts and sacred places they study have historically been thorny, burdened by issues surrounding the proper treatment of unearthed relics and remains.

Margaret Howard, an archaeologist with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and a former TAS president, wanted to change all that.

"Both sides wanted better relations," she says. "Our idea was to build relationships based on respect by spending time side by side rather than across a conference table."

In 2002 Howard proposed a plan to foster intercultural understanding through a scholarship program. The TAS board promptly threw its support behind the effort, creating a multicultural committee to explore the possibilities and chipping in with seed money. The scholarship was launched in June 2003, with five Native Americans from three tribal groups in attendance.

It has grown steadily since then. Today it's independently funded, chiefly through contributions from individuals and archaeology-related organizations. Stepped-up recruiting efforts - including personal visits to tribal elders in multiple states, and sponsorship of booths at Native American powwows around Texas - have drawn nearly 50 members of the Caddo, Comanche, Kiowa, Choctaw, Delaware, Lipan Apache, Oklahoma Seminole, Kickapoo, Cherokee, Tap Pilam Coahuiltecan, and even Inuit to the Field School to date.

They come from varied backgrounds, with varied expectations.

Ruth Caron of San Antonio came to enjoy a vacation with her 13-year-old son Vem Abloogalook, who's registered with the Sitnasuak Native Corporation, his father's Nome, Alaska-based Inuit community. "It's been so much fun," she says, relaxing near the San Saba River after a hot day of excavation while Vem tries his hand at fishing.

Skyler Robinson and two of his colleagues from the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma historic preservation office in Durant wanted survey training to upgrade their professional credentials: the three are responsible for restoration of historic Native American cemeteries throughout ten and a half Oklahoma counties. Although Robinson, 48, spent years as a land surveyor before taking his present job, he found that archaeological survey goes well beyond compass and topographic map.

Archaeological survey - defined as the systematic effort to locate, describe and record archaeological sites in relation to their natural setting - integrates conventional compass measurement with such unique methods as counting distance in paces, recognizing visual landmarks, identifying surface features and classifying soils by their texture.

The Menard Field School took place in two locations.

Presidio San Saba, the excavation site, lies at the edge of the town's manicured municipal golf course. This Spanish Colonial fort, which was occupied between 1757 and 1772, yields a rich record of the 300 men, women and children who called it home. Field School excavators armed with shovels, trowels and other tools of the archaeologist's trade spent their week digging for clues to the inhabitants' daily lives.

Nine miles away, in wilder territory, San Saba River Ranch holds traces of indigenous peoples from a far earlier era. Flint tools and knapping debris, fire-blackened rock, and large features such as hearths, cairns (stone mounds) and middens (refuse disposal areas) signal the presence of Archaic residents some 1,500 to 4,500 years ago. Here, the surveyors scoured the landscape for signs of early inhabitancy.

Jesus J. "Jesse" Reyes Jr. of the Tap Pilam Coahuiltecan Nation (who brought along his son Julian, 13, daughter Alexis, 10, and a family friend from the same nation, Auburn Gonzalez, 16) is a scholar, more at home poring over old documents in libraries and archives than plowing through brush. Reyes is passionate about preserving his group's native Pajalate language: He recently earned his bachelor's degree in anthropology and history from the University of Texas at San Antonio and plans to study for a doctorate in linguistics.

Yet the four-time scholarship recipient from San Antonio was eager to gain hands-on survey experience in the ranch's rough terrain.

Prior to setting out, all those who planned to survey - a group of 20 or so - took a one-day training course taught by professional archaeologists. Howard organized the special class to bring everyone up to speed, since archaeological survey training is considered an advanced Field School activity, ordinarily limited to experienced crew chiefs.

"But we also make it available to our scholarship people as an alternative to excavation," she explains. "We show them what we're looking for, how it looks and how they could do it themselves."

After completing the class, surveyors headed for the ranch. By week's end, they had identified and recorded six sites from the Archaic and late prehistoric periods through features like burned rock middens (indicative of cooking) and bedrock mortars (circular holes in the rock used for grinding seeds and other plant foods).

Meanwhile, back at the fort, excavation proceeded briskly. Long-buried sections of stone wall emerged. Diggers carried paper bags of their finds to the temporary lab - housed in the golf course clubhouse - for processing.

Julian Reyes, working with the adults, had just found a fossilized oyster shell.

"It's interesting, learning history ... where they lived, what they ate," says Julian, who was attending his third Field School.

Not far away, Lyandra Valdez, 16, of the Kickapoo Traditional Tribe of Texas, and Field School regular Doris Howard, sifting dirt together, discovered two small pieces of brass filigree from a decorated gunstock caught in their screen.

The children's area was a beehive of excited activity. Seven-year-old Kenny Joe LeMieux and friends proudly delivered a bag of bone fragments they'd dug up themselves to the lab. Across the fairway his mother, Nancy, took turns digging and sifting dirt through a screen. The LeMieuxes, of Austin, are members of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma.

After a long hot morning of fieldwork, TAS Field Schoolers may welcome the chance to relax. Yet archaeology endeavors don't end with the 7 a.m.-1 p.m. work session. Afternoons and evenings quickly fill up with a smorgasboard of supplementary lectures, field trips and workshops. Native Americans customarily make their own contribution to the program.

At the 2007 Field School, two Tap Pilam Coahuiltecans gave talks born of their experiences as members of a group historically under pressure to abandon its indigenous religion and Pajalate language and adopt Mexican ways.

Ray Hernandez, a tribal elder, spoke of his grandfather's early forced conversion to Catholicism and of his own journey of spiritual rediscovery and his commitment to helping reverse the trend of assimilation among his people.

Jesse Reyes shared his passion for ethnohistory - the study of past cultures using evidence primarily from documentary sources and oral traditions. His children Julian and Alexis and their friend Auburn, who are all studying Pajalate, regaled the audience with two traditional Pajalate social songs celebrating nature and the family.

Not all Field School activities are geared to education. Recreation and socializing are another big part of the mix. Activities like fishing, swimming and canoeing on the San Saba River - or simply hanging out together at mealtimes - brought people of all backgrounds together in a relaxed, comfortable setting. By the end of the Field School, its participants could look back on a week of productive work topped with new friendships.

Surveyors and excavators could be proud of their finds: newly identified prehistoric sites, and discoveries about the architecture of Presidio San Saba and of daily life there. Diggers near the fort's stone walls found markers of the small cell-like rooms in which the soldiers may have lived with their dependents, along with a wealth of European artifacts: musketballs, gun parts, horse equipment, ceramic tableware fragments, old glass, jewelry and more mundane items like the bones of food and work animals, shells and daub (mortar). They also found some indigenous arrowheads.

Tamra Walter, of Texas Tech University, the principal investigator at Presidio San Saba, believes the arrowheads are from roughly the time of Spanish occupation.

"There were tribes attacking the Presidio, and sometimes each other," says Walter, who's been excavating there since 2000. "And after the fort was gone, they came back. Resources like a river and abundant game animals made it an attractive spot for encampment or settlement." Apache, Comanche, Wichita, Kitsai and Caddo are among the native groups who played a role in the local history.

Native Americans say the scholarship fulfilled its intended purpose well.

For Jesse Reyes, the Field School was a continuation of his ongoing scholarly work. Observes Reyes: "Today, people don't listen to oral history, they listen to professors. We need to tell our story as educated people. My role is to guide my children in the direction of research."

Nancy LeMieux and her nature-loving son relished working with others in the outdoors. "It's a nice way for the two of us to have a vacation together," she says. "We'll come every year and he'll make friends. It will be like a family for him."

Skyler Robinson took advantage of both networking and educational opportunities. "I got a lot out of it," says Robinson, who returned home with a collection of e-mail addresses and new ideas on how to advance his archaeological interests and training.

Ringo Carrillo, whose ancestors once roamed the region, sums it up: "We were glad to be part of it," he says. "There was an aura about the place. We could feel that we belonged there." Carrillo has already used his newly acquired survey skills - in the planning of an Apache girls' puberty ceremony - to determine the proper alignment of ceremonial space with respect to the sun and natural landmarks. "We loved it," he concludes. "We had heard some negative things [about archaeologists] in the past. But once you're involved, you can see how much they are helping."

The 2008 Field School will be held in Perryton in the Panhandle at two historic sites - one military and one civilian - and one prehistoric site. For further information on the scholarship, visit www.txarch.org/scholarships/native.html.

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