Alamo burials to be exhumed to help save historic church in downtown San Antonio

A local Native American group honored buried descendants during their 25th Annual Sunrise Ceremony at the Alamo on Saturday, Sept. 7, 2019. Ramon Juan Vasquez, executive director of American Indians in Texas at the Spanish Colonial Missions, along with over 60 people who claim ancestry with the Native Indians who are buried on the grounds of the Alamo, formed a circle in front of the church to pray and honor their descendants. In the past, the group was allowed to have the service inside the chapel but were told days before the event that the service would not be permitted inside the Alamo. With a noticeable presence of Alamo security officers and chain blocking the walking to the front doors, the group formed a circle on Alamo Plaza to air their grievances and to remember their descendants. Vasquez and the group was joined by State Senator Jose Mendendez, State Rep. Leo Pacheco and Poet Laureate Carmen Tafolla who all expressed dismay that the indigenous group would not be allowed to pray and honor their loved ones inside the Alamo. Despite the prohibition, members of the Tap Pilam Coahuiltecan Nation and other indigenous people paid their respects on the ground by the front of the Alamo. A shell filled with sage slowly burned and filled the early morning sky with wafts of smoke - which traditionally serves to bless and purify - as the service ended just as the sun rose over the Alamo. (Kin Man Hui/San Antonio Express-News)

The following story was written by Scott Huddleston, Staff Writer with the San Antonio Express News, and was published on April 26, 2020.

The Texas Historical Commission approved a controversial plan Saturday to exhume four partly intact sets of skeletal remains at the Alamo, allowing badly needed preservation work to continue on the mission-era church.

On a 5-0 vote, the commission’s executive committee approved the Texas General Land Office’s request for a permit that provides an option to use DNA testing, which has been the subject of heated debate at the historic mission and battle site.

The Land Office, which had been dueling with two descendants groups over the handling of human remains, is determined not to let the coronavirus pandemic slow its efforts to save the iconic limestone church and adjacent Long Barrack from decay.

Commission executive director Mark Wolfe told commissioners during the teleconference meeting that deciding how to deal with DNA analysis was critical.

“Some cultural groups support destructive testing of human remains to extract DNA. Others find it offensive,” Wolfe said. “So we were attempting to find a path that would respect and respond to both perspectives.”

In the end, the commission didn’t order DNA testing, instead authorizing project archaeologists and commission staff to determine when and how it should be used.

A pending permit to move the Cenotaph monument in Alamo Plaza was not discussed Saturday.

Steve Tomka, principal investigator on the project and director of the cultural resources program at Raba Kistner, consultant to the Land Office and nonprofit Alamo Trust, said afterward that getting the permit was crucial to advancing the efforts to save the church, which experts have described as structurally fragile.

Its hollow limestone walls have been bearing the weight of a concrete roof since 1920.

“My concern as an archaeologist is to move forward with a process, because really our main goal is to preserve the building,” Tomka said.

Under the plan, archaeologists will clean, document and remove the human remains and store them in a collections vault on the Alamo grounds. This will allow the placement of sensors and other work to continue in the areas where the remains were found.

Once the work is done, the burials likely will be reinterred in a chamber of the church known as the Monk’s Burial Room, where one of the sets of remains was discovered.

New mystery

While the key objective is to save the church from structural degradation or potential collapse, the digs have generated tantalizing mysteries, including the discovery of at least one and possibly two coffins.

Some believe one of the coffins might have contained the body of an Alamo defender whose corpse was spared being burned on a funeral pyre after the legendary 1836 battle.

Lee Spencer White, president of the Alamo Defenders Descendants Association, has gathered evidence she says suggests Native Americans at the Mission San Antonio de Valero and Spanish and Mexican troops stationed there later did not bury their dead in coffins.

She supports DNA testing that she said could reveal the existence of a 1836 defender’s remains in the church, where some 1.6 million visitors pass through reverently when the site is open.

“As a matter of fact, no early burials in San Antonio are in coffins,” White said. “Only logical answer is it’s a defender. Clearly, it’s a reburial in a coffin.”

But the Alamo’s on-site archaeologist, Kristi Miller Nichols, challenges White’s theory.

She said coffin burials of indigenous people, mission priests and other mission inhabitants have been documented at Mission San Juan and in mission sites elsewhere, including Florida and New Mexico.

“Overwhelming evidence in San Antonio refutes claims that only the later Anglo residents and defenders of the Alamo could be buried in a coffin at the site,” Nichols wrote in a letter to the commission.

For his part, Tomka said he couldn’t speculate — based on the discovery of the “outline of a coffin” at one of the burial sites and remnants of a “hexagonal encasement” at another that suggests a second possible coffin — what the identity might be of those unearthed remains.

“Right now, the only things that we know about the remains associated with a coffin is that we have a coffin,” Tomka said. “It’s a long ways away before we know the answers to those questions.”

Cenotaph in limbo

Critics of the master plan for renovating Alamo Plaza are waiting for the commission’s decision on another permit sought by the General Land Office and city of San Antonio to move the Cenotaph moument in Alamo Plaza that honors the Alamo defenders.

Relocating the 1930s monument is part of the $15 million, city-funded first phase of a larger $400 million-plus Alamo Plaza makeover.

White’s group is among those opposed to moving the 58-foot-tall marble monument to a location about 500 feet from where it stands now, saying it would dishonor the defenders. Another protest was held at Alamo Plaza on Saturday, attracting about 60 people despite city restrictions against gatherings designed to slow the spread of the deadly novel coronavirus. At the protest, speaker after speaker thundered their mantra, “Not an inch!”

But the issue was not on the executive committee’s agenda Saturday.

Chris Florance, communications director with the commission, said the agency’s board, now using teleconference meetings because of the COVID-19 pandemic, “wants to have an in-person meeting in Austin in mid-June” to take up the matter of the Cenotaph.

Protocol battle

White’s group is also in a legal battle with the Land Office and nonprofit Alamo Trust to participate in implementing a human remains treatment protocol created last year at the Alamo.

But the descendants association’s lawsuit was dismissed by state District Judge Maya Guerra Gamble in Travis County last week, after lawyers for the trust and other defendants argued the association members lacked standing in the case.

White said she’ll keep fighting for access to the human remains process.

Meanwhile, the Tap Pilam Coahuiltecan Nation still has its lawsuit pending in federal and state court in San Antonio over the handling of human remains; it, too, wants to participate in the process.

Ramón Vasquez, executive member of the Tap Pilam Coahuiltecan Nation, supports DNA testing, but doesn’t have faith it ever will be used.

The protocol for handling human remains found at the Alamo was developed and is guided by a committee of federally recognized tribal organizations. The panel doesn’t include Tap Pilam, which is not federally recognized, but includes descendants of indigenous members of tribal bands from South Texas.

“If we don’t have a say so, or are not participating in what that looks like, then again it’s an injustice to the lineal descendants, who I think have shown their sincerity about these remains,” Vásquez said Saturday.

He believes the four burials to be exhumed are all indigenous.

“If they’re American Indians, they’re going to be of the Coahuiltecan stock,” Vásquez said.

For the first time, the Alamo Trust presented testimony from an expert challenging the benefits of DNA testing, as well as Tap Pilam’s estimates on how many people buried at the Alamo were Coahuiltecan.

Kimberly TallBear, associate professor of Native Studies at the University of Alberta in Canada, backed the Alamo’s tribal consultants in a letter to the commission, saying DNA testing most likely would be unethical and ineffective.

“DNA alone cannot tell us who living today has the greatest cultural claim to and stake in those ancient remains,” said TallBear, a Cheyenne-Arapaho descendant.

The Alamo Trust, meanwhile, estimates that the percent of “Coahuiltecan-speaking indigenous” people among the 1,000-plus mission burials was at least 33 percent, but no more than 47 percent.

In his own letter to the commission, Alamo CEO Douglass W. McDonald said the human remains treatment policy “is inclusive and does not preclude the engagement and counsel of other local indigenous or local non-indigenous descendant communities depending on the results and data revealed as part of the project.”

City Councilman Robert Treviño, who earlier this month was elected chairman of the six-member Alamo Management Committee, said Saturday’s approval keeps a key component of the Alamo project moving forward. He vowed to “ensure the process is a transparent one as this transformational project continues to unfold.”

Vásquez, who has served on the project’s 30-member Alamo Citizen Advisory Committee since it was formed in 2014, said he’s afraid the unearthed remains will “sit on shelves for years,” as others from missions such as San Juan have, at university archaeological labs.

“It’s a stain that our children are going to inherit,” Vásquez said.

Even though the permit period is for 10 years, Tomka said it won’t take nearly that long to do the work.

“Months for certain. Our project will not go on for 10 years. We have many other things that we need to take care of,” he said.