This summer, UT denied a request through the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act to return the remains of three Native American ancestors to the Miakan-Garza Band of the Coahuiltecan tribe. UT’s reasoning was that the Miakan-Garza people didn’t have substantial proof that the remains were from their people.
If you consider the history of Native Americans in Texas, this assertion becomes negligible.
It’s time for UT to do more in support of Indigenous groups and use its status as an esteemed institution to set an example for the treatment of Native Americans in this country. It is time to return the remains.
The remains that end up at Texas Archeological Research Lab are uncovered from road projects, construction or are transferred through past research. David Ochsner, director of public affairs for the College of Liberal Arts, said that while the lab respects tribal concerns, UT didn’t find adequate evidence of a link between the Miakan-Garza tribe and the remains in question.
“Who’s to say who has the right to get these remains if there's no scholarship or academic research that connects any tribe or any band to these remains?” Oscnher said. “You have a place, you have a rough age, but you don't have any associated artifacts to establish that there's any cultural linkages.”
Mario Garza, cultural preservation officer for the Miakan-Garza Band, and María Rocha, executive director of the Indigenous Cultures Institute, provided me with insight on how U.S. institutions use these types of technicalities in the restorative process to perpetuate oppression towards Indigenous groups.
For instance, the main reason UT declined to return the disputed remains to the Miakan-Garza Band was due to uncertainty regarding tribal affiliation, as the Native American Graves and Protection Act stipulates that repatriation cannot occur without established tribal affiliation.
That’s a hurdle that the U.S. put into place, and it’s not something Native people can always control.
According to the Native American and Graves Protection database, the three remains requested from UT were dug up from their graves in Hays County. They’re projected to be at least 500-1,000 years old. The only Native Americans populating this area at that time were the Coahuiltecan people, ancestors of the Miakan-Garza.
Before colonization by Europeans, Natives in the Texas area were considered a common people sharing the land. As the Miakan-Garza Band are considered Coahuiltecan people, it’s fair to conclude the ancestral remains belong to the tribe.
“We're connected to them forever, through the land, through Mother Earth,” Rocha said.
The tribe believes when a person dies, the physical body is buried, but the spirit begins a journey. The body needs to become part of Mother Earth again. Otherwise, the spirit enters eternal limbo, suspended in agony. This isn’t just a legal matter, but restoring spiritual sanctity to a centuries-old belief system of which UT has made a mockery.
“The main issue is that we have two different cultures with very opposing values,” Rocha said.
Despite the frustrating reality, the fight continues. This month, Indigenous students gathered in front of the UT tower for a dance demonstration, urging the University to bring justice to their ancestors. Petitions have been started, and emails from Native and non-Native students alike have been directed to Interim UT President Jay Hartzell.
“This is not going to go away for UT,” Rocha said. “They need to deal with it, and they need to do the right thing.”
Roland is a radio-television-film freshman from Houston, Texas.