Garcia Pasture and the Struggle for Tribal Recognition

The Esto'k Gna Tribe are fighting to protect their ancestral land—but the federal government's refusal to grant recognition puts their most important heritage sites at risk.

The Esto’k Gna are the original inhabitants of much of what is now Texas and Mexico, an area they call Somi Se'k. Garcia Pasture, a wildlife-rich expanse of marshland near Brownsville, is one of their oldest sacred sites, a place where the Tribe has long practiced its traditional lifeways. The palpable sense of history at the site connects past and present and imbues Garcia Pasture with its unique atmosphere.

View of Garcia Pasture (2019) by Cindy CochranWorld Monuments Fund

Christa Mancias on what it feels like to visit Garcia Pasture

Gate preventing access to Garcia Pasture (2019) by Cindy CochranWorld Monuments Fund

Except that now, access to Garcia Pasture is being blocked. The Brownsville Navigation District is claiming ownership of the site, and the Army Corps of Engineers is preventing even the Esto'k Gna's Tribal chairman, Juan Mancias, from setting foot on the land.

World Monuments Fund (WMF) elevated Garcia Pasture to its Watch in 2022 to raise awareness both of the site’s cultural richness and its current plight. Central to the problem is the question of federal recognition, a bureaucratic hurdle with major ramifications for Tribal sovereignty and land rights.

Carrizo grass (1922) by US Department of AgricultureWorld Monuments Fund

The Colonization of Somi Se'k

When the Spanish invaded, they called the Tribe Comecrudo (“ones who eat raw”) or Carrizo, a catch-all term for several Native groups in the area derived from the reeds used to build houses. For this reason, the Esto'k Gna are also called the Carrizo/Comecrudo Tribe of Texas.

Mission Mary Calera Chapel, located near a spring sacred to the Esto'k Gna (2015) by Travis K. WittWorld Monuments Fund

The Spanish policies of missionizing and enslaving Native people had disastrous effects on the Esto'k Gna and other First Peoples. These attempts to uproot Tribes from their land and their traditions would continue as successive states lay claim to what is now Texas.

Map of Coahuila and Texas showing land grants to settlers (1833)World Monuments Fund

After Mexico won its independence in 1821, it offered large land grants to incentivize people to move to Texas and the neighboring state of Coahuila. The empresarios, as the settlers were known, were mostly white Southerners whose new homesteads displaced Native people.

Maffet Ledger: Battle at Adobe Walls (ca. 1874–81)The Metropolitan Museum of Art

First as an independent nation and then as a part of the United States, Texas would pursue an eliminationist policy towards Tribes, waging a decades-long war and removing many from their native land to what is now Oklahoma.

Christa Mancias, future chair of the Esto'k Gna, says that Texas exploited a series of loopholes to avoid fulfilling its legal obligations towards Native peoples.

Signing of the Treaty of Fort Laramie between the US and bands of the Lakota, Dakota, and Arapahoe Nations. Miscategornization and erasure make archival material related to the Esto'k Gna themselves hard to find. (1868)World Monuments Fund

Christa Mancias on the erasure of Texas's Native peoples

At present, the entire state is home to only three small reservations—all of them belonging to Tribes whose ancestral homelands were originally outside of Texas. Texas also currently lacks a system of state recognition for Tribes. Many non-native people living in Somi Se'k today have never heard of the Esto'k Gna. In an article for Free Press Houston, Juan wryly referred to his people as "the biggest Tribe you never learned about in your Texas history books."

View of Garcia Pasture (2019) by Rebekah HinojosaWorld Monuments Fund

The Struggle for Federal Recognition

Beginning in 1988, the Esto’k Gna began the process of seeking federal recognition for themselves. Such status confers a number of tangible benefits, from the ability to establish a sovereign government to land protections to funding for various social programs.

While the US government currently recognizes 574 Tribes, over 200 Native communities lack this status and are therefore ineligible for the rights and resources it would confer. Applying for recognition is no simple task: the process can be an expensive, decades-long process of gathering evidence and witnesses to satisfy the necessary criteria. The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) granted only two Tribes recognition in the entire ten-year period between 1984 and 1994.

By Tony LinckLIFE Photo Collection

The requirement to prove over a century of unbroken unity and ties to a territory can prove difficult given the dispossession and displacement to which Tribes have long been subjected.

Frontispiece of Linguistic Material from the Tribes of Southern Texas and Northern Mexico (1940) by John R. SwantonWorld Monuments Fund

Nevertheless, orally transmitted teachings, rock art, burial sites, and other evidence attest to the Esto’k Gna’s roots in Somi Se’k. Accounts from white travelers in the nineteenth century also establish the Tribe’s presence in the region.

But the Esto’k Gna’s petition for recognition has been under consideration for over three decades, due in part to the volume of cases the Bureau’s small team must go through.

Archeologists led by Gerard Fowke excavating a Native burial mound in what is now Missouri (1906-7)World Monuments Fund

One key benefit of recognition would be protection under the Native American Graves Protection & Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), which mandates that federally funded organizations return artifacts and remains taken from Tribal burial sites.

This is of particular importance to the Esto’k Gna, as a number of their ancestors’ remains have been removed from their sacred sites. The Tribe have long campaigned for the Witte Museum in San Antonio to return the human remains in its collection for reburial.

Archeologists led by Gerard Fowke excavating a Native burial mound in what is now Missouri (1906-7)World Monuments Fund

Juan Mancias on ancestors' remains in museum collections

It’s believed that some of the remains even come from Garcia Pasture itself. But because the Esto’k Gna do not have federal recognition, the museum is under no legal obligation to accede to the Tribe's request.

Road at Garcia Pasture by UnknownWorld Monuments Fund

Juan Mancias on the sale of stolen Esto'k Gna remains

2017 Protest at the Witte Museum

Fossil fuel infrastructure along the shipping channel next to Garcia Pature (2019) by Cindy CochranWorld Monuments Fund

Another source of concern is the proposed extension of a liquid natural gas pipeline across Garcia Pasture, which if completed would deal a disastrous blow to the landscape and to the ability of the Esto’k Gna to maintain their traditional lifeways.

The Esto’k Gna have long kept the exact location of Garcia Pasture a secret in order to protect it from looters. Now, the Tribe says, the Army Corps of Engineers is exploiting that fact and refusing to define the site’s boundaries, which could potentially allow them to be redrawn in fossil fuel developers’ favor.

Protest outside of Garcia Pasture by UnknownWorld Monuments Fund

But far from being consulted on these matters, the Tribe has been barred from setting foot on their land. In the process, they’ve been cut off from the ancestors buried there and from the lifeways that are intimately tied to the land and its wildlife.

Fighting Erasure

Federal recognition would not be a silver-bullet solution to the issues facing the Esto’k Gna and their land. For one thing, it can be capricious: in the 1950s, for instance, the U.S. government stripped over 100 Tribes of their recognition, part of a renewed assimilationist push known as termination. Large-scale land grabs of previously protected Tribal areas followed. Juan also sees a certain bitter irony in needing to request affirmation of his identity from the powers that be.

Shipping channel near Garcia Pasture (2019) by Cindy CochranWorld Monuments Fund

Juan Mancias on federal recognition

But it would represent a victory over the continued erasure of the Tribe and its history—something that Christa still sees in the Texas education system’s treatment of topics related to the land’s original peoples.

Gate at Garcia Pasture by UnknownWorld Monuments Fund

Christa Mancias on how public schools in Texas teach Native history

Since 2022, World Monuments Fund has been working with the Esto'k Gna to support their calls for recognition—both from the federal government and from members of the general public who may be unaware of the Tribe's history and continued presence in their homeland. The fight to save Garcia Pasture is only the latest part of a centuries-long struggle against colonization—and represents the enduring bond between people and land in defiance of successive waves of displacement.

View of Bahia Grande next to Garcia Pasture (2019) by Rebekah HinojosaWorld Monuments Fund

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