Blessing of the Great Mystery

Do you guys remember 1492? When Columbus sailed the ocean blue and all that and discovered America? Maybe you dozed off a little because the classroom was nice and warm and you’d just had tater tots in the lunchroom and a fly was droning around pleasantly.

When you startled yourself awake the teacher was talking about the pilgrims, you got a little mixed up and got ahold of an idea that Columbus drove the Mayflower over and wore one of those pointy hats and had big buckles on his shoes.

Something like that. I know memories can be tricky – how they can be affected by things that we learn later on in life – but I swear I can remember wondering during that lesson about this: If Columbus discovered America, then how was it possible that there were already a whole bunch of people here to welcome them?


Well now I’m all grown up and that still seems like a valid point. A lot of other people must’ve felt the same way, since poor Columbus has gotten a lot of flak over these last twenty or thirty years. I’ve also discovered this other thing too, with advancing age that is: the older I get, the less black and white things are, and the more I see these thousands, even millions, of different shades of gray to all the issues that once seemed so open and shut. This is one of those things that I think about: here’s this thing we call ‘social media’ for instance – Facebook, to be specific, since I’ve been forbidden by my children to fool around with Snapchat and all that other stuff. Facebook, along with whatever else it is, is this place where people of all ages and colors and genders and beliefs are all mixed up together, and you get this unique opportunity to see how all these different people are feeling about the same issues. (Oh, and believe me, it’s not always a positive experience as you’ll quickly realize when you get that friend request from a guy you haven’t seen since high school and you’re like ‘Jerry! I wonder what that old so-and-so is up to these days.’ Then you find out it’s a far better thing to just content yourself with fond memories of ol’ Jer razzing the cafeteria lady instead of reconnecting with him now that he’s a camera-happy nudist and a zealous Amway rep.) Social media is just this really good place to observe people, like my sister and I used to do at the food court at North Star Mall, only on Facebook you get to observe the workings of their minds, in a way, and one thing you notice is how adamant people are! They’re always so positive that there’s only one absolutely, irrefutably correct stance on any given issue and simply no other way of looking at the thing – and that just isn’t true. The world really doesn’t work like that, where there’s one right answer and one wrong one, where one group of people are all saints and the other side is completely evil. I mean, you’re not going to come across a lot of people who say, ‘Eh, well, Hitler did have his good points too’, but most people and most situations are more complicated than just good vs. evil, you know?

I’m talking about European settlement in the United States and the indigenous people whose land this was already when the white people got here, like we’re going to be doing this month, is always a tricky proposition. It’s such a sad story of conquest, disease, violence, racism, and genocide. It’s difficult to see heroes in any of the people who took part in that ruination of a whole civilization. Believe me, when you get into any kind of research at all about what the white people did to the Indians – and equally on the other end of the spectrum, what the Indians did to the white people – it’s enough to make you sit down and cry. You have to confront all kinds of things within that – like the part where me, as a white person of European descent and all that stuff that other people did a long time ago – that’s how I got here. That’s my story and the history of my people. What’s my ownership of that, or am I exempt from responsibility if my ancestors arrived on these shores after the natives had already been destroyed? What is my own obligation, one hundred, two hundred years later? What was a simple matter of Cowboys and Indians when we were kids, one guy has a white hat and a gun and the other guy sticks a feather on his head and bam, the good guy shoots the bad guy and that’s the way it is – you grow up and you see all the many, many facets of the real story and yeah, you figure out real quick that nothing is ever really as simple as that.

Take Columbus. He’s been vilified of late for sure, but was he a bad guy, deserving of all the scorn that’s been piled on him lately? He was a man of his times, and those times were very different than ours – I’ve muddled my way, as a history detective and as a human person, into the realization that maybe that’s the most important thing to remember when looking at the past. It’s a big mistake to judge people who lived in the past by the standards of today – it’s a mistake, but it’s an enormous temptation. I would love to believe that in antebellum times or during Jim Crow, I would’ve stood up against the system in which I lived, or that in Nazi Germany I would’ve damned the costs and been the lone voice crying in the wilderness. Yet, we – none of us – can transport ourselves back into history armed with what knowledge we’ve garnered with the passage of time, any more than we are qualified to dispense judgment on those men and women who acted as they saw fit during their own brief time here.

Columbus has been disparaged because his ‘discovery’ of the New World opened the door to the conquistadors and the rest of the Europeans who followed, and who would exploit the land and decimate the natives, but that was so horribly inevitable, with or without Columbus. Did he discover America? Not really, but he did stumble onto a whole – literally – a whole New World that Europeans had never known was here, and in that his achievement was noteworthy. Columbus has been celebrated for that achievement for more than five hundred years now – perhaps it is time we shift the focus, and instead honor the lives of the people who’ve lived here all along.

Ten million people lived here in 1492. Ten million people to whom this was no new world at all, but an ancient one, long sustained and enriched by the blood and hearts of their ancestors, stitched together with their stories, understood through their customs and their gods. This was the land they had known for generations, knew her cycles, her seasons, and her perils – this was the place their families had inhabited for so long that familiarity with her nature had become almost an inborn gift. While Europeans would come with hubris, with the audacity to believe that they could conquer and improve upon this place, the indigenous people treated their world with respect borne of long fellowship.

The first people to come here to Texas – actually to North America at all – got here long, long ago, maybe even as far back as 37,000 years ago. The very first primitive people, called Paleo-Indians, who were the ancestors of modern-day Native Americans, most likely got here by way of walking across a spit of land where the Bering Strait is now. During the Ice Age, when the first people came, everything was so much colder and all this water was being sucked up into brand-new glaciers, making the world’s ocean levels a lot lower. That meant that the Bering Strait (which separates Russia from Alaska, or more broadly, Asia from North America) became the Bering Land Bridge, and the ancestors simply walked across this, fifty or so miles, to a whole new continent. From Alaska – or what would eventually become Alaska – the people migrated southward, into Canada and beyond, and spread out to populate all of North America.

Including Texas. Texas has been home to millions of indigenous people, according to the fossil record and to discovered remains, since the Stone Age. When the Spanish explorers first arrived here looking for gold, riches, the fountain of youth, and all that stuff, they found the place already long inhabited by many different tribes, bands, and families of natives. From the Karankawa tribes of the Gulf Coast to the Wichita and Caddo Indians of the eastern Piney Woods; from the Suma and Pueblo people of the deserts and mountains of West Texas to the Bidai, Tonkawa, and the great Apache tribes of the verdant Hill Country; from the Coahuiltecan and Carrizo tribes of the Rio Grande Valley, to all of the bands, families, clans, and confederations in between, such as the Atakapa, Neche, Kadohadacho, Natchitoches and Mayeye bands, the Kiowa tribe, the Kitsai, the Tawakoni, Cava, Cantona, Emet, Sana, Toho, and Tohaha Indians…this land was home to age-old cultures. Native Texans had been weaving their stories on this land for thousands of generations, as hunters and farmers, artisans and traders, warriors and healers, before the Europeans arrived and called them savages.

Here in the Hill Country, where the German-Americans would eventually come to plant the seeds of their Latin colony, where the businessmen John James and Gus Theissen would follow a few years later selling lots in their new city of Boerne on the ancient Pinta Trail – the lush Cibolo Valley had been home to a tribe of the Apache people called the Lipan – meaning ‘light gray people’ – since sometime between 1400 and 1600AD. The Lipan Apache were a tribe of Plains Indians, and they moved from the Great Plains – that swath down the middle of the United States long marked the ‘Great American Desert’ – and into Texas, claiming the area around San Antonio as theirs, which they called ‘Many Houses’. These Lipan Apaches were the dominant tribe in the area that would become Boerne for many years, until a formidable enemy arrived in town to challenge them – and until both they and their enemy were driven out of their homeland by an even greater enemy.

The Lipans lived mainly by hunting the great bison herds that migrated throughout all of the United States and Texas in those days, herds of a hundred thousand heads and more. The Hill Country was different in those pre-European days – it had fewer trees and more prairie, dominated by the tall prairie grasses that grew throughout that old Great American Desert – the Great Plains – that would eventually be put under the plow and result in the catastrophe known as the Dust Bowl, the worst manmade disaster in the history of the US. The great herds of buffalo roamed the land during their migration, eating everything in sight (including sapling trees, which is one of the reasons there were less trees here), and the Lipan Apache would hunt them twice a year. These big hunts were the red-letter events in the Lipan’s year, socially as well as in provisioning the tribe – many different bands of Lipans would gather from their various locations for the hunt, and it was a big occasion and a joyful reunion for the people. Babies were shown off, and wooing and flirting and all that was undertaken, marriages were arranged and celebrated, and presumably additional babies created as old friends and family members got together for the great buffalo hunt. Before the hunt started, a holy man would consult with the gods to get a fix on the location of the herd (a Spanish explorer who would later witness a buffalo hunt, which he called a carneada, wrote of such an Apache holy man who pronounced, after council with the deities, that the bison were ‘two days to the east and were “as numerous as grass in the fields.”’) Before the Lipans got ahold of horses in the late 1600s, they did this hunting on foot. There’s an old expression about using everything from a pig ‘except his squeal’, and the Lipans found a use for just about everything from the buffalo except for his…snort? Anyway, they turned the buffalo into all kinds of things they used every day – from food, clothes, and shoes to their tepee coverings, cups, bowls, tools, knives, and decorations. The Spanish explorer, again on all the uses the Apaches had for the bison: they lived ‘in tents made of the tanned skins of the cows [bison]. They dry the flesh in the sun, cutting it thin like a leaf, and when dry they grind it like meal to keep it and make a sort of sea soup of it to eat…They season it with fat, which they always try to secure when they kill a cow. They empty a large gut and fill it with blood, and carry this around the neck to drink when they are thirsty.’ The Lipan also hunted antelope, which they called tcela-a, deer (kockeya), rabbit, turkey, quail, and javelina. They believed in leaving the eye of the slain animal, as well as pieces of its meat, between the ribs for the crow who was the guardian of the hunt.

The women of the Lipan tribe also gathered and prepared vegetables, roots, and herbs, including cactus, yucca, mescal, palm, mesquite, honey, and wild plums and fruit. They used chilies and wild onions for seasoning. Lipans were also farmers, of a sort. The women – they seemed to be in charge of the fruits and veggies while the dudes were responsible for the meat – would plant crops of corn, squash, and things like that alongside riverbanks where the soil was fertile. The group would camp in the area long enough for the plants to come up. They’d then go on with their business, whatever that was – the bison migration or wherever else they needed to go – and eventually circle back to their farm site in time for harvesting their crop. When the Spanish first founded San Antonio, they happened upon a crop of Lipan corn growing that way north of town, and called the place ‘elotes’ meaning ‘green ears of corn’. The Lipans kept using that particular corn camp all the way up until the late 1850s or so, and over time elotes became Helotes. Helotes was founded on this site of an old Lipan farm venture.

When the Lipan Apache finally got ahold of horses in the late 1600s, they quickly became excellent horsemen, and were lethal warriors on horseback with bow and arrow.

Around 1700, things got a lot tougher for the Lipan Apache when the Comanches moved into town. Now these guys, the Comanches, they were a whole different ballgame than what the Lipans had been used to, since the Lipan were pretty much in charge of the place ‘til they showed up. The Comanches – even their name meant enemy – were just downright mean. The Comanches weren’t native to Texas – they were relative latecomers, in fact. Their deal was that they’d been members of the Shoshone people and had come from the southern Rocky Mountains, but the Comanches, once they’d discovered horses, turned absolutely horse crazy and nothing would do but that. They’d split off from the Shoshone and go off in search of more horses, and in Texas they found vast numbers of feral horses – some two million wild mustangs. The Comanches soon distinguished themselves as the fiercest and meanest Indians in Texas, by far the biggest threat to European settlers and by far and away the most feared of all the tribes. Within a relatively short time of their arrival in Texas, the Comanch had established an enormous territory as their own comancheria.

The Lipan Apache quickly became the sworn enemy of the Comanche tribes, and this fact drove their sort of love-hate, symbiotic relationship with the Spanish missionaries, and later, the Texans. They were some of the favorite targets of the missionary zeal of the Spanish in San Antonio, and was variously either working at what amounted to slave labor at the mission in San Antonio, taking refuge there from their enemy the Comanche, stealing horses in surprise raids from the mission, or at out-and-out war with the city. In between warring with the San Antonians, the Lipans often allied with them in campaigns against other Indian tribes. In 1836, in another twist in their weird relationship with the people of San Antonio, the Lipans watched the Battle of the Alamo and even offer their aid to her defenders.

Smallpox, borne to their numbers by the Europeans and against which the Lipan Apache had no natural immunities, decimated the Lipan people in epidemics in 1750, 1780, and again in 1850. A concentrated campaign against them in the 1860s further reduced their population.

It’s a story as old as the story of Europeans in North America at all – a story as old as 1492 and beyond – when Columbus sailed the ocean blue, stumbled across the New World, and set off the events that would eventually destroy the natives, their cultures, their lives, and all they had built for thousands upon thousands of years with the diseases, the hubris, the violence, the Imperialism, and the greed from the old, old world, against which no amount of time nor pride, nor fierce, desperate fight is sufficient.


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