Where have the indigenous people of Aåçustin gone?
It’s almost rare these days to be considered an Austin native, rather than falling into the transplant pool.
Hayley Bishop is, indeed, one of those born-and-bred Austinites. But they struggle to identify as, what some would consider, a local native.
“Like, I feel really bad claiming that word,” Bishop said, citing concerns about how the city’s Indigenous culture and people are being overshadowed.
Bishop’s Austin story was tested one day while he was a student at UT Austin. They volunteered for an academic summit for an African history class and took on the role of tour guide. Bishop was shuttling guests when one of them asked about the town’s indigenous people and their history.
“I thought to myself, that’s a really good question and I’m a little embarrassed,” Bishop recalled. “Even though I was born and raised here, I have no idea.”
So Bishop asked KUT’s ATXplained project where the indigenous people of Austin have gone, and while they may be bothered by this gap in their own local history, Bishop is not alone.
Remnants of history around us
Austin’s Aboriginal history is complex and dates back to at least 37,000 years old, according to the estimates of some anthropologists. How this takes shape in public discourse often centers on historical context, which Circe Sturm, professor of anthropology and Native American and Indigenous studies at UT Austin, finds problematic.
“We have a state government that doesn’t recognize, doesn’t acknowledge, its own Indigenous history,” said Sturm, who is a descendant of the federally recognized Band of Choctaw Indians in Mississippi.
“When students study Indigenous peoples as part of their Texas history unit, they focus on the past, not the present,” she said, “in a way that creates a real disconnect. between our understanding of our history and our understanding of our gift.”
According to Sturm, the Comanches cut back trees as saplings so they could bend at the roots and grow in a particular direction, often pointing to resources such as water or trails. Now, hundreds of years later, the trees can be seen growing somewhat parallel to the ground, carrying this little piece of Aboriginal history.
Ironically, the Shoal Creek Trail has several markers and signs that share the stories of “Austin’s early settlers.” There is no mention of native tribes claiming this area as part of their territory. However, they pay homage to a settler named Gideon White. His early legacy is written on various signs and his death in 1842 is commemorated at the Seiders Oaks State Historic Marker, just up the Shoal Creek Trail.
The story goes that White was killed by native people, but again there is no mention of these tribes on any of the markers. There are, however, those tangible indicators, such as Comanche marker trees.
“It’s a place where we can see the enduring presence of indigenous peoples still on the land if you know how to look for it,” Sturm said.
A brief history lesson
In addition to the Comanches, the Caddo, Cherokee, Coahuiltecan, Lipan Apache, Karankawa, Tonkawa, and Wichita tribes also claimed central Texas as part of their territory. They were incredibly diverse, spoke many languages, held multiple beliefs and creation stories – and all lived differently from this land.
Then, in the middle of the 16th century, the first European settlers arrived in the interior of Texas.
They brought waves of infectious diseases – including epidemics of smallpox, measles and cholera – which had widespread impacts on the Native American population of Texas.
Two sedentary tribes in central Texas, the Caddo and the Wichita, have been particularly affected by the disease. Their livelihood depended on agriculture, which was difficult to sustain when much of their population was wiped out. Nomadic tribes, such as the Coahuiltecan, maintained their hunting and gathering way of life. In that sense, they may have been better equipped to distance themselves from epidemics, but that still didn’t guarantee survival.
In the 1700s, some tribes and newcomers signed peace treaties and established trade networks. But the Spaniards largely failed to fulfill their part of these agreements, and the indigenous communities were once again decimated.
The 1800s ushered in another violent chapter in this history. When the Republic of Texas was born in 1836, Sam Houston attempted to establish peaceful relations with the native tribes under his administration. This effort was short-lived during the time of the second President of the Republic.
“As soon as we move to Mirabeau B. Lamar, we see that hostility become the norm,” Sturm said. Lamar did not believe in the possibility of negotiations or coexistence with the native peoples and waged wars against the tribes. Those who survived were then forcibly removed from their lands when Texas joined the Union in 1845.
In 1854, Texas designated 37,000 acres in northwest Texas as the Brazos Indian Reservation. Even then, it did not equate to safety or security. White Texans began attacking native tribes there, accusing them of plundering their property and resources.
There isn’t much evidence that these tribes were responsible for these specific raids, according to Sturm, but the accusations had far-reaching consequences.
“They basically forcibly removed them by putting them on trains to Oklahoma, in what was then Indian Territory,” she said.
So, to recap: Indigenous peoples have occupied this area for thousands of years, long before the arrival of Spanish settlers in the mid-16th century. The arrival of settlers brought deadly diseases and wars. This cycle repeated itself as the Republic of Texas emerged and was combined with more targeted efforts to exterminate and forcibly displace tribes to other parts of the state and eventually across state lines. .
But there’s another layer to consider when tracing Austin’s native roots: Hispanicization.
How identity became a survival tactic
Identifying as Native or having physical traits associated with Native Americans meant life or death at some point. When Spanish settlers arrived over 400 years ago, they began the forced assimilation of indigenous communities, which they considered uncivilized.
“A lot of our people had already been baptized Catholics and had been given Spanish surnames and they knew Spanish,” said Mario Garza, head of cultural preservation for the Miakan-Garza Band and co-founder of the Institute of Cultures. natives of San Marcos. “So, out of survival instinct, many of our ancestors decided to pose as Mexicans.”
his survival tactic of impersonating Mexican or Tejano rather than Native was incredibly common, and it contributed to the gap in understanding of Austin’s native history.
It also complicated the process of becoming a federally recognized tribe, which affects a tribe’s ability to access resources and how they practice cultural traditions. These range from the use of eagle feathers in rituals to the ability to perform ceremonies at sacred sites. These sites are usually the origin of creation stories and are generally known for their natural beauty.
Garza says his group’s locations include Sacred Springs in San Marcos, San Pedro Springs in San Antonio, Comal Springs in New Braunfels and Barton Springs in Austin. But because the Miakan-Garza aren’t a federally recognized tribe, they can’t really carry on some traditions peacefully in what are now public parks.
“We can’t hold ceremonies in Barton Springs because, as you know, Barton Springs is very popular and, you know, [when] we try to have a ceremony, people keep coming in, interrupting our ceremony,” he said.
Tribes must show evidence of historical continuity when applying for federal recognition. This means being able to prove that they have been recognized as indigenous by others and have lived as an organized indigenous group without interruption. This is nearly impossible when generations have been destroyed or driven from their lands, and others have begun to adopt new cultural identities.
There are three federally recognized tribes in the state – none are in central Texas. According to 2020 census data, more than 12,000 people in Travis County identify as “American Indian.”
Garza expects that number to grow as more people who identify as Latino begin to discover and embrace their Indigenous roots.
So, to answer the question, “Where have Austin’s native people gone?” The short answer is: they are still there.
These communities may no longer be as abundant or diverse as they once were, but they are not culturally outdated and their history is not just one of plagues and displacement. It’s about resilience, perseverance and celebration. Groups like the Austin Powwow and the Indigenous Cultures Institute continue to preserve and pass on their cultural lineage.
So, while Austin’s Native history is not evident with historical markers, it is deeply rooted in the city’s landscape. Because after all, this area was once – and in some ways still is – Indigenous land.