The Karankawa were said to be extinct. Now they’re reviving their culture — and fighting to protect their ancestors’ land.
Historians long thought the Karankawa people had disappeared. But now a group of descendants is fighting to protect a coastal area — where thousands of Karankawa artifacts were found — from an encroaching oil export facility.
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CORPUS CHRISTI — On the sandy shore of the Gulf, a small group formed a circle and began to sing through the August heat. Some played ceremonial drums, and two others held a large painted canvas that read, “SAVE CORPUS CHRISTI BAY.”
Of the dozen people who prayed, sang and spoke in the circle that day, three women were representing a people that most Texas history books claim are extinct.
They’re part of a small but growing group of Indigenous people who call themselves Karankawa Kadla — “kadla” means culturally mixed, and Karankawa is the name of a people who, for several centuries, controlled a more than 300-mile stretch of the Gulf Coast shore from approximately present-day Galveston Bay south to Corpus Christi Bay.
After finding one another through social media and the internet, they’ve come together just as an oil company is moving to expand its facility on a patch of coastal land in an area where their ancestors lived — and where thousands of Karankawa artifacts still lie. The result is a new fight in the old battle to defend their history, customs and land.
That’s why, on the beach in late August, Love Sanchez and others prayed for a halt to industrial development on the Texas coast where the Karankawa people lived before plagues, wars and colonization came. Most history sources claim that the Karankawa people disappeared from the Texas coast around 1860, although such estimates vary widely.
“It’s an emotional journey, what we’re going through,” said Sanchez, a 37-year-old woman who grew up in Corpus Christi and co-founded a nonprofit group, the Indigenous Peoples of the Coastal Bend.
Unlike some Native American tribes, the Karankawa Kadla don’t have tribal lands, treaties, or an official recognition from the state or federal government. They are surrounded by the dominant narrative that they don’t exist, a fog so thick and so potent that until relatively recently, some of them believed that they and their immediate family were the last Karankawa descendants.
Like many others who claim Karankawa ancestry, Sanchez has had to piece together her identity through family oral history. A long history of intense persecution by the Spanish, Anglo Texans and Mexicans forced many Karankawa people to go into hiding, assimilate with Mexican or American culture, or flee to survive.
Sanchez, for example, knows from her great grandmother that her ancestors were at the Spanish mission Nuestra Señora de la Bahía del Espíritu Santo de Zúñiga in Goliad, which was established to convert Karankawa people to Christianity in the 1700s. She is also, according to family oral history, descended from the Lipan Apache.
“We have our oral history, what we have passed down through our family, which is valid,” she said. “People went into hiding and intermarried because they didn’t want to go extinct.”
Some families are certain they are Karankawa and say their history and culture have been diligently passed down from generation to generation. But most have to piece together their heritage from family oral history, DNA tests and what little documentation exists in historical archives, such as those from Spanish missions.
The Karankawa Kadla community — more than 100 people who have connected through a Facebook group and a smaller council that leads community organization — is now fighting to protect a stretch of undeveloped land that juts into the east side of Corpus Christi Bay, sandwiched between a residential community and an oil company’s export terminal.
The area was once a bustling village where hundreds of Karankawa people gathered each year during the cooler months to live and fish. Those ancestors left behind tens of thousands of pottery sherds, arrowheads, tools fashioned from shells, and more.
Fifteen years ago, one of the state’s most respected archaeologists said that one stabled sand dune in the area called McGloin’s Bluff contained so many important artifacts that it was eligible for the National Register of Historic Places — a designation that would have protected the dune from development.
But the port authority, which owned the land and the former naval base that sat upon it, opted to sell the area to an oil company. The port commissioned Ricklis' firm to lead the archaeological testing and recovery to fulfill state and federal laws, and before the sale, he and his colleagues recovered more than 39,000 Karankawa artifacts, a fraction of what they say is still there.
The Port of Corpus Christi Authority declined multiple requests to comment for this story.
Earlier this year, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers gave a green light for Moda Midstream, a Houston oil terminal and logistics company that now owns the land, to expand its existing oil export terminal near the McGloin’s Bluff site. According to the company’s website, it’s the largest crude oil storage and export terminal by volume in the U.S.
In early August, Sanchez, the Indigenous Peoples of the Coastal Bend and local environmentalists sued the federal agency, alleging that it improperly approved the permit, citing Ricklis’ assessment that McGloin’s Bluff was eligible to be a National Historic Site to bolster their argument. The environmental groups are concerned about the potential damage to seagrass beds, which reduce coastal erosion and create a habitat for sea trout, red fish, waterfowl and other species, as well as providing an important nursery for juvenile shrimp, crabs and fish.
Their lawyers recently asked a judge to halt plans for the development until their concerns are addressed. They’re still waiting on a decision.
The Army Corps of Engineers wrote in a response to public comments that because the Karankawa Kadla are not a federally recognized tribe, “they have no special consultation rights and are considered members of the public.” In permit documents, the Corps said that Moda Midstream did the required archaeological surveys and steps to mitigate environmental concerns.
The agency referred a request to comment to the U.S. Department of Justice, which is representing the Corps in the lawsuit and declined to comment on pending litigation.
Moda Midstream said its expansion won’t impact the McGloin’s Bluff site: The company plans to build a new dock at the terminal for crude oil megaships, which will require dredging in the bay with limited impact to the land. The company has promised to plant new seagrass beds farther away from the site to compensate for the vegetation that will be destroyed and permanently set aside 70 acres of land adjoining a residential area as green space, although that doesn’t include the McGloin’s Bluff site.
“We have deep respect for our neighbors and for the Karankawa people,” Moda Midstream spokesperson Steven Davidson said. “The permitted expansion of our existing waterfront and structures in the waterway will not impact any historical areas. … We are confident that the nearly year-and-a-half application review process was comprehensive, and the permit was properly issued.”
The Karankawa Kadla argue that the entire area teems with historical and spiritual significance. They want all of the remaining undeveloped land owned by Moda Midstream on the peninsula to be protected.
“In a perfect world, [the land] would simply be given back to us and they would leave us alone,” said Chiara Sunshine Beaumont, a 27-year-old Karankawa Kadla woman who lives in Austin. “In the real world that the colonizers have created, there’s so many walls of tape.”
Artifacts threatened by encroaching development
Archaeologists have long known that the eastern shore of Corpus Christi Bay has historical significance: In the 1960s, before the naval base was built, archaeologist James Corbin conducted a survey of the peninsula that juts into the bay, noting important evidence of the Karankawa people. He also warned that the knowledge buried there would soon be lost.
“I am of the opinion that unless extensive excavations are carried out within the next five to six years, a very large amount of valuable archaeological material is going to be lost to the rapid development that is taking place on the Texas Gulf Coast,” Corbin wrote in a 1963 article for the Bulletin of the Texas Archaeological Society.
At least a dozen archaeological sites exist in just 3 square miles between the edge of Ingleside on the Bay, the neighborhood that now occupies the west side of the peninsula, and Moda Midstream’s energy transportation hub on the east side.
Ricklis, whose research has centered on the Karankawa, eventually excavated tens of thousands of Karankawa artifacts from McGloin’s Bluff.
He said the artifacts and fish remains proved the Karankawa developed a sophisticated fishing operation on the coast in which the most skilled fishers worked the most productive areas, catching a surplus of fish that was then moved to another location and dispersed among the rest of the community. In the springs and summers, they broke into smaller bands and traveled inland to hunt. Archaeologists also found evidence of distinctive Karankawa art that featured red paint and naturally occurring asphalt on their pottery.
“Folklore has always portrayed them as savage cannibals who didn’t have any kind of culture or sophistication, but that just isn’t true,” Ricklis said.
Historians now say such tales likely emerged from the many battles between Karankawas and the Spanish, French, Mexicans and Americans who wanted to take their land by force. And while historians say there’s some evidence of Karankawa people consuming small amounts of their enemies’ flesh after battle in ceremonies — a spiritual practice intended to absorb the strength of a fallen enemy — stories of rampant cannibalism were false and perpetuated by those eager for “sensational tales of the New World,” according to Jack Davis, who wrote a history of the Gulf Coast.
In fact, Davis wrote, when a Spanish expedition led by Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca landed on an island on the Texas coast in the 1500s with malnourished men in desperate condition from illness, the Spaniards turned to cannibalism and the Karankawa people “were appalled by” the Spaniards’ “desperate appetite.”
The 25,000 pieces of pottery, 4,000 pieces of stone tools and more artifacts that Ricklis and his colleagues unearthed now sit in storage boxes at University of Texas at San Antonio’s Center for Archaeological Research, according to a university curator.
One of the artifacts Ricklis uncovered was a sixpence coin that dates to roughly 1567. Clinton McKenzie, a project archaeologist at the UT-San Antonio’s Center for Archaeological Research, said the coin provides evidence of one of the first interactions between Europeans and Indigenous people in what is now Texas.
Richard Weinstein, an archaeologist who worked with Ricklis on the assessment of McGloin’s Bluff, said that because the area was so heavily occupied by the Karankawa, “there’s still a chance that there could be burials, or something very important out there.”
But Ricklis said he eventually stopped excavating the area due to “redundancy”; archaeologists stop digging once they believe no new historical information will be obtained from any subsequent artifacts uncovered. While he acknowledges that a lot of artifacts remain in the area, he doesn’t have a problem with the oil company’s plans to build another dock, which won’t directly impact the site he excavated.
“McGloin’s Bluff is unique,” Ricklis said. “But we probably know everything we’re going to know about it [as archaeologists].”
“I’m not going to try to block the energy industry,” he added. “Without it, our culture is done.”
The myth of “annihilation”
For more than a century, families along the coast passed down knowledge that many guarded as secret, until recently: They were Karankawa.
In 2009, The Brownsville Herald published a story about a man who said his grandparents were Karankawa and practiced Karankawa traditions. A decade later, when a Port Isabel news article highlighted the “last” of the Karankawa, people who believed they too were Karankawa descendants posted in the comments section, seeking to connect with one another.
“Many of us grew up with the understanding that their family is the ‘last,’” said Absolem Yetzirah, a Karankawa Kadla small-business owner who lives in Houston. “It wasn’t until the internet, when we were able to do research, that we started finding other people.”
Beaumont, who works as an outdoor adventure guide in Austin, grew up in Virginia and was taught Karankawa traditions by her mother, who took her to powwows and didn’t allow her to cut her hair until she was 15. Her mother taught that spirituality comes from connectedness with the Earth and sent her kids to the Texas coast every summer to stay connected with their ancestors’ land.
Beaumont said she struggled to find her place in American culture. She spoke Spanish, but said she didn’t fit in with her Mexican or Cuban classmates. Some white children perceived her as “dirty or exotic,” she said.
“I didn’t know anyone else of my people besides my immediate family,” Beaumont said. “People would ask me questions, like, ‘Where’s the rest of your tribe?’ and I didn’t know.”
At the Hans and Pat Suter Wildlife Refuge in Corpus Christi, a Texas Historical Commission marker gives the widely accepted version of the narrative: The Karankawa people died from diseases spread by Europeans and from battles with pirates and colonists who wanted their land, forcing many to flee to Mexico.
But Seiter said the attack did not eliminate all Karankawa people. Generally, he said, as white settlers encroached on Karankawa land, many Karankawa families survived by integrating with colonial society, moving south to Mexico or joining with other Native American groups.
Seiter said he has been able to trace some family lineages from the alleged “extinction point” to the present day using both records and oral histories.
“It’s very difficult to trace from that point to the current day because they integrated [with other cultures],” Seiter said. “Records connect some dots, but not entirely, without incorporating the oral histories.”
Many Indigenous people share the experience of forced assimilation that caused gaps in their knowledge of their own culture, said Mario Garza, chair and founder of the San Marcos-based Indigenous Cultures Institute, which provides education about Indigenous peoples of present-day Texas.
“A lot of our people went underground as Mexican,” said Garza, who is of the Miakan-Garza Band of the Coahuiltecans. (The Coahuiltecans include hundreds of Indigenous groups that populated central and southern Texas and northeastern Mexico.) The Indigenous Cultures Institute estimates that 11 million people who identify as Hispanic or Latino have ancestors who are indigenous to the Americas.
Reclaiming Karankawa history
The Karankawa Kadla people say that rather than disappear, their ancestors went into hiding. Rather than die, they survived.
“We are very clearly still here,” said Beaumont. “I’m learning the language, we practice the spirituality and we’ve maintained the culture.”
Sanchez says the Karankawa Kadla welcome those with an earnest heart who believe their families are descendants of the Karankawa people. The community rejects requirements to quantify their heritage, like DNA testing, because of the government’s historical use of “blood quantum,” — which used tribal documents to measure the amount of “Indian blood” a person had in order to limit tribal citizenship.
Together, the community is finding the pieces of their language, traditions and knowledge that many of them thought were lost.
“There’s a whole lot of people in the Americas that have no idea or don’t have the stories of who they are,” said Alex Perez, a 48-year-old Karankawa Kadla musician, author and home remodeler in California who writes and teaches songs in the Indigenous language.
“Now,” he said, “we’re able to kind of re-create our culture.”
Perez, who grew up in Galveston, said his grandmother was reluctant to talk about her Indigenous heritage, even as she maintained that their family had always resided on the coast of Texas. His family, like many other Indigenous families, adopted Mexican culture, losing much of the Karankawa language and customs.
“In my grandparents’ generation and before, it was frowned upon to even admit that you were native,” he said. “There was residual left from being ashamed of being native. You were expected to forget about that.”
The realization that his ancestors were Karankawa came like a precious memory lost to cruelty and time — a piece that was always there, temporarily forgotten. He did research, asked questions, convinced his grandmother and other family members to get DNA tests with him (which showed their ancestors were indigenous to the Texas coast), and got involved with other Indigenous communities to learn.
“Knowing my family’s history, and what my grandmother would tell me, it was like this revelation,” Perez said. But reading the history of the Karankawa was a painful process at times. “I went through this emotional period of being angry and reliving some of this history.”
Perez compares his people’s story to that of the Texas red wolf, which scientists believed to have disappeared from the wild. But three years ago, what were thought to be coyotes on Galveston Island were found to be descendants of the red wolves, having integrated with coyotes as people poisoned or shot them and their territory shrank. “It mirrors our experience,” Perez said.
Yetzirah, the Houston small-business owner, said his parents’ and grandparents’ generations would identify as anything except Karankawa, but he now brings his young daughter to Karankawa ceremonies; the tradition is “an identity we can give back to our kids,” he said.
“Our kids have to go to school and exist in this world,” Yetzirah said. “And they should exist in it knowing their truth instead of falling under a subcategory that was invented for them.”
“It is so beautiful to live in that way, because I didn’t have that,” he added. “I have a 10,000-year-old history and it survived. It exists today.”
Disclosure: The Texas Historical Commission and the University of Texas at San Antonio have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.
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