PHARR — The Lipan Apache Tribe plans to conduct a ceremony next week honoring the centuries-old Native American bones that were re-buried at a Pharr construction site this week.
Robert Soto, vice chairman of the Texas-based Lipan Apache Tribe, said authorities and officials at the construction site have been accommodating, but removing the bones in the first place wasn’t ideal. He said he had hoped the bones found in the 1300 block of West Ridge Road weren’t already buried, but in a news release Wednesday, the Pharr Police Department said it already had laid the remains to rest again Tuesday.
“It’s like digging someone out of a cemetery,” he said of removing the bones, which are not linked to his own tribe. “I don’t hold it against them. They did the best they could with the circumstances.”
Native Americans believe the ground is desecrated in such instances where there is a cultural significance and emotional aspect, he said. But, still he lauded the cooperation of police, the landowners and the construction site managers who stopped all work in the area after the bones were found.
In its new release, the Police Department said it contacted the tribe. However, Soto said he called the department Monday after he received inquires about the bones from other native people around the state. He met with officers Wednesday and they told him the officer in charge of the burial had said his own prayers as he laid the remains to rest.
Soto said authorities contacted “the wrong, right people” when they reached out to anthropologists. While they had academic insight, he said, they did not have cultural insight.
“I said the native community just has concerns that certain procedures be done,” he said of the remains.
The Lipan Apache Tribe plans to conduct a procession along with songs, prayer and a ground blessing Monday. Soto said he declined to ask that the remains be exhumed for the ceremony.
“I didn’t want this to become a circus show,” he said. “This is too sacred a matter.”
The remains were mostly deteriorated, though a portion of a skull was found, and no arrowheads, pottery or other artifacts were found nearby, he said.
“Traditionally, remains are usually buried on, or right as close to, the original spot where they were found,” Soto said.
In its news release, Pharr police said Soto “acknowledged that the burial of the remains on or near the original site was a process to follow.”
The bones are buried deep enough, though they’ll be near a culvert, Soto said. He added that he was told the construction company plans to plant a tree on the site and place a plaque acknowledging the remains.
“That’s kind of going out of the way,” he said. “Normally they just bury them and forget about them.”
The lot where they were found is where the existing Brook Ridge retirement community plans to expand its facilities in an undeveloped area of southwestern Pharr.
Soto said considering the estimated age of the bones — he was told they are 600 years old — they likely belong to a member of the Native Americans who once lived here called Coahuiltecans. They were not a tribe, he said. Instead, they were a number of small groups living in the area all the way from San Antonio to Mexico City.
The bones are not linked to his tribe, though the group has made claims to other remains outside the Valley, he said.
The Lipan Apache Tribe, he explained, are the desert and prairie members who split from the Jicarilla Apaches, of northern New Mexico, and came to Texas some 400 to 450 years ago.
Police said the University of North Texas Center of Human Identification estimated the remains are 400 to 500 years old. When contacted about how the age of the remains was determined, the center referred all questions to local authorities.
Pharr police also said they contacted the Texas Historical Commission in regard to the bones. In part, the Texas Health and Safety Code states that whoever discovers an unknown cemetery is required to file notice of its location with the county clerk, who in turn sends a copy to the Texas Historical Commission.
The Lipan Apache Tribe — which has 3,000 to 4,000 members, but no land base — is in the process of moving its headquarters to McAllen, Soto said. The tribe has applied for official federal recognition.
He said Native American remains were found north of Edinburg about a decade ago. While the federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act offers some protections, the law is vague, he said, and in Texas private landowners have the most say in what happens to Native American remains found on their property.
“The problem we have is the state of Texas has very little laws protecting burial sites,” Soto said.
Jacqueline Armendariz covers law enforcement and courts for The Monitor. She can be reached at email@example.com and (956) 683-4434 or on Twitter, @jarmendariz.