Cowboys and Indians: How Texas Historical Markers Harm Indigenous People

For Dustin Tahmahkera, a Comanche, it’s a plaque he recently saw with his daughter that honors a soldier who “drove raiding Indians out of Llano County.” For Cherokee Steve Russell, it’s a sign that describes Captain John Hays single-handedly fighting off a group of Comanche Indians. The location of the battle was Enchanted Rock, a place considered sacred by the tribe. When Russell asked a Comanche elder why the “Indians” fled from a lone soldier with a gun, he received the following response:


“Do Texans,” he asked Russell, “normally fight in church?”

These Indigenous people are recalling particularly offensive markers involving Native Americans from the Official Texas Historical Marker program. These markers recount a colonial version of history that often omits the Indigenous story. People all across Texas read state-sponsored signs describing “hostile Indians” that massacre white women and children before scalping the men, perpetuating the harmful myths and stereotypes that continue to oppress Indigenous people today. Some Native Americans want the state to be more involved in fixing the disrespectful markers, but the Texas Historical Commission says it would take a private sponsor to step in and change things.

The Official Texas Historical Marker program is run by the Texas Historical Commission. As of January 2013, there are 15,828 markers in Texas. According to their website, the program “has been a popular means for interpreting local and state history and encouraging heritage tourism for more than four decades.” While it is a state administered program, individuals or organizations pay for the actual markers after submitting an application.

Around 2,000 of these markers mention Native Americans. And the over 300,000 Indigenous people living in Texas drive by them every day—descendants of the people that the colonial settlers tried to eradicate. This Colonists/Indian struggle is the main element in most of the markers mentioning Indians. One example is the marker erected in 1936 titled “Battle Island”in Matagorda County. It reads, simply, “Here in 1826, a company of volunteers commanded by Captain Aylett C. Buckner almost exterminated a band of Karankawa Indians who had murdered several families on Lower Caney.”

That short account of a massacre leaves out a few details. In his book “The Conquest of the Karankawas and the Tonkawas: 1821–1859,” Dr. Kelly F. Himmel, professor of sociology at the University of Texas-Pan America, offers a different version of this battle. He writes that after the Lower Caney settlers were reported murdered,

“a large party of Anglo-Texan settlers trapped a Karankawa band near the mouth of the Colorado River. Men, women, and children died by the score in a torrent of gunfire as they attempted to swim across the river and climb the steep bank. … According to eyewitnesses, the waters of the Colorado ran red with the blood of the Karankawas instead of with West Texas mud.”

From both versions of the battle, it is unclear if members of this particular band of Karankawas committed any murders.

Another 1936 marker, this one in Mitchell County describes the “Comanche Village Massacre” of 1840. The inscription reads:

“In this vicinity on a bank of the Colorado October 21, 1840; A Comanche Indian village was completely destroyed and much stolen property recovered including 500 horses; 128 Indians were killed; 34 were captured; The expedition commanded by Colonel John Henry Moore; Consisted of 90 citizen volunteers; Mostly residents of Fayette County; Seventeen friendly Lipan Indians under Chiefs Castro and Flacu served as guides; No Texans were killed and but two wounded.”

This is how Gary Clayton Anderson, professor of history at the University of Oklahoma in Norman, describes the event in his book “The Conquest of Texas:”

“Just as dawn broke, the ninety Texans and the seventeen Lipan Apaches fell on the village and tore it apart. … As the Comanches came out of their tepees, many were gunned down at point-blank range … According to [Col. John H.] Moore, ‘the bodies of [Indian] men, women and children were to be seen on every hand wounded, dying and dead.’”

Anderson goes on to relate how Moore ordered his troops to shoot Indians in the back as they tried to swim across the river, so the death toll of 140 may have been higher. He also tells how, after the massacre, “the rangers then burned everything in the camp, including tepees and food. Starvation faced the survivors.”

***

Why do Texas Historical Markers—and much of history—tell a different story from the accounts in the above two books? It began with a process social scientists call othering, where humans believe that their group is the only way to be human, and anyone who isn’t a part of their group must either conform, be subjugated, or be exterminated. In his book “The Conquest of America” historian Tzvetan Todorov said that Spaniards who originally landed in the Americas were motivated by wealth, but their conduct was also “conditioned by their notion of the Indians as inferior beings, halfway between men and beasts. Without this essential premise, the destruction could not have taken place.”

In “The True Story of Pocahontas,” Dr. Linwood “Little Bear” Custalow and Angela L. Daniel “Silver Star” note this belief in the pilgrims. They write that because “the English considered the Powhatan people savages, they considered it okay to kill them and take their land.”

This way of thinking was adopted by many white settlers in Texas. Col. John H. Moore, the leader of the Comanche massacre described above, sums up his own othering process when he defends his killing of Karankawa people. In his book, Anderson quotes Moore saying the Karankawas were,

“a tribe of large sluggish Indians, who fed mostly on fish and alligators, and occasionally, by way of feast, on human flesh. They always went without moccasins, striding through briars unharmed, making such tracks as would hardly be attributable to a human being…Ungainly and repugnant, their cannibalism being beyond question, they were obnoxious to whites. . .”

The Texas settlers (and others) stereotyped the Indians as savages to justify killing them and taking their lands. These stereotypes then become history.

The hostile Indian is evident in many Texas Historical Markers. For example, a 1964 marker titled “Soldier’s Waterhole” in McCulloch county reads, “Here 27 Indians surprised and massacred 18 men, women and children burned their wagons and stole their horses.” A 1965 marker in Cherokee county entitled “Killough Massacre” says that “the Killough, Wood and Williams families were attacked by hostile Indians and Mexicans: 18 were either killed or carried away; 8 escaped on horseback; 3 women with a baby fled on foot.” The “Chalk Bluff Indian Massacre” marker describes how “two of southwest Texas’ most feared Indian fighters were ambushed by a band of 20 hostile Indians” who killed the men and “took both their scalps and Robinson’s beard, too.”

***

Hostile Indians aren’t the only distorted representations of Indigenous people. On the other end of the stereotyping spectrum is the friendly Indian; Indians like the Apaches that helped Col. Moore in his massacre of Comanches. In his recent book, “Native Americans on Network TV” communications professor Michael Ray FitzGerald describes the friendly (or good) Indian as “one who is astute enough to recognize the white man’s natural superiority” and who “helped the white man in his quest to dominate the land.”

Texas Historical Markers contain examples of this caricature as well. One 1964 marker in Young County titled “Tonkawa Scouts” says that while hostile Indians stole horses, women and children, the “Tonkawa tribe, by contrast, sought friendship with Texans.” The marker says that “commanders valued them [Tonkawa Scouts] so much they fed them at personal expense when necessary, to obtain their help. A few Tonkawa scouts were more useful than two or three companies of regular soldiers. They could stalk enemies better than bloodhounds.”

Similarly, a 1968 marker in Val Verde county describes how “Seminole-Negro” scouts helped rid Texas of hostile Indians. It says that they “were invaluable because of their uncanny trailing skill, bravery, and ability to survive on meager rations (including rattlesnakes) during months of tracking.”

A friendly Indian is still a harmful stereotype. FitzGerald says that, whether bloodthirsty or noble, “in either case they are savages, less than human. Like children, they are incapable of reason and so can only be dealt with as objects to be managed, either through force or acts of benevolence. In either case, they have little or no agency of their own.” He goes on to say that whether the Indians were friendly or hostile, they were still “land-based obstructions that stood in the way of growth and progress—that is, the expansion of global, neoliberal capitalism—and like trees, required removal.”

***

These small markers on the side of the highway may not seem like much, but they are part of a larger, damaging narrative. Dr. Mario Garza, a member of the Miakan Garza band of the Coahuiltecan people and founder of the Indigenous Cultures Institute in San Marcos, Texas, said these markers reflect “an ongoing colonization of the people.” And that they perpetuate the myths that Indians are inferior and that “we were hostile when we were only defending our people and land.”

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Maria F. Rocha, Executive Director of the Indigenous Cultures Institute, agrees. She says these historical markers are part of a much larger story that say Indigenous people were moved to reservations because they weren’t valuable to the greater community. She adds, “all of these negative things are reminders to our children that they are less than valuable to society” and says society’s negative signals are the reason that many Indigenous teens don’t graduate from high school. She goes on to say that “all the problems manifested among indigenous people, that’s a result of these negative signals that society gives them; that they’re not worth anything, so why even have hope?”

Statistics regarding Native Americans bear this out. Nationwide, 27 percent of American Indians and Alaska Natives have income below the poverty level, according to the American Community Survey Briefs. In Texas, that number is 18 percent. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, only 65 percent of Native Americans in the U.S. graduate high school. However, that number is higher in Texas, at 87 percent. The National Survey for Drug Use and Help reports that 18 percent of American Indians or Alaska Native adults needed treatment for alcohol or drug abuse, compared to the 9.6 percent national average. A 2010 report from The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cites suicide as the second leading cause of death for American Indians and Alaska Natives aged 15–34.

Of course, the roadside historical markers aren’t solely to blame for the statistics, but updating them would be a start. Unfortunately, these markers don’t seem to be going away anytime soon. Bob Brinkman, coordinator of the Historical Markers Program at the Texas Historical Commission, says that the markers don’t usually get removed or changed, but sometimes a supplemental plaque will be added.

He says some of the older markers simply listed what a town was known for, and “may not have told you much about the whole background behind the story.” With tens of thousands of markers, he says it hard to ensure they’re all correct and still move forward. He says many markers are simply “a product of when they were written.”

Brinkman also points out that there is a program to target and tell undertold stories. He says undertold markers “fill in the gaps, or make corrections or clarifications” to other markers. Some of them tell Native Americans stories and consulted the tribe affiliated with the historic event.

***

Erecting new markers doesn’t change the existing, older markers. An approach that depends on individual sponsors isn’t enough for Maria Rocha. She says that Indigenous people are being adversely affected, and the state “was responsible for putting the signs out there in the first place and they need to correct that.” She hopes for legislation that would set aside money to “take care of all of them.”

Chickasaw Jay Hurst, assistant attorney general for the Texas Attorney General’s office, believes that “each marker pertaining to Native Americans should be independently reviewed and verified for accuracy” in consultation with the “appropriate tribal nations involved.” He says that since the state gives the the markers official approval, they assume responsibility for ensuring their accuracy. He thinks that any marker deemed inaccurate should be removed or corrected.

Comanche Dustin Tahmahkera, professor at Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas, recommends a slightly different approach, but still agrees that the state should do something. He would like to see a partnership between the Texas Historical Society, Indigenous nations, historians and other interested parties to “work together to erect new markers.” He says that they don’t necessarily have to replace the “highly fragmented and often anti-indigenous old ones” but new markers alongside the old could “provide for comparative research opportunities between markers” and allow “indigenous perspectives and expanded non-indigenous narratives to be shared and brought up to date.”

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Mario Garza says that correcting the markers, while unlikely, is only one step in the decolonization effort. When asked to elaborate on the decolonization of Indigenous people, he replied,

“You decolonize a people by giving them back their true identity, their spirituality, their language, sacred sites, and true history. White people are afraid we are going to demand our land back, so they are afraid to admit that we are still here. They would like to romanticize that we all disappeared into the sunset or that what happened, happened a long time ago and we need to let go. The historical trauma is still affecting us and the systems they put in place still are keeping us in this situation. An example I once read was someone hitting us on the head with a hammer for years. Then he stops and says, I have stopped, get over it. The damage that was caused all these years does not go away when he stops, so we cannot ‘get over it.’”

One small step in the decolonizing process would be removing a sign that tells an Indigenous man and his daughter how their hostile ancestors were driven out of the county by brave white settlers. But the state of Texas is unlikely to even do that.

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