Sacred Ground, Underground Railroad, Butterflies and Border Wall

“Indigenous Activists Set Up Protest Camp at South Texas Cemetery to Stop Trump’s Wall” by Gus Bova was published by the Texas Observer, 1/31/2019. “Environmentalists, veterans of the Standing Rock protests and Carrizo/Comecrudo tribal members are vowing to stare down the president’s bulldozers.”

Activists raise their fists atop the levee overlooking the Eli Jackson Cemetery, the exact location of Trump’s impending border wall. Gus Bova

DuWayne Redwater sings at the Jackson Ranch Church Cemetery, another graveyard about 500 feet west from the Eli Jackson Cemetery.

The 154-year-old Eli Jackson Cemetery sits about a mile from the Rio Grande, south of the Hidalgo County town of San Juan. Encompassing just a single acre, it hosts the remains of some 150 South Texans. Just a few feet north rises a sloped earthen river levee, which the Trump administration soon plans to transform into a 30-foot concrete and steel border wall. South of the wall, the feds plan to clear a 150-foot “enforcement zone,” raising fears that bodies will be exhumed, and most of the cemetery razed. But the dead have new company: a small group of Native American activists and allies who say they’ll stand in front of the bulldozers and refuse to move.

On Wednesday, about 15 people milled about a makeshift campsite at the cemetery where they’d recently erected 10 tents. Over the last three weeks, they’d cleared out Johnson grass and other weeds that had overgrown many of the graves. As I approached the site, Juan Mancias, a long-time environmental and Native American rights activist, came out to welcome me to what he called “Yalui Village.” Mancias, 64, is the tribal chair of the Carrizo/Comecrudo, a group Indigenous to South Texas and Northern Mexico that claims about 1,500 members but isn’t recognized by the federal government. “Yalui” means “butterfly” in the Carrizo/Comecrudo language.

The group has pledged to commit acts of civil disobedience if necessary to protect the site.

“We’re here, ready to protect the environment and our rights as the original people of this land,” Mancias said. “What are they gonna do? Run us over?”
Some of the activists are veterans of the Standing Rock protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline. One Lakota/Dakota activist, DuWayne Redwater, came from South Dakota to join the Texas encampment. On Wednesday, Redwater led the group twice in prayer songs. Asked why he traveled so far, he rebuffed the question. “Being from where I’m from, it’s kind of our job,” he said, “to be landlords and caretakers of this land.” Others are locals, like Patricia Rubio, who works as a plant nursery technician at the nearby National Butterfly Center, which is also threatened by the wall. Rubio said she plans to grow plants near the cemetery to attract bees and butterflies. The group also plans to set up camps on other properties in the area, depending on how wall construction advances.

Last summer Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) released plans to build a wall, including going through the cemetery. Documents also indicate that nearby land will be taken by eminent domain. (The abuse of eminent domain was one of the main reasons for the First Nation-Farmer Climate Unity March, from Des Moines to Fort Dodge, Iowa, along the path of the Dakota Access Pipeline.)

The Eli Jackson Cemetery has been a designated state historical site since 2005. It was originally a family cemetery for the Jacksons, whose patriarch fled Alabama with his African-American wife in the 1850s and purchased a swath of ranchland, including the plot the graveyard sits on, according to Jackson descendants and documents submitted to the Texas Historical Commission. More families used the cemetery over time, including other prominent Anglos who left the Deep South, along with local Hispanic families of less gilded backgrounds. The area was even a waystation for a time on the Underground Railroad, and some escaped slaves settled there permanently, eventually burying their dead in the cemetery. Not all graves are marked.

From my experience with the resistances to the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines, I think this has the potential to be as much of an obstacle to building the border wall as the political opposition in the U.S. Congress.

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