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Richard Arlin Walker
Special to ICT

Indigenous advocates in San Antonio, Texas, are opposing any further disturbance of the natural landscape near the headwaters of the San Antonio River — an area that is home to the Coahuiltecan creation site, a Native American Church pilgrimage site, and habitat for migratory birds.

An undated photo shows the San Antonio Spring years ago gushing 20 feet into the air at the Blue Hole in Texas. The spring is now dry most of the year because of continued pumping to meet the water needs of the seventh largest city in the United States, and Indigenous activists are pushing San Antonio to halt additional development plans. (Historic photo courtesy of Gary Perez)

They also want to see the story of the city’s First Peoples told, rather than restoring structures they say are associated with displacement and segregation.

The San Antonio area — known by its First Peoples as Yanaguana, or “Land of the Spirit Waters” — was historically a center of worship and trade among the Coahuilteco, Comanche, Lipan Apache and other Indigenous peoples in the region.

“Anything we do to our earth and our wildlife affects us,” said Alesia Garlock, an advocate of Indigenous Mexican ancestry. “The importance, especially on the Indigenous side, is that that site tells the story [about creation and the Indigenous presence]. Part of our fight is that that story doesn’t get lost.”

She added, “If we don’t keep telling the story or continue to fight to protect that river, as it connects all the way to the Gulf [of Mexico], it’s going to be lost.”

The headwaters begin in a nature preserve owned by a Catholic order and continue through Brackenridge Park, which is owned by the City of San Antonio and managed in part by the Brackenridge Park Conservancy.

Brackenridge Park is 343 acres and encompasses a zoo, a museum, public beaches, a sculpture garden, pavilions, a theater, a golf course and sports fields. The city has plans to further develop the park, including removing some heritage trees in order to protect a canal dating back to the Spanish colonial era and 107-year-old stone walls next to a beach.

City of San Antonio parks officials did not respond to an ICT request for comment about the number and types of trees proposed for removal. The city’s 2017 master plan called for the removal of 98 trees and relocation of 40 more. But in minutes from a meeting four months ago, a committee of four arborists recommended reducing that number to 11.

The arborists also recommended the removal of another tree’s roots that are close to the river, and the transplanting of “many small native trees.” The report refers to elm, oak and walnut trees.

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Indigenous advocates say “enough,” noting that more than a century of park development and city growth has caused cultural and environmental harm to the river and the landscape.

The Blue Hole, the spring from which the San Antonio River originates, is now mostly dry, as are related springs in New Braunfels and San Marcos. The Coahuiltecan people believe life began here and, indeed, the Blue Hole — the largest in the network of springs sourced from the Edwards Aquifer — was a life source for several millennia for Indigenous people and, later, the Spanish mission town that sprang up and evolved into the city of San Antonio.

Until the 1890s, the Blue Hole gushed as high as 20 feet into the air. Frederick Law Olmsted, designer of New York’s Central Park, visited the Blue Hole in the 1850s and described what he saw.

The spring, he said, “may be classed as the first water among the gems of the natural world. The whole river gushes up in one sparkling burst from the earth. … It is beyond your possible conceptions of a spring.”

Not so today. San Antonio is the seventh-largest U.S. city and the aquifer’s flow has been reduced by well drilling to supply water to a burgeoning population. The city returns recycled water to the river downstream in the park, but swimming is no longer allowed there and a landscape architect’s report states that the upper course of the San Antonio River and the riparian corridor, or vegetation, are “no longer healthy or accessible.”

Gary Perez shares the Coahuiltecan creation story at the Blue Hole, also known as San Antonio Spring, near San Antonio, Texas. He and other Indigenous advocates in San Antonio are opposing any further disturbance of the natural landscape near the headwaters -  an area that is home to the Coahuiltecan creation site, a Native American Church pilgrimage site, and habitat for migratory birds. (Photo courtesy of Gary Perez)

Several of the trees that are proposed to be removed are nesting sites for egrets, herons and cormorants, all of which are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty.

A U.S. Fish and Wildlife official told ICT that the city would be required to obtain a permit from the agency to relocate a nest that is in use.

“Authorization is not required to remove trees, even trees with nests in them, provided the nest is not in-use — meaning no viable eggs or live chicks are present — when the tree is removed and that no person retains possession of the nest,” said Eric L. Kershner, chief of Fish & Wildlife’s Division of Bird Conservation, Permits, and Regulations.

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Matilde Torres, an Indigenous Mexican cosmologist, called the trees “the lungs of our city” and said the conservancy and the city have given “no sufficient reason why the trees need to be removed from this site. With this heat, that‘s the last thing we need right now — for these trees to be cut down.”

She said Indigenous peoples use tail features from those birds in ceremonies.

Gary Perez, a Coahuiltecan culture bearer, said Native American Church adherents visit the area en route to Mirando City — a Webb County town 140 miles southwest of San Antonio — to harvest peyote, which is used in prayer and worship.

“The springs don’t flow because we’d much rather water our golf courses and we won’t put ourselves on water restrictions when the aquifer level reaches a certain depth,” Perez said.

“The water doesn’t flow out of the springs,” he said. “Culturally, we’re not sound. We’re not being responsible to the pre-Columbian cultures and the Native American Church pilgrimages.”

Evidence dating back 9,000 years

Brackenridge Park was established in 1899 on land donated by George Brackenridge, a wealthy landowner and longtime regent of the University of Texas. There is archeological evidence here of human habitation dating back 9,000 years, according to a cultural landscape report commissioned by the city.

The report, written by consultants Suzanne Turner Associates, a landscape architecture firm based in Louisiana, breaks the park’s archeology and structures down into four historical periods:

  • Circa 9200 BCE (Before the Common Era ) – 1500 CE (Common Era): “Prehistoric and historic life, recorded in and near the park through the investigation of 16 prehistoric and historic archaeological sites, including rare but real evidence of human and mammoth interaction documented along the San Antonio River.”
  • Circa 1000 CE – 1530s: “Indigenous occupancy and rituals with the river and sacred springs.”
  • Circa 1000 CE – present: “Mexican heritage from early human occupancy and development that continues to imprint the site today.”
  • 1535 – 1718: The arrival of the Spanish and establishment of the five San Antonio missions.

Natural and manmade landscape features represent “the site’s continuum through time,” though those features are in jeopardy or invisible, the report states. The features include “buried prehistoric and historic archaeology, the no-longer-healthy or accessible upper course of the San Antonio River and Riparian Corridor, and damaged and hidden river structures.”

The Headwaters at Incarnate Word, the nature preserve owned by the Sisters of the Incarnate Word, wants to see a trail connection between the Blue Hole and the San Antonio River downstream – an area the nature preserve suggests calling “The Spirit Reach,” with interpretative panels along the trail and a display at the zoo.

Although early photos show the San Antonio Spring gushing 20 feet into the air at the Blue Hole, the spring is dry most of the year now. Advocates are pushing for San Antonio to limit further development to help preserve the water, trees and habitats. (Photo courtesy of Gary Perez)

And in 2017, San Antonio voters approved a bond measure that allocates $7.75 million to “repair and enhance” several historic features of the park, including a canal built in 1719, an 1878 waterworks pump house, 1915 rock walls at Lambert Beach, and a 1923 outdoor sculpture garden. The 2017 master plan also called for the planting of 271 canopy and understory trees; installation of rain gardens to filter stormwater; and planting of native plants and grasses to prevent erosion along the river’s banks.

The city sees the removal of trees as critical to preserving the 1719 canal, also known as an acequia, and the rock walls at Lambert Beach.

“The acequia is composed of grouted stone walls and an undetermined bottom,” the conservancy reported on its website. “Some of the walls are deteriorating and in need of repair. Many large trees have grown up near the walls and have contributed to the wall deterioration as well as surface drainage from paved areas up slope of the acequia.”

The Creator’s hand

Garlock said features from the Spanish colonial era “had to do with displacement of Indigenous people, so why would we want to bring back features that had to do with segregation?”

Lambert Beach, she said, was originally a Whites-only swimming area. Perez said swimming at other springs in the area were also once restricted to Whites.

Perez said the Indigenous occupancy and ceremony associated with the river and its springs didn’t end during the colonial era. San Antonio is today home to an estimated 30,000 Indigenous peoples, representing 1.4 percent of the city’s population, according to American Indians in Texas at the Spanish Colonial Missions, or AIT, a nonprofit that works to preserve the culture of the Indigenous peoples of South Texas.

Yanaguana is still a pilgrimage site for those traveling to and from the peyote gardens in Mirando City, Perez said.

Torres and Perez said peyote pilgrimages are documented in a 2,500-year-old mural that stretches 26 feet along a rock face in the Lower Pecos Canyonland. The shape of the river matches that of a constellation, further evidence of the Creator’s hand, they said.

“The songs that are sung in the ceremonies, the start/stop stations in the ceremonies, all have a lot to do with the shape of the river and its identical brother or sister in the sky called the constellation,” Perez said. “This area is the very source of much of what still remains of our peyote ceremonies today, from pre-Columbian to the present day. [The city] is messing with the very beginnings of what would eventually become the Native American Church.”

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