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Where have Austin's Indigenous people gone?

Seiders Oak trees along a trail.
Patricia Lim
/
KUT
The trail along Shoal Creek was once used by Comanches and other Indigenous tribes in the region.

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It’s almost a rarity these days to be considered an Austin native, rather than falling into the transplant pool.

Hayley Bishop is, indeed, one of those born-and-raised Austinites. But they struggle with identifying as, what some would consider, a local native.

“Like, I really feel bad claiming that word,” Bishop said, citing concerns over how overshadowed the city's Indigenous culture and population is.

Bishop’s Austin history was tested one day while an undergrad at UT Austin. They volunteered for an academic summit for an African history course and took on the role of tour guide. Bishop was shuttling around guests when one asked about the city’s Indigenous people and their history.

“I thought to myself, that’s a very good question and I’m a little embarrassed,” Bishop recalled. “Even though I’m born and raised here, I have no idea.”

So Bishop asked KUT’s ATXplained project where Austin’s Indigenous people have gone, and while they may be embarrassed about this gap in their own local history, Bishop isn't alone.

Remnants of history around us

Austin’s Indigenous history is complex and dates back at least 37,000 years, according to some anthropologists’ estimates. How it takes shape in the public discourse is often focused through a historical context, which Circe Sturm, professor of Anthropology and Native American and Indigenous Studies at UT Austin, finds problematic.

“We have a state government that doesn’t acknowledge, doesn’t recognize, its own Indigenous history,” said Sturm, who is a descendant of the federally recognized Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians.

“When students study about Indigenous people as part of their Texas history module, it’s focused on the past and not on the present," she said, "in a way that there’s a real disconnect between our understanding of our history and our understanding of our present.”

A person bikes past a tree growing parallel to the ground.
Patricia Lim
/
Comanches would bind trees as young saplings so their trunks grew in a specific direction, like this one along Shoal Creek in Austin.

You might be surprised with how easy it is to spot remnants of Austin’s Indigenous history around the city. They don’t take the shape of historical landmarks or signage, but they are embedded in the landscape.

Shoal Creek, for example, starts in North-Central Austin, stretching south through downtown and eventually ending at Lady Bird Lake. Long before it became this artery to Austin’s urban core, the trail was used by Comanches and other Indigenous tribes in the region. One indication of this: trees.

Not just any tree — Comanche marker trees. You can spot one just south of 38th Street and Shoal Creek Boulevard, nestled right in the middle of the trail’s Seider Springs Greenbelt.

The Seiders Oaks state historical marker commemorating the death of Gideon White, one of Austin's early settlers.
Patricia Lim
/
KUT
There are signs and markers — including the Seiders Oaks state historical marker — paying tribute to the settler Gideon White along Shoal Creek, but there's no mention of the Indigenous tribes who also lived in the area.

Comanches would slash trees as saplings so they could bend at the roots and grow in a particular direction, often pointing to resources such as water or trails, according to Sturm. Now, hundreds of years later, the trees can be seen growing somewhat parallel to the ground, carrying this small piece of Indigenous history.

Ironically, Shoal Creek’s trail has several markers and signs that share the stories of “Austin’s early settlers.” There’s no mention of Indigenous tribes that claimed this region as part of their territory. They do, however, pay tribute to one settler named Gideon White. His early legacy is written on different signs, and his 1842 death is commemorated on the Seiders Oaks state historical marker, right on the Shoal Creek trail.

The story goes White was killed by Indigenous people, but again, there’s no mention of these tribes on any of the markers. There are, however, these tangible indicators, like the Comanche marker trees.

“This is a place where we can see the enduring presence of the Indigenous people still on the land if you just know how to look for it,” Sturm said.

A brief history lesson

In addition to the Comanches, the Caddo, Cherokee, Coahuiltecan, Lipan Apache, Karankawa, Tonkawa and Wichita tribes also claimed Central Texas as part of their territory. They were incredibly diverse, speaking numerous languages, adopting multiple beliefs and creation stories — and all living off this land differently.

Then in the mid-16th century, European settlers first came to the interior of Texas.

They brought waves of infectious disease — including epidemics of smallpox, measles and cholera — that had widespread impacts on Texas’ American Indian population.

Two sedentary tribes in Central Texas, the Caddo and Wichita, were hit especially hard by disease. Their livelihoods were dependent on agriculture, which was hard to sustain when a big part of their population was wiped out. The nomadic tribes, like the Coahuiltecan, maintained their hunting and gathering lifestyle. In that sense they may have been more equipped to distance themselves from outbreaks, but that still didn’t guarantee survival.

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By the 1700s, some tribes and newcomers signed peace treaties and established trade networks. But the Spanish largely failed to deliver on their part of these deals, and Indigenous communities were decimated once again.

The 1800s ushered in another violent chapter in this history. When the Republic of Texas was born in 1836, Sam Houston tried to form peaceful relationships with Indigenous tribes under his administration. That effort was short-lived by the time of the Republic’s second president.

“As soon as we move to Mirabeau B. Lamar, then we see that hostility becoming the norm," Sturm said. Lamar did not believe in the possibility of negotiations or coexistence with Indigenous people, and waged wars against tribes. Those who survived were later forcibly removed from their lands by the time Texas joined the Union in 1845.

In 1854, Texas designated 37,000 acres in Northwest Texas as the Brazos Indian Reservation. Even then, this did not equate to safety or security. White Texans began attacking the Indigenous tribes there, accusing them of raiding their property and resources.

There’s not really evidence these tribes were responsible for these specific raids, according to Sturm, but the accusations came with big consequences.

“They basically forcibly removed them putting them on trains into Oklahoma, into what was then-Indian territory," she said.

So, to recap: Indigenous peoples have occupied this area for thousands of years — long before Spanish settlers arrived in the mid-16th century. The settlers’ arrival brought deadly diseases and wars. This cycle was repeated when the Republic of Texas emerged and was combined with more targeted efforts to exterminate and forcibly relocate tribes to other parts of the state and eventually across state borders.

But there’s another layer to consider when tracing Austin’s Indigenous roots: Hispanization.

How identity became a survival tactic

Identifying as Indigenous or having physical traits associated with Native Americans meant life or death at one point. When the Spanish settlers arrived more than 400 years ago, they began the forced assimilation of Indigenous communities, which they considered to be uncivilized.

“A lot of our people had already been baptized as Catholic and given Spanish last names and they knew Spanish,” said Mario Garza, cultural preservation officer of the Miakan-Garza Band and cofounder of the Indigenous Cultures Institute in San Marcos. “So out of instinct for survival, a lot of our ancestors decided to pass as Mexicans.”

Mario Garza, of the Miakan-Garza Band, stands in front of his San Marcos home with his dogs.
Sheryl Wong
/
KUT
Mario Garza is the cultural preservation officer of the Miakan-Garza Band and has worked on repatriation efforts for his Indigenous community for decades.

This survival tactic of passing as Mexican or Tejano rather than Indigenous was incredibly common, and it contributed to the gap in understanding Austin’s Indigenous history.

It also complicated the process of becoming a federally recognized tribe, which affects a tribe’s ability to access resources and how they practice cultural traditions. This ranges from using eagle feathers in rituals and whether ceremonies can be performed on sacred sites. These sites are typically where creation stories originate and are usually known for their natural beauty.

Garza says his band’s sites include the Sacred Springs in San Marcos, San Pedro Springs in San Antonio, the Comal Springs in New Braunfels and Barton Springs in Austin. But because the Miakan-Garza are not a federally recognized tribe, they can’t really continue certain traditions peacefully in what are now public parks.

“We cannot do ceremonies in Barton Springs because, as you know, Barton Springs is very popular and, you know, [when] we try to have a ceremony, people keep coming in, interrupting our ceremony,” he said.

Tribes have to show evidence of historical continuity when seeking federal recognition. That means being able to prove they were recognized as Indigenous by others and that they’ve been living as an organized Indigenous group without disruption. That’s nearly impossible when generations were destroyed or removed from their land, and others began to adopt new cultural identities.

There are three federally recognized tribes in the state — none are in Central Texas. According to 2020 census data, more than 12,000 people in Travis County identify as “American Indian.”

Garza expects that number to grow as more people who identify as Latino begin to learn about and embrace their Indigenous roots.

The answer

So, to answer the question, “Where did Austin’s Indigenous people go?” The short answer is: They’re still here.

These communities may not be as abundant or diverse as they once were, but they’re not cultural bygones and their history is not just one of plagues and displacement. It’s about resilience, perseverance and celebration. Groups like the Austin Powwow and the Indigenous Cultures Institute continue preserving and passing on their cultural lineage.

So while Austin’s Indigenous history may not be evident with historical markers, it’s deeply rooted in the city’s landscape. Because after all, this area once was — and in some ways still is — Indigenous land.

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