Let the Chips Fall

Texas' Kickapoo Indians once lived in squalor under a bridge and worked as migrant laborers. Now things are looking up, thanks to a new Native American tradition: casino gambling.

The tribe also plans to open its own school in which tribe members will teach Kickapoo children their own culture and language. Classes are expected to begin this fall.

But the Kickapoo's dramatic change of fortune has not come without a price. Five years ago, Isidro Garza was at the center of a bitter tribal split over gambling and his role in tribal affairs.

"It drove a deep wedge into these people who had previously been a true tribe, totally united," says Sandra Hansen, tribal attorney from 1989 until late 1995. "I never heard a Kickapoo say a bad word about another Kickapoo before 1995. You never saw them be disrespectful to one another. You never saw them be anything but courteous and jovial, but almost minutes after Isidro Garza appeared on the scene, that vanished."

The Suke Jimenez family in their dirt-floored hut in 1986. Once migrant laborers during summer months and squatters in the winter, the Kickapoos' fortune rose dramatically with the arrival of gambling.
John Davenport/San Antonio Express-News
The Suke Jimenez family in their dirt-floored hut in 1986. Once migrant laborers during summer months and squatters in the winter, the Kickapoos' fortune rose dramatically with the arrival of gambling.
Kickapoo Tribal Chairman Makateonenodua, left, speaks with Isidro Garza Jr. and the tribe's lawyer Roy Barrera Jr. at the tribe's temple in Nacimiento Coahuila, Mexico. The Kickapoo believe that they must keep a ceremonial fire burning in the temple to prevent a calamity from befalling humankind.
Maria J. Avila/San Antonio Express-News
Kickapoo Tribal Chairman Makateonenodua, left, speaks with Isidro Garza Jr. and the tribe's lawyer Roy Barrera Jr. at the tribe's temple in Nacimiento Coahuila, Mexico. The Kickapoo believe that they must keep a ceremonial fire burning in the temple to prevent a calamity from befalling humankind.

Garza dismisses Hansen's complaints and says "outsiders" stirred up the conflict.

"All I can say is the wishes of the tribe were to not continue to work with Sandy Hansen. The wishes of the tribe were to work with Isidro Garza," he says.

And to some Kickapoo, Garza is a dynamic and savvy entrepreneur who will bring them political clout and financial independence. These Kickapoo back his aggressive development plan.

"There was a lot of internal conflict, but we've always had conflict, and not everyone is going to root for the team in power," says Steve Salazar, son of a tribal council member. "For the most part, things are being done for the welfare of the tribe, and I think 90 percent of the people agree with it."

But to others, Garza is a Rasputin-like figure who, in 1995 returned to Eagle Pass, down and out, and parlayed his old friendship with the tribal chairman into a role of unchallenged power.

"A lot of people aren't happy, but what can they do?" asks another Kickapoo, who asked not to be named. "There is a lot of fear, because Isidro is the boss here and he's Mexican, not Kickapoo. If someone doesn't agree with him, they will lose their job. The work is the main thing."

But no matter what the future holds, it will be almost incidental to what the Kickapoo have overcome since their first encounters with whites almost four centuries ago.


"Almost from the beginning of European contact, this tribe exhibited a remarkably independent spirit and a studied hostility toward acculturation," wrote Arrell M. Gibson, a specialist on American Indian history. "They refused to accept the economic, political and religious doctrines which the French, the British and later the Americans sought to impose."

The Kickapoo speak an Algonquian language that bespeaks their ancestral roots in the Great Lakes region, where in the early 17th century they encountered their first whites, French fur traders.

After the French came the British, and then the Americans, each initially seeking alliances and treaties with the indigenous tribes and later encroaching upon their homelands.

"First we gave them food, buffalo and antelope. Then they asked for land. Then they tried to throw us out and brought more people and more people," Makateonenodua says.

Fighting, resisting and negotiating but never submitting, the Kickapoo moved ahead of the whites, drifting south and west, from the Great Lakes toward the Great Plains, ending up halfway across the continent. Although some remained behind in Oklahoma and Kansas as the tribe moved westward, another group, which refused to accept forced settlement, kept ahead of the whites.

In the early 1800s, these Kickapoo became part of the volatile mix of what would soon become independent Texas, and from here, they later made the dramatic move that saved them.

In the Texas territory, whites and Indians clashed repeatedly. On October 8, 1838, a surveying party of 25 whites encountered a band of 300 Kickapoo, Cherokee and Delaware warriors. In the clash known as the Battle Creek Fight, 18 of the whites were killed.

After further battles, most of the Kickapoo fled deep into Mexico, using it as a base for raids against Texas. They also served the Mexicans as a formidable buffer against raiding Comanche and Apache. In Mexico, the Kickapoo found an ally in President Benito Juarez, himself a full-blooded Oaxacan Indian, who granted the tribe 17,000 acres in the Sierra Madre.

The site at the headwaters of the Sabinas River became known as "El Nacimiento," or the birthplace. For the last century and a half, it has been the Kickapoo's spiritual homeland. To this day, all religious ceremonies are held there.

Conflict between the Kickapoo and Americans continued until 1873, when U.S. cavalry attacked an encampment at El Remolino, Mexico, while Kickapoo warriors were away. The captive women and children were taken back to Kansas and held as hostages to force the rest of the tribe to surrender, but most stayed behind in El Nacimiento.

The Kickapoo have no written language, but their complex oral history and strong sense of nationhood are passed down, generation to generation. Also handed down is perhaps their most precious tribal possession, a large coinlike medallion, dated 1789. It was shown recently to several Americans invited to El Nacimiento.

On one face the medallion bears the distinctive profile of George Washington. The other side shows clasped hands, crossed pipes and bears the words "Friendship" and "The Pipe of Peace." Over more than two centuries, it has been cherished by Kickapoo holy men and kept from outsiders. To the Kickapoo, it represents proof of the tribe's nation status and its special relationship with the United States.

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