Finding a Voice and Making it Heard: Defending Native Rights on the Border

For the Carrizo/Comecrudo Tribe of Texas — on the border and in the pathway of “the wall” — the future is precarious. Not federally recognized as a tribe and threatened daily by the impact of the Texas Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) export terminal and associated pipelines, the Carrizo/Comecrudo is in a race to identify its villages, gain proper recognition, and form a voice to protect its rights and land. It is an uphill fight, but with a new project funded in part by First Nations Development Institute (First Nations), progress is being made.

Juan Mancias of the Carrizo Comecrudo Tribe for Project Stop Texas LNG

Defending a site
The Carrizo/Comecrudo Tribe works to protect the Garcia Pasture, a sacred site in the Rio Grande Valley that contains remains of ancestors and cultural artifacts from various nomadic tribes, including the Carrizo/Comecrudo. The need for protection abounds: The site is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. There are huge environmental implications. And moreover, the members and sacred aspects of the original pre-Columbian villages surrounding Garcia Pasture have been not only ignored, but not even identified. And although the Carrizo/Comecrudo is not the official holder of the site, they are taking a stand.

“We, as Native people, have a right to speak out for what has been happening,” says Tribal Chairman, Historian, Storyteller, and Keeper of the Lifeways Juan Mancias.

Mancias explains that it’s something their People have to do because the threats are so pervasive. Before and beyond battling the LNG terminals, the Tribe has fought for a stronghold in Texas. The Tribe has endured centuries of historical trauma and oppression. It is not federally recognized, so there is no federal funding. Its People have scattered, and some were forced into Mexico when the border was established. Pollutants from the sale of substandard coal to Mexico have jeopardized their natural resources and the quality of the air and water. Ancestors are buried on the land they can’t defend. And the health of the Rio Grande River, the home of Carrizo/Comecrudo for generations, is at risk.

Now, with the help of a First Nations Broad Reach Grant, which supports Native American-led community efforts toward environmental justice, the Tribe is addressing one of the biggest challenges through the “Build a Village, Save the Earth” Project Stop Texas LNG.

Mancias explains that “liquefied natural gas” is natural gas that is cooled to a liquid state to make it easier to transport, as it becomes 1/600th of its original volume. He says Texas LNG aims to create an export facility on 625 acres at the Port of Brownsville near the Gulf of Mexico – a site chosen because it is close to the Permian Basin, where natural gas is extracted, and near existing pipelines. With the new facility will come more pipelines, from a supplier that has not been identified, and more fracking practices, which are already having an impact. Mancias says the region has already experienced over a million small earthquakes, and there are significant concerns that natural springs and the underground aquifer is being polluted by wastewater that is being reinjected into the ground. And all of it is happening directly on the Garcia Pasture site.

New construction at Three Rivers is considered the hub for the Jupiter Oil Pipeline running to Brownsville, Texas.

“Everything is being connected,” says Mancias. “It affects us as a Tribe, our people living along this river, and all the way up. We’re concerned about the desecration of our burial sites, but also for our clean water. Everything is coming where we maintained an existence.”

An Erasing of the People
In getting this far, the Department of Homeland Security has waived multiple laws and policies that stood in the path of Texas LNG. Going forward – as more pipelines are pursued along the proposed border “wall” – more legislation will likely be overlooked. This includes the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the National Historic Preservation Act, Native American Religious Freedom Act, and 24 others. Further, because pipelines and the wall will involve digging below the surface, there will also be a need to exhume remains, which means more laws are apt to be waived, including the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.

Mancias asserts that Texas LNG and the state of Texas have done no due diligence or research to determine just what they’re impacting and what the ramifications are. And without being federally recognized and without a voice before the Texas legislature, the Tribe has no legal standing – a convenient solution for Texas LNG.

“They want to continue to erase us so they can do whatever they want,” says Mancias. “It’s progress through erasure, which is just another tool for genocide.”

Organized for Progress
Despite this, the Tribe is making progress in protecting their land through a three-pronged strategy: Project divestment, review and comment on the licensing process of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), and education, direct actions and monitoring. So far they’ve had some notable success. The Tribe has met with banks overseas to encourage them to drop funding for new gas pipelines or LNG terminals in North America. Fortunately, two banks did pull out, Mancias says, but now Qater Petroleum and Exxon have announced plans to invest.

In reviewing and commenting before FERC, the federal agency that regulates, permits, monitors and investigates electricity, natural gas projects and pipelines, the Tribe is demanding due diligence and calling attention to LNG’s impact on cultural and natural resources. Based on this outreach, the National Park Service has supported the Tribe’s concerns, officially noting to Texas LNG that its proposed site is on the Natural Register of Historic Places and has known burials and period artifacts.

The ocean Derricks that are brought into Port of Brownsville for repair will add to the panorama if the three LNGs and Jupiter Refinery become part of the Bahia Grande area.

In providing education, the Tribe is presenting at meetings and events in the area to raise awareness and build wider support for the general population of Texas, Native rights and the environment. The Tribe also establishes frontline encampments at the Garcia Pasture and along the route of the proposed project. By camping out on site, the Tribe is forming a protective barrier as well as monitoring and recording the transportation of heavy machinery and oil and gas pipeline materials throughout the Rio Grande Valley.

Funds for Project Stop Texas LNG will go toward replenishing these camps with supplies, food, water, gas, and video and monitoring equipment, and for transporting supplies and people between camps, thus strengthening the Tribe’s presence in the area and letting people know the atrocities taking place.

“These are things that we have been fighting since 1984,” says Mancias. “It’s been an issue of trying to let people know we’re here.”

In this way, the Tribe is like Native people everywhere – trying to record their factual history, changing the narrative, holding on to culture and language, and protecting their Native resources. Mancias says for the Carrizo/Comecrudo, they are also facing big industry, the removal of bodies from sacred cemeteries, and even high security at the border wall, where militia is coming by the villages, taking pictures and threatening prosecution.

“I’m not a criminal, I’m not a protester,” says Mancias. “We’re not the bad guys. We’re just protecting our land. We’re protecting our lifeways.”

Still, the Carrizo/Comecrudo are fighting on, finding a voice and making sure it’s heard. But it remains an uphill battle to prove their existence and stand up for what is theirs. “After all,” laments Mancias. “There are no Indians in Texas, right?”