Mellon Foundation has awarded $650,000 to Big Bend Conservation Alliance in support of the Indigenous-led project to protect Cementerio del Barrio de los Lipanes, a sacred site to the Lipan Apache Tribe located in Presidio, Texas.
The site became the final resting place of Lipan who settled in the immediate vicinity beginning in the 1790s. Through the 1960s, the burial mound lay undisturbed with the graves clearly marked by individual cairn barrows, but by the 1970s residential encroachment and urbanization desecrated the cemetery.
In 2021, Big Bend Conservation Alliance began a partnership with the Lipan Apache Tribe of Texas and family descendants to obtain a historical marker for the site and have the land, which was owned by the City of Presidio and Presidio County, transferred back to the Lipan Apache Tribe. This collaboration continues today to protect the site and includes the commission of MASS Design Group—an award-winning non-profit architecture and design firm whose mission is to research, build, and advocate for architecture that promotes justice and human dignity—to create a structure that would protect this landmark.
The design—which included Lipan Apache stakeholders throughout the visioning process and is currently under construction—works to instill acknowledgment of and respect for Indigenous presence in the Chihuahuan Desert by creating a place-specific design language that focuses on sacredness, gathering, and landback.
Joseph Kunkel (Northern Cheyenne Nation)—principal at MASS Design Group—has led the design process, along with project architect Mayrah Udvardi, as part of MASS’s Sustainable Native Communities Design Lab based in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
The award from the Mellon Foundation will support the completion of construction and fund interpretive signage at the site. The grant is part of Mellon Foundation’s Monuments Project which aims to create spaces that will be accessible to everyone and promote stories that are not already represented in commemorative spaces.
As part of this grant, Dr. Nakya Flotte (Lipan Apache Tribe of Texas) will be commissioned to lead a community co-created process for the site’s interpretation and signage. Flotte—anthropologist, artist, and community organizer of Lipan/Jumano ancestry—grew up in Ojinaga/Presidio and graduated from Presidio High School. She now holds a Ph.D. in anthropology from Harvard and is a postdoctoral fellow in Latino and Native American Studies at the University of Texas.
The award will also support a study to better understand the needs of land reclamation for Indigenous peoples of the Big Bend and greater Texas. The land reclamation study will interview individuals connected to the area including Lipan Apache, Jumano, and Indigenous Peoples of La Junta—those who identify as Indigenous and Presidian, that may or may not be members of a specific tribe.
Dr. Maia Rodriguez (Lipan Apache Tribe of Texas) will lead the research for the land reclamation study. Rodriguez, whose ties include Lipanes of both the San Antonio and south Texas valley region, holds a PhD in English with a designated emphasis in Critical Theory from the University of California, Berkeley and is currently an Assistant Professor in the Department of Native American Studies at the University of New Mexico, where her areas of research and teaching examine the relationship between sovereignty and Indigenous philosophies, ethics, and knowledge systems.
Christina Hernandez (Lipan Apache Tribe of Texas) co-leads the project to finish construction and begin the land reclamation study, along with the team at Big Bend Conservation Alliance. Hernandez is a direct descendent of those interred at Cementerio del Barrio de los Lipanes. She was honored by Jumano Elders and the Cuelcahende Band of the Lipan Apache Tribe as Guardian of the Ancestors and an Eagle Staff Bearer. She serves on the National Board of Directors of the Human Rights Campaign.
Big Bend Conservation Alliance serves the inhabitants of our skies, land, and waters by nurturing reciprocal relationships within our shared environments and cultures and by co-creating inclusive, equitable, and just approaches to conservation with communities throughout the Big Bend region of Texas. They envision a region that is thriving—our land, water, skies, and all their inhabitants connected in healthy balance with equity and environmental justice for all—as we care for and learn from each other.
Lipan Apache Tribe of Texas—under the leadership of Executive Council Chair Bernard Barcena, Vice-chair Robert Soto, Treasurer Erika Sauseda, and Secretary Ric Cantu—is a sovereign Native American tribe in the State of Texas with a governing body, the Tribal Council, tasked with promoting the general welfare and justice for the Lipan Apache people; acquiring resources for the benefit of its people; protecting the Tribe’s Native American heritage including their traditions, ceremonies, language, and sacred history; preserving, securing, and exercising all the inherent sovereign rights and powers of a Native American tribe; and continuing relations with the United States of America and the State of Texas
Andrew W. Mellon Foundation is the nation’s largest supporter of the arts and humanities. Since 1969, the Foundation has been guided by its core belief that the humanities and arts are essential to human understanding. The Foundation believes that the arts and humanities are where we express our complex humanity, and that everyone deserves the beauty, transcendence, and freedom that can be found there. Through their grants, they seek to build just communities enriched by meaning and empowered by critical thinking, where ideas and imagination can thrive.
MASS Design Group’s mission is to research, build, and advocate for architecture that promotes justice and human dignity. MASS Design Group was founded on the understanding that architecture’s influence reaches beyond individual buildings. MASS (Model of Architecture Serving Society) believes that architecture has a critical role to play in supporting communities to confront history, shape new narratives, collectively heal and project new possibilities for the future.
Shelley Bernstein, Executive Director, Project Co-Lead, Big Bend Conservation Alliance
Christina Hernandez, Project Co-Lead, Lipan Apache Tribe of Texas