Tribal leaders rededicate monument to Waco Indian Village

Posted: Friday, October 10, 2014 8:01 pm

As a Wichita Indian, related to the Wacos that gave this city its name, he felt a sense of deja vu this week while touring the site of the Waco Indian Village and related tribal sites nearby known only to archaeologists.

Something about the prairie landscape where his kin once hunted and farmed spoke to him.

“I got chills just coming over the hill,” he said Thursday. “It was like fresh air, to see the land and the black soil. . . . This is a revelation to me.”

Ross joined tribal leaders from the Wichita and Affiliated Tribes from Anadarko, Oklahoma, on a tour arranged in advance of the rededication of the state historical marker for the Waco Indian Village at 701 Jefferson Ave.

The low-key visit could be the beginning of a deeper relationship between Waco and the tribe that formerly inhabited it, said Linda Pelon, a McLennan Community College anthropologist who organized it.

“That’s what I hope, that it won’t just be a one-time event,” she said. “What we need is sustained contact.”

Though a tragic death back home caused the Wichita leaders to leave before the rededication ceremony Friday, they expressed their desire to return Thursday during a panel discussion at MCC with a historian of Wichita Indians.

Tribal president Terri Parton said in an Thursday interview that she would like to explore Waco’s historical research for a history museum the tribe is planning in Anadarko.

She said the story of the Waco Indians and their flight from Texas is not well remembered in the tribe, and she would like to be able to bring young people here to explore their roots.

She said she was moved seeing pictures and artifacts of Waco Indians at the Helen Marie Taylor Museum of Waco History, which is open only by appointment. Those include photos of Waco Indians who returned for an exhibition at the Cotton Palace fair in 1912.

“Everybody hears about how there were (Wichita Indians) south of the Red River, but they don’t know we were this far down,” she said. “I’d like to be able to put this information out so that it would continue to spark interest in our people.”

The Waco, along with the Tawakoni and Keechi, have been part of the Wichita for generations and are now indistinguishable. The community of about 2,500 near Anadarko has its own tribal laws and government but is part of a larger community of Indian and white residents in the Anadarko area.

The Wichita language persists in songs and written documents but is spoken fluently by only one person.

The old ways

Ross grew up immersed in the old ways: He remembers being swaddled to his great-grandmother as she tended corn on the family farm in Oklahoma. She was born in 1867 and could talk about life in the villages of thatched, beehive-shaped houses before the tribe adapted to the settlement patterns of white Americans.

Ross, a retired contracting officer for Tinker Air Force Base, near Oklahoma City, said the culture is at risk of slipping away. He said his people need to relearn their stories, including the saga of the Waco village.

“I think it’s an important place to see and to be,” he said, sitting inside the Taylor Museum, thought to be where the heart of the 400-acre Waco Indian Village was. “It’s been forgotten. But you stop (in Waco) and look around and say, ‘Oh, so this is where they were. Who stood here? I wonder who in our tribe comes directly from these people? And what if they didn’t all leave?’ ”

That question is more than academic for Ross more than 180 years after the Waco Indians left what must have been an idyllic village, with gushing springs, live oak and pecan groves and 400 acres of pumpkins, beans and peach trees.

The Anglo-American settlers that came to rule Texas had a tense relationship with the Wacos but weren’t directly responsible for driving them out of their village and up the Brazos River. But the ever-expanding western frontier led Texas officials in the 1850s to permanently expel Wacos and Wichitas and other Indian tribes to Oklahoma, without compensation for their land.

Asked how he feels about the loss of ancestral land, Ross answered: “You can’t really answer that question, because no one ever sits down and talks about it. It is a dark legacy. I think about it. . . . If you come to Waco, you can see how beautiful this country is, and you think, what if the Texans, or the French or the Spanish, never showed up? Would this be Waco? Would there be a Lake Whitney? You can just dream about what was here.”

Earl Elam, a Hill College scholar of Wichita history, said the exact timeline of the abandonment of the Waco Indian Village is lost to history.

Unclear accounts

Accounts from the late 19th century say Cherokees from the Red River area avenged a Waco raid on their horses in spring 1829 by sending a war party to the Waco village, where they took 55 scalps.

Elam cautions that the accounts are not entirely clear that the raid they describe was the village in present-day Waco or some other Waco or Tawakoni village nearby on the Brazos.

Nonethless, Elam said, there’s no historical evidence of an inhabited village after 1830 or 1831, and it appears that the Cherokee raid and a smallpox epidemic devasted the band of Wacos.

What is clear is that the Comanches did not drive away the Wacos, as the 1936 granite Texas historical marker for the Waco Indian Village states. The McLennan County Historical Commission on Friday held a ceremony for a supplemental marker at the base of the old one to clarify that history. Also at the ceremony, the Texas Historic Tree Coalition recognized the giant oak trees at the site, which are thought to predate the Waco village itself.

By the time a group of Texas Rangers led by Thomas H. Barron and George Erath came upon the site in 1837, the village was deserted, though the site impressed the men enough to propose a town here. Barron would later own a homestead and mill at the original Waco Indian Village, including the site of the present-day Taylor Museum and historical marker.

Wichita leaders describe the period between the 1820s and the 1930s as the “Days of Darkness” for their people. A proud people that had once dominated the prairies and woodlands of Oklahoma, Kansas, Arkansas and Northeast Texas dwindled as they were shuffled around to accommodate the needs of white settlers.

By 1851, some Wacos and Tawakonis were living with other Wichita speakers near the junction of the Clear and Salt Forks of the Brazos, and they were consolidated at the Brazos Reserve in 1854. In 1859, federal troops removed them to Indian Territory, now Oklahoma.

During the Civil War, the Confederate government expelled them to Kansas, where many died of cholera or starvation. By the time the Wichita returned to Oklahoma in 1867, only 822 were left, according to the official Wichita tribe website. Much of their reservation was carved up and given to white settlers at the turn of the century, according to the website.

Gary McAdams, a former tribal president who was part of the Waco visit this week, said traditional village life began to decline in the 1870s and 1880s as children were forced to go to English-only boarding schools and missionaries began converting people to Christianity.

In recent decades, Wichitas have become diluted by intermarriage, often to neighboring tribes such as the Comanche.

But Ross said he thinks the spirit of Wichita can survive the 21st century, if the tribe’s history is taught.

“No matter how old they are, no matter how much Wichita blood you have, I believe there’s always something inside you that drives you to be what you need to be,” he said.

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