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Not much known about natives of South Texas
Indians along Rio Grande called Chichimeca by Aztecs

The Brownsville Herald

November 23, 2006 - Each year, children dress as pilgrims and Indians to reenact the first Thanksgiv-ing, but the likely first meal shared between the Europeans and Native Americans was far from Ply-mouth Rock: It was in South Texas.

Most Americans think of the people of the Great Plains when describing Native Americans. Nations and tribes worked together in semi-nomadic or settled regions of what is now the United States.

Native Mexicans are often associated with the civilizations of the Maya or Aztec.

The native people of South Texas were different and often forgotten by history.

“The Aztecs had the whole Spanish empire observing and chronicling every aspect of their lives,” said Tony Zavaleta, a professor of anthropology at the University of Texas at Brownsville and Texas South-most College. “No one was watching these people (in South Texas).”


Although overlooked, the native Texans were acknowledged by the larger civilizations.

“The Aztecs would have called them Chichimeca,” Zavaleta said. “Anthropologists call them Coahuilte-cans.”

The term Coahuiltecan refers to various peoples who lived in what are now the modern states of Coa-huila and Texas. This is usually applied to groups living along the Rio Grande.

“When you look at the Spanish chronicles, they associated people by where they lived or characteris-tics that they had,” Zavaleta explained. “These were not names that the people used for themselves.”

The name Chichimec, used most often by Spanish explorers, was originally coined by the Aztecs to de-scribe the people of northern Mexico. The term implied a savage and uncivilized people, much as the Romans called Germanic and Celtic tribes “barbarians.”

Spanish historians seemed to agree with the Aztec assessment.

“They weren’t organized as tribes, and that drove the Spanish nuts because the Spanish tried to record their names,” said Thomas Hester, a professor emeritus of anthropology at the University of Texas at Austin. “They were really organized more by the language they spoke, and that was a very confusing situation to the Spanish.”

What is known about the native Texans comes from the descriptions of neighboring peoples and re-cently discovered archeological sites, Hester said.

“They didn’t have any agriculture ... but just because somebody was a hunter and gatherer doesn’t mean they were an idiot that rolled out of bed and looked for something to stuff in their mouth,” Hester said. “I’ve always thought that hunters and gatherers were much smarter than farmers. They weren’t dependent on the weather.”


In their seasonal moves, the native Texans would meet regularly with other nomadic groups to share ideas and services.

“They would come together annually — grandparents, cousins, sisters, brothers — to exchange goods, food and to marry their sons and daughters,” Zavaleta said.

“They were experts at exploiting and harvesting the environment,” Zavaleta said. “This time of year these people would have harvested ducks, geese, turkeys and deer. They knew exactly which plants were edible and which were medicinal.”

The Spanish quickly adapted to the local diet, eating turkey dinners and oysters with native Texans long before the pilgrims landed in New England.

Without agriculture or gold, however, the Spanish saw the native Texans as potential slaves instead of trading partners.

Hester said the Coahuiltecans were a lot more interesting than most gave them credit for.

“One of the things I worked on for a long, long time was the fact that there were interactions between the hunters and gatherers in the Rio Grande Delta and the fringe Mesoamerican civilizations,” Hester said.

A civilization known as the Huastecans had colonized several mountain ranges in what is now Tamauli-pas, and according to archeological finds, they interacted regularly with the so-called barbarians.

“They had some kind of trade with these hunters and gatherers in the Delta,” Hester explained. “When burials and other sites have been found in the Delta in the last 50, 60 years, there were pieces of jade, volcanic glass and pieces painted up with Huastecan motifs.”

What’s more, surviving Aztec documents show tribute from Huastec areas included shells distinctive to the Texas coast. Native Texan art and artifacts traveled trade routes to the heart of the Aztec empire.


Information on the earliest Texans is hard to come by, but the native Texans are not forgotten.

“It’s mainly because the native Indian groups were pretty much gone by time Mexico was formed and Mexicans and the Anglos came in,” Hester said. “There were a few Indians left, but no body paid any attention to them.”

Despite lack of information in the history books and a lack of recognition in popular culture, Zavaleta said the native Texans are not dead.

“They didn’t disappear at all,” he said. “They are here around us, absorbed into the population. They are us.

“Most people we would call Mexican-American are what were called mestizo, a mixture of native Mexican and Spanish,” Zavaleta said. “I would be surprised if we did not have native Texans in our blood.”

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