As the Sun Shined Brightly: Tigua Representations of Indigeneity and Agency Through Public Presentations, 1889-1936

By: Scott Comar

As the sun shined brightly on the hot morning of June 12, 1936, thirty-five Tigua Indians stood in the Dallas Cotton Bowl at their place of honor in front of sixty-five thousand spectators. Accompanied by the El Paso Pioneer Negro Chorus and numerous Secret Service agents, government officials, and other distinguished guests, the Tigua of Ysleta del Sur excitedly watched as a cavalcade of automobiles entered the stadium. As the crowd roared, the procession slowly navigated the arena’s perimeter and crawled to a halt near the area where the Tigua stood. Moments later, Tigua cacique Damasio Colmenero, tribal member Isabel Granillo, and Cleofas Calleros of the National Catholic Welfare Conference led the group towards a topless luxury convertible in which President Franklin Delano Roosevelt sat with his wife Eleanor. Surrounded by government agents and escorted by Texas Governor James V. Allred, Colmenero and Calleros presented the President with a pair of moccasins and an Indian headdress, declaring him an honorary Tigua cacique. Isabel Granillo then gifted the First Lady with an Indian molcajete, making her an honorary tribal member. This memorial occasion marked the onset of the sixth day of the Texas Centennial Exposition. Although largely overlooked by Centennial officials and other visitors from El Paso during the Exposition, this event marked a turning point in which historians and tourist boosters embedded the El Paso region into the larger grand narrative of Texas history (El Paso Times 1936; Cleofas Calleros to Around Here, June 18, 1936, Cleofas Calleros Collection; Houser 2004, 187; Houser 2005, 32-35).1

For the Tigua, participation in the 1936 Texas Centennial Exposition involved more than just becoming part of the Texas narrative. Their participation also represented a step in their journey of self-determination as they articulated their cultural history and identity as Tigua through public performances and displays of authentic indigeneity. During the Progressive Era and the interwar years, scientific fallacies and cultural stereotypes attempted to create a public image of indigeneity that practically erased the Tigua from the region’s historical memory as anthropologists, such as Jessie Walter Fewkes, viewed the Tigua as Mexicanized and contributed to popular impressions of Indian assimilation (Fewkes 1902, 57-75; Klein 1997, 13, 144-148; Dippie 1982). To counter these misconceptions, the Tigua participated in various public events, where they conformed to contemporary fashionable notions of indigeneity in order to establish themselves as “real Indians” in the popular consciousness.2 This essay’s objective is to examine Tigua participation at state fairs and other public events as acts of self-determination in the establishment of tribal continuity and indigenous identity. In this context, I argue that between 1890 and 1936, Tigua identity did not diminish. In fact, it persisted and increased as outside pressures caused the Tigua to represent themselves according to the stereotypes and expectations of American society. By participating in Texas’s state fairs and expositions, the Tigua of Ysleta del Sur pragmatically and publicly negotiated their own socio-cultural positionality by utilizing the dominant society’s discursive and aesthetic mechanisms to their best advantage. As an act of self-determination, the Tigua used public representations of indigeneity at fairgrounds to both preserve and continue their identity as Tigua.

Tigua participation in state-fairs not only made the public aware “of their role in the historical development of the region and the state,” but also augmented their own sense of self in the midst of the changing nation (Houser 2004, 35). Aside from reinforcing Nicholas Houser’s position that Tigua attendance at the 1889, 1890, and 1936 Texas state fairs established them as historical actors in both El Paso and Texas (2004, 35), this essay repositions Tigua public presentations as acts of agency and strategic negotiation that reinvigorated group identity and self determination. This assertion is based upon an eclectic conceptual application that considers various scholarly views. For example, I draw on James A Clifton’s Being and Becoming Indian and Christina Taylor Beard-Moose’s Public Indians, Private Cherokees, which emphasize how American Indians navigated the duality of public and private identities as needed in order to survive in various social environments (Clifton 1989, ix-xii; Beard Moose 2008, 4). In Clifton’s anthology, Gary Clayton Anderson’s notion of “biculturalism,” reveals how indigenous peoples made choices based upon “the knowledge and skills needed to exist in several distinct social settings” and as a means for “ethnic and social mobility” (Clifton 1989, 59-81). Examining how tourism influenced both the public and private spheres of Eastern Cherokee society, Beard-Moose illuminates how Cherokee public representations of authentic Indianness for outsiders actually preserved Cherokee cultural traditions and identity, creating a socio-economic space for them as well as interjecting their story into the narrative of American Indian history (2009, 2,4,18).

In addition, Morris W. Foster’s Being Comanche and Steven K. Adam’s Extinction or Survival reveal how indigenous identities are regenerated and influenced by the cultural attributes of modernity and the dominant society. Foster’s work connects with the Tigua experience by deconstructing the myth of the vanishing Comanche and illustrating how changes in Comanche culture and society did not equal the abandonment of Comanche social identity. Evaluating the nuances of identity construction, Foster argues that “Comanches have used changing languages, social identities, and social situations to realize a variety of actual social units and gatherings as a way of maintaining their traditional community” (1991, 1-2, 23). Adam furthers this view and applies it to Tigua by arguing that “Tigua culture is a product of cultural responses to various and changing majority rules” (2009, 6, 21). In this way, these scholars offer significant inroads into the way in which Tigua public presentations and performances at state fairs enabled tribal members a space of negotiation that would have otherwise been unavailable for them.

Cultural performances at fairgrounds and expositions also allowed the Tigua the ability to negotiate the public sphere and establish their indigeneity in the face of Euro-American hegemony. Frederick W. Gleach offers significant insights into this process of identity negotiation. Presenting fairgrounds and expositions as dynamic spaces where the dominant society exhibits its “power” and perpetuates its construction of popular or national identity, Gleach writes that

[w]hile often and most visibly hegemonic, these processes are never total, of course; they are also appropriated as counter hegemonic strategies by groups opposed to the dominant voice…more typically, the exposition also creates a space for non-Western and disenfranchised others (e.g., ethnic groups on display…) to represent themselves to an international audience (2003, 420).

In other words, fairgrounds serve as zones of contestation and collusion as subaltern groups co-opt and challenge the popularized stereotypes of the dominant culture to their best possible advantages. This counter-hegemonic strategy also underscores Coco Fusco’s examination of the implications of public representation as culture, identity, and politics converge in public spaces. Yet for Fusco, public exhibitions by indigenous peoples at fairgrounds during the late nineteenth-century confirmed white stereotypes of the “vanishing” and “primitive” Indian and catered to “the Western fascination with Otherness” (1995, 43).3 Looking at these how indigenous peoples negotiated white notions of indigeneity in public spaces, Christina T. Beard-Moose illuminates how the Eastern Cherokee adapted to these types of white stereotypes and resiliently used them to reinforce the validity of their own cultures and traditions. Beard-Moose explains that in response to tourist assumptions of “Indianness,” the Eastern Cherokee transformed their annual Cherokee Indian Fair from an event “created as a public Indian spectacle to a private Cherokee celebration of tradition and heritage”(2009, 69, 86). Gleach, Fusco, and Beard-Moose all reveal how indigenous peoples used fairgrounds as spaces of public representation as well as personal spaces of cultural self-determination. As such, their views allow for a new understanding about how fairs and expositions offered strategic opportunities for indigenous groups like the Tigua to simultaneously represent themselves both publicly and privately as they perpetuated their own identities, and maintained their evolving culture amidst the dominant society’s hegemonic influences and expectations.

In order to more fully understand the relationship between Tigua cultural continuity and western hegemony, one must review the historical context though which it evolved. Descendents of the North American Southwest’s Mogollon and Anasazi peoples, the Tigua originated from the Tiwa Pueblo of Isleta, New Mexico. Tigua oral traditions contend that as the Spanish retreated in the aftermath of the 1680 Pueblo Revolt, they captured numerous Tiwa Indians to shield their retreat (Calloway 2003, 82-95; Adam 2009, 33). This retreat consisted of two waves of migration during 1680 and 1682 in which Spanish colonists brought over 695 Tiwa and Piro Indians from New Mexico to El Paso del Norte. In 1682, the Franciscans established the Mission of Corpus Christi in Ysleta del Sur, and most of the Tigua settled in its proximity. Similarly, they opened missions in Senecu and Socorro, where the Piro settled with some Tigua. In 1692, colonial Spain granted El Paso’s mission-Indians all lands surrounding the missions in the Hinojosa Grant. In 1751, colonial Spain granted the inhabitants of the Ysleta mission thirty-six square miles of land surrounding the mission. Known as the Ysleta Grant, this document recognized the Tigua as the rightful inhabitants of this land (Bowden 1971, 140, 148n7; Comar, 2010).

Between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries, the Tigua and Piro intermarried with the region’s Suma and Manso Indians and collectively utilized all of the land that surrounded El Paso’s missions in their subsistence economy. As time passed, the Tigua emerged as the region’s predominant indigenous community, while the Indians in Socorro and Senecu increasingly merged into mestizo society (Calleros 1951, 26, 34-35; Calleros 1953, 10; Campbell 2006, 299-301; Comar 2010, 37-43). In Socorro and Senecu, intermarriage between Indians and mestizos contributed to a process of “ethnogenesis”4 in which numerous indigenous peoples claimed a regional mestizo or Paseño identity. In contrast, Ysleta remained largely populated by Native American peoples (Menchaca 2001, 94). Thus, by the turn of the nineteenth-century, El Paso’s lower valley held “a sizeable Christian Indian population that was part of colonial society” (Menchaca 2001, 117). Yet this interconnection with the colonizer held specific cultural implications for the Tigua.

Over the years, the legal-political status of Ysleta shifted from Indian to bicultural Indian and Mexican. Yet this did not affect the cultural identity of the Tigua, as they retained their cultural traditions during a period when their land was increasingly possessed by outsiders. After Mexican independence from Spain, numerous settlers from Mexico moved into the El Paso region. During this time, the Tigua conveyed various parcels of land in Ysleta to non-indigenous settlers and encroachment on Tigua land increased (Menchaca 2001, 203; Houser 2000, 15-21). After the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo placed Ysleta in the United States, Western expansion increasingly dispossessed the Tigua and severely disrupted their socio-cultural landscape. The state did not militarily drive them off their land, as they did other Texas Indians, because it appeared to the Texas legislature that, as Menchaca points out, “the people of Ysleta were a bicultural people deserving some of the privileges extended to Mexicans,” and it appeared to officials from the Bureau of Indian Affairs that the Tigua had adapted well to Mexican customs (Menchaca 2001, 230, 241). Yet in 1871, a group of local elites influenced the state of Texas to incorporate the towns of Ysleta, Socorro, and San Elizario. This geo-political incorporation into the state legally allowed mestizo and Anglo elites to increasingly privatize Tigua land. Between 1871 and 1874, local elites and speculators sold most of the land around the Ysleta mission. This severely dispossessed the Tigua, who utilized this land for their subsistence economy and cultural activities. By 1889, the incorporation of Ysleta had reduced the Tigua landscape from over thirty-six square miles to twenty-six acres (Comar 2010, 23-33; Martinez 2000, 19; Eickhoff 1996, 69-70). In this context, the Tigua entered the Progressive Era as a marginalized Native American community, whose political-legal status as bicultural simultaneously protected them from military expulsion and enabled their legal dispossession as they fell into the interstice between citizenship and savagery—not fully Indian according to contemporary stereotypes, yet not Mexican either.

To fully understand the implications of these stereotypes for the Tigua, one must consider the national context at this time. During the early Progressive Era, the United States sought to culturally assimilate Native Americans as second class citizens and privatize Indian lands. Seeking to indoctrinate American Indians into the nation-state, the federal government shipped children from reservations to boarding schools, educated them in English, and encouraged them to integrate into mainstream society. The 1887 General Allotment Act (Dawes Act) created tribal rolls, established a baseline for blood quantum, and distributed private allotments of reservation lands to eligible members of various Indian tribes that already lived on reservations. The goal of the Dawes Act was to end communal land use on Indian reservations by distributing individual land allotments. Underlying this new land policy was the motive to break up tribal unities and assimilate indigenous peoples into the emerging private and individualistic American nation. After distributing relatively small land allotments to eligible Indians, the government sold the leftover reservation lands to speculators, farmers, and miners. Between 1887 and 1934, this policy reduced Native American reservation landholdings from approximately 138 million acres to 48 million acres (Bruyneel 2007, 16; Adam 2009, 92; Trafzer 2000, 329-333; Sturm 2002, 78-79).

According to political scientist Kevin Bruyneel, a discursive tension between assimilation and control through racial dominance steered United States Indian policy during the Progressive Era. As the era progressed, white Americans romantically stereotyped the independence and rebellion of Native Americans in a way that reinforced an emerging notion of the Indian as a “noble savage.” Many white Americans associated this trope with authenticity, freedom, and purity, and used it to reinforce the laissez faire values of the era. They also used it to reinforce the racialized imagery of Indians as uncivilized, lazy, drunk, and thus ineligible for the full benefits of citizenship (2007, 12-14). Within this national context, the Tigua, as unrecognized mission-Indians and non-citizens, found themselves obscured and excluded from the grand narrative as they entered the Progressive Era.

Despite their exclusion from the national narrative of indigeneity, the Tigua did not forfeit their tribal identity as they persisted in Ysleta’s bustling mestizo community. Because of their indigenous identity, the Tigua experienced a significant amount of violence during the Progressive Era. This violence towards the Tigua caused them to often identify as Mexican in order to escape victimization by the Texas Rangers and other local vigilantes (Comar 2010, 60, 64; Houser 1979, 336-337; Adam 2009, 100; Roman 2009, 36). For example, in 1915 a group of Texas Rangers shot tribal member Luz Pedraza in the back of his head at point blank range in front of his house in Ysleta. Other incidents involved Texas Rangers assaulting tribal members who went to town after eight o’clock in the evening, sending them home bruised and injured. The Texas Rangers even dragged Damasio Colmenero down to the river and threatened to hurt him (Miguel Pedraza, Affidavit, and Pablo Carbajal, Affidavit, Ysleta Del Sur Pueblo Archives: Tom Diamond Files). Although Colmenero escaped uninjured, the implications for being Indian were obvious. If they identified as Indian in public, the Tigua stood the chance of being assaulted. Thus, in order to avoid violence, many Tigua identified as Mexican.

Identifying as Mexican or mestizo may have alleviated some violence, but the Texas Rangers mistreated mestizos also. Because Ysleta was an integrated community, many Tigua sometimes identified as Mexican to receive acceptance and property rights from their mestizo neighbors. Identifying as Mexican also allowed the Tigua to participate in the region’s political economy and local elections. This identity negotiation also involved relationships and kinship ties that had been forged through intermarriage and the acceptance of outsiders into the tribe (Comar 2010, 41-43; Adam 2009, 100, 108-110).

These survival mechanisms, Ysleta’s integrated demographics, and the Tigua’s cultural connection to both the Ysleta Mission and the local wage labor economy created an illusion of their cultural collapse into Mexicanness by the turn of the twentieth-century. Yet despite the assimilationist discourse of the Progressive Era, the Tigua, like the Cherokee and various other indigenous groups, had not disappeared. Instead they continued their culture and established themselves as an autonomous Native American polity by writing a tribal constitution and presenting their cultural rituals during public performances and ceremonies such as Saint Anthony’s Day, which they celebrate every thirteenth of June (Eickhoff 1996, 103, 203, 207; El Paso Herald 1890; El Paso Herald 1909). Saint Anthony’s Day reveals the cultural syncretism reveals the cultural syncretism that ostensibly masked the Tigua’s retention on indigenous culture. It also represents the way that indigenous peoples adapted to and negotiated Spanish colonization. In order to avoid the violent policies that Franciscan missionaries used to coerce indigenous peoples into Catholicism, the Tigua seemingly performed their conformity by dancing the Corn Dance in front of the church. Yet the Corn Dance signifies the onset of the Tigua agricultural season and shows their gratitude to the Earth Mother for her subsistence. In this way, the Tigua resiliently negotiated colonization by merging Saint Anthony’s Day with their traditional Corn Dance ceremony, which conveniently fell on the same day (Wright 1993, 143; Adam 2010, 58-63).

In a Euro-American context, this type of cultural syncretism is present throughout Tigua history and is important for understanding how they strategically negotiated their culture and identity. Despite their situation during the Progressive Era, the Tigua pragmatically established their autonomy by using public policy and public representations of indigeneity to their advantage in the same way that they adapted to Catholicism during the colonial period. In 1895, they established a tribal constitution with by-laws in order to preserve their tribal government and legitimate themselves as a sovereign people. The syncretic nature of Tigua culture is implicit throughout this document (Eickhoff 2010, 207-209; “Pueblo of San Antonio de Ysleta,” Ysleta Del Sur Pueblo Archives, Tom Diamond Files). The document also suggests that the Tigua understood the contemporary politics of Native American sovereignty, which held that in order for the Tigua to be recognized as sovereign people, they needed to conform to the western definition of an autonomous and civilized Indian nation.5 Like the Cherokee constitutions from earlier in the nineteenth-century, the Tigua constitution of 1895 sought to negotiate the structural requirements of state diplomacy to the best of their ability. Yet unlike the Cherokee, whose governmental structure was dismantled in 1906 under the auspices of the 1887 Dawes Act, the Tigua tribal government remained intact because of their obscure and isolated status with the Federal government (Conley 2008, 198).

In this context, public celebrations maintained tribal unity and gave the Tigua opportunities for cultural representation that perpetuated their cultural history into the El Paso region’s historical memory. Elucidating this phenomenon, an El Paso Herald article entitled “The Indian Dances” opened with a brief summary of Tigua history. Romantically elaborating on the Tigua’s link to New Mexico’s Pueblo Indians, it states that “[t]heir civilization may be older than ours, as they doubtless sprang from the very cradle of mankind—Asia.” It then exemplifies Tigua cultural persistence by describing them as “here staunch and true” (1890). Beyond cultural preservation, it showed how Tigua festivities served as heterogeneous meeting places for the region’s inhabitants. At one dance sponsored by the Tigua, “a few white gentlemen who undertook to go through the mazes of the cuna, or cradle dance” had the opportunity to dance with any “handsome young squaw [sic] he could find for a partner” (El Paso Herald 1890). Despite the contemporary rhetoric in which the local press described indigenous women, this article elucidates how gatherings in public spaces helped the Tigua maintain their culture and establish themselves as a real group of Native Americans with a history, the first step in their long process of sovereignty.6

This view is a microscopic application of Prasenjit Duara’s macro idea that cultural interactions and the establishment of an entity’s history (i.e., a nation) are precursors to sovereignty. Examining East Asian nation building, Duara writes that “nations are cognitively and institutionally constituted by [larger] global circulations that are mediated, in turn, by regional historical and cultural interactions” (2008, 323). Duara continues, “Nationalism as the predominant ideology of the nation-state has tended to locate sovereignty in the ‘authentic’ history and traditions of the people—the regime of authenticity—even while these have been considerably re-signified, if not invented to fit the nationalist project” (2008, 330). Although this second passage is more applicable to fairgrounds activities than local celebrations, it nonetheless signifies that the cultural persistence of an “authentic” culture, or culture that is viewed as authentic is a significant attribute of nation building, or, in the case of the Tigua, the establishment of an indigenous group’s sovereignty.

Presentations at the 1890 and 1899 Texas state fairs broadened the Tigua’s public exposure at both the regional and state levels (Houser 2004, 181). Ironically, these presentations also reinforced the stereotypical imagery that equated indigeneity with antiquated and anachronistic cultural practices. In order to meet public expectations and establish themselves as real or authentic Indians, the Tigua practiced diligently. On May 14, 1890, the El Paso Daily Herald reported that

[t]here are about 50 Pueblo Indians being trained at Ysleta, who will be taken to the state fair at Dallas on October…The men are being drilled in all sorts of Indian sports and the boys are getting to be experts in the use of bows and arrows. They will all be dressed in Indian fashion and it is expected will attract [sic] much attention at the fair. The American boys of Ysleta are learning the use of bow and arrow and can now kill rabbits, birds, etc., as trophies of their skill.

Although this article reinforces contemporary notions of the “noble savage,” as well as assimilationist discourse, by associating the modern with the primitive, it nonetheless gives the Tigua regional exposure otherwise unattainable outside of the realm of the public spectacle.

During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries world’s fairs and expositions perpetuated Western modern and progressive views that supported science, industry, and economic freedom. According to historian Mauricio Tenorio-Trillo, these types of fairgrounds served as teleological spaces that advanced modernity and reconciled nationalism, cosmopolitanism, colonialism, and capitalism (1996, 4-36). Historian Pheobe S. Kropp elucidates how this worldview perpetuated the views of anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan and stereotypically symbolized the world’s indigenous peoples as conquered relics of colonization who had endured the transition from savagery to civilization (2006, 133).7 In this context, Indian performances and displays at fairs both paralleled and obscured the harsh realities that indigenous peoples faced during the nineteenth century. Early Indian exhibitions, such as those at P.T. Barnum’s 1853 fair in New York, emphasized savagery and peril. Coco Fusco explains that these types of exhibitions supported stereotypes of Indians as “primitive” and “gave credence to white supremacist worldviews by representing nonwhite peoples and cultures as being in need of discipline, civilization, and industry” (1995, 41). Yet by 1900, as Kropp asserts, “the purpose of display shifted subtly from proving that the Indian threat was swiftly vanishing to showing the pacified Indian as a cultural artifact, not a political force” (2006, 133). In this way, indigenous performances at fairgrounds supported the narrative of Western expansion and reinforced the dominant society’s cultural stereotypes about Native Americans (Williams 1980, 138).

Like other indigenous peoples who performed at fairs and expositions, the Tigua used nostalgic regalia that conformed to popular notions of Indianness. As mission Indians in an emerging market economy, the Tigua seemingly blended with Ysleta’s mestizo community and usually dressed according to contemporary popular norms (Phillips and Steiner 1999, 220; Fewkes 1902, 58-59). As such, their presentations at Texas state fairs involved a performance that conflicted with their everyday lifestyles. This is exemplified by an 1899 newspaper excerpt that illuminated the attraction that the departure of a group of Tigua caused as they left Ysleta for the Texas state fair in Dallas dressed in Indian regalia, such as feathered headdresses and buckskins. Describing the Tigua as “dressed with the usual costumes,” the article points out that this deviance from everyday fashions “attracted a great deal of attention” (El Paso Herald 1899). Yet this performance phenomenon did not uniquely pertain to the Tigua. During the 1915 Panama-California Exposition, various mission Indians from California worked at the fair’s Painted Desert exhibit and emulated the ancient ways of the Pueblo, Navajo, and Apache as they maintained the “appearance of primitive authenticity” in order to conform to the demands of exposition supervisors and the expectations of white audiences (Kropp 2006, 103, 137, 150). Similarly, at the 1907 Jamestown Exposition, public presentations of Virginia’s Powhatans in stereotypical Plains Indian regalia, complete with large headdresses and horses, conformed to the dominant society’s views and undermined indigenous counter-hegemony. Reinforcing the myth of Indians as “vanishing peoples,” this imagery confined living Indians to anachronistic representations that metaphorically excluded them from the “modern world” (Gleach 2003, 430, 440).

Explaining how the Bureau of Indian Affairs and white entrepreneurs influenced Eastern Cherokees to perform in stereotypical Plains regalia for “the tourist gaze,” Beard-Moose describes this performance phenomenon as “Chiefing,” which stood in direct contrast with the realities of everyday life for North Carolina’s Cherokees. Although this conformity to white stereotypes reinforced preconceived notions of indigeneity for capitalist consumption, it also allowed the Eastern Cherokee a space of agency and negotiation that would have otherwise been unavailable to them (2009, 80-82). In a similar way, public performances that met popular expectations of indigeneity gave the Tigua a space of agency as well. Yet they did so in a context quite different than that of the Eastern Cherokee.

What made the Tigua unique was that modern society had practically written them off as vanished, so any type of public exposure was necessary to help them establish their status as mission Indians. For example, an 1890 newspaper article entitled “Indian Dance at Ysleta” discussed Tigua history within the larger historical context of the Ysleta mission and declared that “[t]he descendants of the [original Tigua] families have gradually been absorbed by the Mexicans… by intermarriage” and that “there are only three or four absolutely pure blooded Indians in Ysleta and these are very old” (El Paso Daily Herald). This rhetorical assimilation transitioned into cultural erasure as it introduced “Father Cordova,” who “rightly look[ed] upon the dances as a relic of barbarity to be dispensed with as soon as possible” (El Paso Daily Herald 1890). Considering these extremes, public presentations in Indian regalia, either in Ysleta or at the fairgrounds, greatly benefitted the Tigua by allowing them to distinguish their group autonomy both within and apart from Ysleta’s ethnic Mexican community. Elucidating the general dynamics of this cultural aesthetic, historian Paige Raibmon explains that

[w]hites imagined what the authentic Indian was, and Aboriginal people engaged and shaped those imaginings in return. They were collaborators—albeit unequally—in authenticity. Non-Aboriginal people employed definitions of Indian culture that limited Aboriginal claims to resources, land, and sovereignty, at the same time as Aboriginal people utilized these same definitions to access the social, political, and economic means necessary for survival under colonialism (2005, 3).

Applying this dynamic to the Tigua, it appears that in order to disrupt the myth of Mexicanness, they co-opted the stereotypical aesthetics that symbolized the vanishing Indian for some groups, such as traditional and colorful Indian regalia, and used it to negotiate their own cultural persistence as a signifier of authentic indigeneity.

As mission Indians dressed in nostalgic regalia for white audiences, the Tigua seemingly reconciled the tensions between civilization and savagery. Yet this position posed a significant dilemma for Indians within the Progressive Era worldview. Examining the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair (i.e. Columbia Exposition), Raibmon draws out these tensions by connecting them to two converging influences: (1) salvage anthropologists who presented indigenous peoples as “traditional yet vanishing,” and (2) government officials and missionaries who wanted to see them nationally assimilated and civilized. During the late nineteenth century, the convergence of these two threads united anthropological science with assimilationists and marginalized all indigenous people in the process. By the early twentieth century, anthropology and archeology had both placed the Southwest into the “wider cultural narrative of racialized human progress” (2005, 34, 40, 45-46). This is evidenced by the anthropological theories of Lewis Henry Morgan and Edward Burnett Tylor, which viewed indigenous culture as experiencing a transition from savagery to civilization (Stocking 1989, 174-175, 212-213). Straddling the fine line between Mexicanness and Indianness as unrecognized mission Indians, the Tigua seemingly fit well inside the interstitial space between these two polemics, allowing them various opportunities to negotiate colonization. Although the Tigua avoided federal reservations and boarding schools because of their obscure status as Native Americans, they did not avoid anthropologists.

Over the course of the Progressive Era, changes in anthropological viewpoints made outsiders more susceptible to recognizing Tigua indigeneity. During the early Progressive Era, anthropologists believed that Indians of the North American Southwest would eventually become extinct as they acculturated into the dominant society. These views especially predominated during the early twentieth century as ethnologists like Jessie Walter Fewkes, from the Bureau of American Ethnology, studied the Southwest’s Indians under the impression that authentic indigenous culture consisted of specific traits comprised of anachronistic form and content. Yet by the 1920s, in the wake of the First World War, many anthropologists questioned the values of western civilization and began to view culture in its own right. In this vein, scholars like Franz Boaz, Harold Stearns, and Edward Sapir broke from Morgan and Tylor’s view of cultural evolution, which conflated culture with civilization. Sapir in particular viewed culture as an organic and autonomous entity that experienced a life of its own (Basso 1979, 17; Stocking 1989, 214-217).

By the 1930s, a new school of thought had emerged in which anthropologists considered the cultural organizations and social institutions of indigenous communities. As scholars like British social anthropologist Alfred R. Radcliff Brown focused on kinship and social organization, American anthropologists like Ruth Benedict viewed culture as a psychological phenomenon. Although Benedict emphasized the psychological dimensions of national character, such thinking as applied to Native American communities emphasized the distinctive cultural profiles of each group. Subsequently, scholars who studied the Southwest’s Indians synthesized these two approaches and concluded that culture was not static and that change was fundamental to culture. These mid-twentieth-century anthropologists refuted the notion of indigenous societies as closed anachronistic systems made up of “cultural isolates” (Basso 1979, 21; Stocking 1989, 219-223). In this way, the development of anthropological views from the late 1800s to the 1930s suggests that by the time Franklin Delano Roosevelt met the Tigua at the 1936 Texas Centennial and became an honorary tribal cacique, some educated elites and members of the general public likely felt more open minded towards authentic Tigua indigeneity and cultural continuity through social change.

Yet in 1901, when Fewkes showed up on the Tigua’s doorstep, he believed in the old school ethnology that judged a group’s culture by its traits, form, and content instead of its particular social context. A well published naturalist, Fewkes began studying New Mexico’s Zuni and Hopi Indians in 1889. Between 1890 and his death in 1930, he published over 44 articles on indigenous peoples in the North American Southwest and Caribbean regions (El Paso Herald 1901; Hough 1931, 92-93; Ortiz 1979, 638-639). By November 1901, Fewkes was in Ysleta researching the Tigua. Framing Indians as relics of the past in an article entitled “The Tigua Indians: Scientist Studying the Tribe at Ysleta,” the El Paso Herald announced that Fewkes’s “discoveries will throw considerable light on the origin of the ancient races” and “resurrect” their “dead languages.” Using language as a signifying trait of cultural continuance, Fewkes predicted that the Tigua “language will become extinct when the old Indians now speaking it die, because not appreciating the value of teaching it to their children, they allow the younger ones to grow up with no knowledge of it whatsoever” (El Paso Herald 1901). Emphasizing the need to salvage the “ancient” tradition, Fewkes suggested that as the Tigua lost their language, they too would become extinct. Thus during the age of Social Darwinism, the prevailing wisdom left no room for autochthonous lifeways in the burgeoning United States.

In this context, Fewkes’s methodological approach perpetuated the image of the Tigua’s gradual extinction. His 1902 article, “The Pueblo Settlements near El Paso, Texas” exhibited his findings. Fewkes wrote that the Tigua

Indians have practically become “Mexicanized,” and survivals of their old pueblo life which still remain, such as their dances before the church, have long lost the meaning which they once had or that which similar dances still have in the pueblos higher up the Rio Grande. The southern Tiwa and Piros are good Roman Catholics, and their old dances are still kept up not from a lingering belief of the Indians in their old religion, as is the case with certain pueblos in which Christianity is merely a superficial gloss over aboriginal beliefs, but as survivals which have been worn down into secular customs. They cannot give an intelligible explanation of the meaning of these dances, because they do not know their significance. Interest in them on the part of the ethnologist is purely as folklore, for they represent a stage through which the dances of the Pueblos ultimately go when the complexion of the population changes from Indian to Mexican. Ysleta is an instructive example of a Pueblo Indian settlement which has become a Mexican town, the number of Americans settled there not being large enough to affect materially the population. It is therefore instructive to study a pueblo in this stage of transformation (1902, 58-59).

Fewkes ignored continuity within change and assessed Tigua culture as if it was supposed to exist in a timeless anachronistic space of homeostasis. Equating “transformation” with extinction, his closing remark inferred a cultural trajectory that denied indigenous peoples the ability to maintain their own identities through “cultural preservation,” which he could not even conceive of in 1901 (Adam 2009, 74; Comar 2010, 9). He also failed to consider the heterogeneous nature of Mission Indian communities as well as the fact that the Tigua had adapted to Catholicism, migrated to Ysleta del Sur from their homelands in Isleta, New Mexico, and participated in over two hundred years of cross-cultural interaction in which they had intermarried with various other indigenous groups, such as the Suma, Manso, and Piro (Campbell 2006, 299-301; Comar 2010, 37-43).

Intermarriage was nothing strange to Native American communities. Illuminating Fewkes’s racialization of Mexicanness and the heterogeneous nature of indigenous society, anthropologist Frederic W. Gleach asserts that “native identities had a stronger tendency to be defined by cultural behavior rather than biological factors. Non-native and mixed-blood people were thus often accepted as Indians, by Indians. But to others the folk-racial categories held, and the Indian identity of such people had to be qualified” (2002, 500). Although Fewkes’s analysis of the Tigua was not intentionally racist, it did collapse into the popular stereotype that viewed Indians as culturally singular isolates. Addressing this stereotype, Adam explains that Americans have always conceived of indigenous peoples as homogeneous, self reproducing entities, and, as stated above, Progressive Era anthropologists saw any signs of acculturation as signifiers of extinction (2009, 14-15n34,35).8

Fewkes’s evaluation of rituals and language as authentic cultural determinants also overlooked the meaning of place in association with Tigua identity and cultural continuity. Examining their connection with Hueco Tanks, a place that holds significant spiritual meaning for many of the region’s indigenous peoples, Fewkes noted that the Tigua used Hueco Tanks as a summer camp and that various Tiguas had painted their names in the caves there. In fact, the Tigua used Hueco Tanks to hunt, camp, and conduct various spiritual ceremonies. But in his article, Fewkes referred to Hueco Tanks as a “Mescalero reservation” and overlooked its significance as part of the Tigua cultural landscape (Fewkes 1901, 48; Gerald 2000, 48; Greenberg and Esber 2000, 315-316, 328). Similarly, by arguing that traditional Tigua dances have “lost their meaning,” he missed the fact that the Tigua used these rituals to reinforce their identity, regardless of their authenticity or the ways that their meanings changed over time. Despite Fewkes’s view that the Tigua had assimilated into the borderlands Mexican Paseño society, Tigua cultural presentations in public spaces, such as dances and ceremonies, still served as mechanisms that preserved their culture, identity, and autonomy during the early twentieth century (Fewkes 1902, 58-59; Adam 2009, 52, 65-72).

Progressive Era press coverage on Tigua cultural rituals reinforced anthropological views that conformed to the trope of the vanishing Indian. Yet they also gave the Tigua access to the public sphere and served as another mechanism that reinforced their Indianness in the public consciousness. In 1908, an article in the El Paso Herald announced that “Remnants” of a “Prehistoric Race Reside Near El Paso” and linked Ysleta’s Indians with the ancient “Pueblos of the Gran Quivera.” Another article elaborated on the Tigua celebration of St. Anthony’s Day. Explaining how “the Ysleta tribe of Pueblo Indians” celebrated “with all the pomp and ceremony which the custom of centuries prescribes,” it concluded that “it seems but a matter of a few years before [I]ndian dances will have passed into history…for education is driving from the young braves the superstitions of their forefathers, and with them the customs” (Ross 1909).9 Elucidating the syncretism of Tigua and Catholic belief systems, a January 1912 article discussed how Ysleta’s Indians baptized a man during King’s Day by stating that

[t]he man chosen by the tribe to be baptized in atonement for their sins [sic] was taken to the river and stripped of his gaudy trappings. He plunged into the water, diving under seven times. When he came out he was dressed, placed in a litter and carried to a house and placed in a bed, where he is to lie as one dead for 24 hours, representing the death of the sins of the tribe. (El Paso Herald)

This ceremony reveals the hybrid or syncretic nature of Tigua spirituality in that water signifies purification in both belief systems (Fewkes 1902, 67, 70). Beyond hybridity, the article also exposes indigeneity within the framework of a “civilizing” institution: the Catholic Church. During the Progressive Era, this mixture of colonial and indigenous tradition helped reconcile the Indianness of the Tigua with emerging notions of modernity because both fell into the linear narrative of progress (Concept from Tenorio-Trillo 1996, xii, 71).

In this sense, the Tigua’s historical interaction with Spanish colonization and Franciscan missions reconciled Tigua tradition with modernity and opened a space in the public sphere for the Tigua as real people, living in the civilized present. Although press coverage exemplifying this dynamic still contained imagery that reinforced older stereotypes, it did present the Tigua as real living Indians, who had not vanished into extinction. In October of 1909, the El Paso Herald announced that Ysleta’s “[I]ndians are preparing for their winter festivities and the tom-tom is heard every night. They will take part in the…parade in El Paso during the fair. These dances are of great interest to all newcomers in the valley.” Although these types of articles presented Tigua culture as existing within a cultural vacuum that pulled it towards inevitable extinction, they also gave credence to Tigua cultural continuity by revealing how Tigua public performances reinforced their indigeneity within the public sphere.

Tigua ceremonies also received press coverage when dances turned violent. During the Tigua 1910-1911 annual New Year festival, “Santiago Lujan, said to have been intoxicated, insisted on joining the dancers with his hat on. This is considered a serious breach of etiquette. So when one of the merry makers took it off for him he became very angry and . . . proceeded to shoot up the dance with a 22 rifle” (El Paso Herald 1910). Similarly in 1913, the Herald reported a monthly dance in “the [I]ndian village” of Ysleta, where “Gilberto Carbajal was shot under the right eye and Guillermo Tapia through the right hand.” Noting that Antonio Bustamente was also “struck with a pistol during the fight,” this article names the event an “[I]ndian dance and shooting party.” Despite associating Tigua celebrations with violence and savagery, these articles refute the idea that the Tigua had vanished by validating their existence as an interactive Indian community. This type of informal recognition served the Tigua well within the larger context of being recognized nationally during the late Progressive and New Deal periods.

American Indian policies during the Progressive and New Deal eras significantly shifted from those of the late nineteenth century. Yet during the Progressive Era, many of the legal interpretations that recognized Native Americans were based on Morgan and Tylor’s notion of the evolution from savagery to civilization. For example, in 1913, the Supreme Court case United States v. Sandoval overturned its antecedent decision of the 1876 case United States v. Joseph and reinstated federal protections to New Mexico’s Pueblo Indians. However, the Court did so under the precept that these Indians had retained the uncivilized traits of their culture and had resisted the benefits of civilization. Acknowledging Indianness in terms of savagery over civilization, this decision posed a dilemma for the Tigua as civilized mission Indians in Texas without federal protection (Garroutte 2003, 64; Comar 2010, 31-32). The Court’s acceptance of Morgan and Tylor’s views, which conflated Indianness with primitive “savage” forms and behaviors, suggested that missionization equaled civilization. The ideology behind these anthropological views and the policy decisions that they influenced, in turn, suggests that they influenced Indians like the Tigua to aesthetically present themselves in traditional and ceremonial forms that conformed to these popular misconceptions of Indianness.

Yet scholarly views toward indigenous peoples changed during the 1920s, and public policy followed. Among the various reform policies passed by Congress in 1924, the Indian Citizen Act (ICA) gave citizenship, voting rights, and the right of self government to all American Indians, including the Tigua. A combination of assimilationist, Progressive Era, and Indian rights policies, ICA seemed like indigenous peoples’ “final absorption” into American civilization (Trafzer 2000, 343-344; Roman 2009, 38; Greymorning 2004, 69; Adam 2009, 93). Nationally, the 1887 Dawes Act, the 1924 ICA, and conservative efforts to privatize Indian land had marginalized most Native Americans. By 1926, however, policy reformers who advocated for the protection of Indian lands and communities turned to the Brookings Institution for help. Under the auspices of the Brookings Institution, Luis Meriam wrote a report entitled The Problem of Indian Administration, which is known as the Meriam Report. Published in 1928, the Meriam Report informed policymakers that as Indians lost their land, they experienced high levels of poverty, insufficient health standards, high death rates, and low birth rates. After Franklin Delano Roosevelt defeated Herbert Hoover in the 1932 presidential election, he made Harold Ickes Secretary of the Interior and John Collier Commissioner of Indian Affairs. Influenced by the Meriam Report, Collier ended the assimilationist movement, abolished boarding school requirements, and supported indigenous cultural preservation. In 1933, Ickes angered many conservatives by ending the allotment system and the sale of Indian allotments, but because of the Great Depression, public feelings swayed in his favor (Trafzer 2000, 339-354; Taylor 1980, 13-14). Then in 1934, Collier influenced Congress to pass the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA). The IRA put all Indian land into a federal trust, reclaimed land sold to individuals during the allotment period, and guaranteed indigenous peoples rights to self-determination, tribal government, culture, and identity (Adam 2009, 94; Trafzer 2000, 335-336).

This changing political and intellectual milieu made state and local elites more susceptible to recognizing the Tigua allowing them into the narrative of the region’s public history. In 1933, an article in The San Antonio Express declared that “these refugees formed the first permanent settlement in Texas.” Suggesting cultural change and continuity, the Express romantically described “Ysleta as “a living example of the metamorphosis of the United States.” Illustrating a place where Indians, conquistadors, and Anglo settlers lived in “peace and harmony,” while preserving their distinct customs and identities, this article presented a romantic and racialized rhetorical imagery of peaceful Indians and Spanish conquistadors which sought to attract tourists by connecting the region to its European colonial past (San Antonio Express 1910; for more on this imagery see Nieto-Phillips 2004, 103). This imagery also emerged on the cover of a booklet published by the El Paso Catholic Diocese, which illustrated “Spanish Conquistadors taking possession of New Spain,” and “Franciscan Friars Christianizing Indians.” Edited by Cleofas Calleros and researched by historian Joseph I. Driscoll, this booklet perpetuated the imagery of Indians as part of the region’s colonial past by placing El Paso’s missions into the state narrative as the “oldest in Texas” (El Paso Herald Post February 29, 1936, Cleofas Calleros Collection). An El Paso Herald Post story on H. Harris Sheldon’s painting of the “Ysleta Mission, First Church in Texas,” evidences this trend. Writing that the painting would be displayed at the Texas Centennial’s Catholic Exhibit, the article explained how the painting reflected “the mighty spiritual light that this early house of worship must have brought to the mind of the primitive Indian…a mind still darkened by the cloak of ignorance” (1936). In this way, the Texas Centennial promoted the type of history that portrayed the Tigua as “primitive” colonial subjects whose historical existence rested in the Spanish missions of the past.10

Initially it seemed unlikely that the Tigua would perform at the 1936 Centennial Exposition. In January, Calleros invited the Tigua to present in June at the Centennial’s El Paso Day and National Folk Festival. The Tigua turned down Callero’s first invitation because it conflicted with Saint Anthony’s Day. By April, they agreed to send thirty-five people after the Saint Anthony’s Day celebration. Then they decided to perform at the expo before the holiday. Calleros resolved this with the help of Father Cordova, who had served as Ysleta’s pastor for thirty years. With Cordova’s influence, the Tigua agreed to perform at the Texas Centennial over the course of Saint Anthony’s day and celebrate it upon their return to Ysleta (Cleofas Calleros to A.F. Quisenberry, April 14, 1936; Cleofas Calleros to Roland Harwell, April 23, 1936; Cleofas Calleros to Jack Cheney, April 25, 1936, all from Cleofas Calleros Collection).

Yet funding the Tigua’s trip to Dallas proved to be problematic. In late 1935, the Texas Centennial Commission had awarded the El Paso Chamber of Commerce $50,000, but the money could only be used for “permanent projects such as buildings, statues, and markers.” (Houser 2004, 183-184). Excluded from state funds, Calleros and the Tigua relied on private contributions. In April 1936, El Paso’s Chamber of Commerce seemed open minded about funding the Tigua and led Calleros and Sarah Knott of the Centennial’s National Folk Festival to believe that they intended to donate $3,000 for the trip. Subsequently, organizer Leslie Reed agreed to help the Tigua raise the money for transportation, food, lodging, and cloth for uniforms. By late April, the Chamber of Commerce had not contacted Calleros, who had already begun to solicit funds elsewhere (Houser 2004, 183-184; Calleros to Quisenberry, April 14, 1936; Calleros to Harwell, April 23, 1936; Calleros to Cheney, April 25, 1936, Cleofas Calleros Collection). Reaching out to his network, Calleros wrote to another parish, “We are having a terrible time raising the necessary funds to pay our transportation from El Paso to Dallas…so we are counting on you or the Dallas Knights of Columbus, or Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, or some other Catholic organization, to sponsor our show for June 13th”( Cleofas Calleros to Rev. Fr. Joseph G. O’Donohoe, May 22, 1936, Cleofas Calleros Collection; Also see Calleros to O’Donohoe, May 2, 1936, Cleofas Calleros Collection). Thus, because Texas policy and the Great Depression made funding a major obstacle for the Tigua’s journey to Dallas, funding for the trip came from the Church and various private organizations.

Poor planning and coordination between Calleros and El Paso’s other Centennial participants also created some confusion. Noting that the Tigua planned to dance at the fair, the Herald announced in June that El Paso’s Tipica Orchestra planned to give President Roosevelt “a $60 sombrero and serenade him with some music” (El Paso Herald Post 1936). Upon learning that the “El Paso delegation” planned to give Roosevelt a sombrero, Calleros assumed that they would do so after the Tigua made him an honorary cacique (Calleros to Kittrell, June 4, 1936, Cleofas Calleros Collection; Port Arthur News 1936). It was a known fact that the Tigua planned to make Roosevelt a cacique and Calleros helped make this a reality. Through his efforts, the Centennial commission agreed to let the Tigua have ten minutes with the President on July 12, pending “Presidential Approval” (Cleofas Calleros to W.H. Kittrell, June 4, 1936; Cleofas Calleros to Sarah Gertrude Knott, June 10, 1936, Cleofas Calleros Collection). Just before Calleros left with the Tigua for Dallas on June 10, he was still unsure whether the Roosevelt ceremony had been approved, and he had no idea what to expect once the Tigua arrived in Dallas (Calleros to Kittrell, June 10, 1936, Cleofas Calleros Collection).

On June 10 at three o’clock in the afternoon, Calleros, Cacique Colmenero, and thirty-three Tiguas from Ysleta departed for Dallas in a brand new Ford V-8 bus. A mural on the side of the bus announced the “Tigua Indians” of “Ysleta Texas” and displayed an image of an Indian in a stereotypical plains style war bonnet (El Paso Times 1936; Houser 2004, 185; Calleros 1953, 16). The next morning, the Tigua arrived in Abilene for breakfast. The Abilene Daily Reporter wrote that they “swarmed into Doyle’s cafe…filling every table in the house and crowding the palefaces to the counter” (1936). After breakfast, assistant cacique Sebastian Duran played “a single beat on the 150 year-old tom-tom” that “brought Indian chants from half a dozen old braves” (The Abilene Daily Reporter 1936). The Reporter then romantically concluded that “[s]miles lit their faces as the campfires of sixty years ago lived in their eyes as they shuffled back and forth in the Red-man’s dance” (1936). That evening, the Tiguas reached Dallas and Calleros and Reed met with the exposition’s staff to work out their schedules for the next three days (El Paso Times 1936).

The next morning, April 12, Calleros, Reed, the Tigua, and the Negro Chorus met at 8:30 in front of the Centennial Administration Building, but the El Paso Tipica Orchestra was nowhere to be found. Under the morning sun, the Tigua entered the Dallas Cotton Bowl and waited for the President’s arrival. During that time, the Centennial staff mistakenly confused the Tigua with the Alabama-Coushatta and announced that “Indians from Alabama” waited to honor the President. As they waited on the stadium floor in front of sixty-five thousand spectators, Cacique Colmenero asked Calleros to name the President an Honorary Tigua Cacique. When Roosevelt’s cavalcade entered the stadium and crawled to a halt, Governor Allred escorted Calleros, Colmenero, and Isabel Granillo to the President’s car. There, in front of numerous government officials and photographers, Calleros bestowed the President with a headband that Tigua women had made from peacock and turkey feathers and declared him an Honorary Cacique. Then Colmenero gifted Roosevelt with a pair of black and white buckskin moccasins that came from a deer that had been hunted at Hueco Tanks. Subsequently, Granillo made Eleanor Roosevelt an “Honorary Squaw” and presented her with an Indian Molcajete (El Paso Times 1936; Calleros to Around Here, June 18, 1936, Cleofas Calleros Collection; The Abilene Daily Reporter 1936; Abilene Morning News 1936; Roosevelt Article and Photo, Cleofas Calleros Papers).

After the Tigua greeting, the President’s caravan continued to a platform stage on the stadium floor, where Roosevelt made a speech. Then, the Tigua, Reed, and Calleros met El Paso’s Mayor Sherman at the Socorro Mission Building (Calleros to Around Here, June 18, 1936, Cleofas Calleros Collection). This reproduction of the Socorro Mission, complete with live Indians, surely pandered to the crowd’s fantasies and stereotypes of Spanish missions, conquistadors, and colonized Indians. But this did not stop the Tigua from stealing the show. Later that day they gave two performances in the amphitheater and made El Paso’s presentation quite a success. Their sensational performances continued into the Saint Anthony’s Day celebration on June thirteenth and the National Folk Festival on the fourteenth. Noting the Tigua, the Negro Chorus, and the Tipica Orchestra, the San Antonio Light reported that El Paso “ran the show at the Centennial” (1936). Writing that “[i]t was El Paso Day yesterday, today, and tomorrow,” the article also states that the Tigua “created a near riot wherever they appear[ed]” (The San Antonio Light 1936).

The 1936 Texas Centennial celebration was a state fair and centennial celebration all wrapped up in one. One Centennial flyer emphasized patriotic themes that included history, progress, and development. The Centennial sought to promote tourism and stimulate economic development in the midst of economic depression. The flyer did not mention any American Indians and instead focused on tourist attractions such as Caddo Lake, noting that the lake’s glorious history “vanished with the end of steamboat transportation”(Houser 2004, 182; “Starring Texas,” Cleofas Calleros Papers). In this way, flyers such as this erased any trace of Native Americans from the state’s historical narrative. Mentioning El Paso as the “city of the sun,” the flyer paid tribute to “ancient Spanish Dons” and displayed depictions of Spanish conquistadors. Romantically describing Ysleta as Texas’s oldest community with phrases like “mellow mission” and “golden yesterdays,” the flyer overlooked the Tigua as participants in the region’s history (“Starring Texas,” Cleofas Calleros Papers).

Despite these types of cultural erasures, the publicity that the Centennial Exposition gave the Tigua significantly elevated their status. Often described in terms of vanishing and ancient, the Tigua’s Centennial performances opened a new discourse that further recognized the Tigua as “an Indian nation living in Ysleta” (Abilene Morning News 1936). Yet these new views overlapped the old as the rhetorical imagery of the 1930s Texas popular imagination associated the Tigua with the state’s “oldest city” and the fair’s “Old Ysleta historic village”(Abilene Daily Reporter 1936; El Paso Herald Post 1936; see Tenoreo-Trillo 1996, 64, 198 for concept of historical overlap). Placing the tribe’s authenticity within the primitive residual of Spain’s colonial past, the popular press celebrated the anachronistic Tigua that survived into the present (El Paso Herald Post 1936). Despite this misleading imagery, the Centennial was quite a success for the Tigua.

Upon their return, the Tigua performed on July sixteenth at the Ysleta Centennial Celebration and planned to perform at El Paso’s Sun Carnival that December. The 1936 Ysleta Centennial was the first of similar celebrations to be held in Socorro and San Elizario. It featured matachine dancers from New Mexico, Franciscan Friars from El Paso’s St. Anthony’s Seminary, and the Tigua as “guests of honor.” At the Ysleta Centennial, Margarita Calleros, Cleofas’s daughter, unveiled a historical marker commemorating the Ysleta Mission, and various local officials spoke on behalf of Ysleta and the Tigua. For instance, County Judge Joseph McGill stated that the “Tiguas were Indians of peace, not war” (El Paso Herald Post, July 15, 1936; El Paso Herald Post, July 17, 1936). Another speaker elaborated that the “settlement of this region might have been delayed for a century” if the Tigua had not helped colonial settlers defend against Apache raiders. Accompanied by a dinner and fireworks, the Ysleta festival celebrated the Tigua’s interpolation into the region’s historical narrative (El Paso Herald Post, July 17, 1936).

During the festivities, the Tigua declared Driscoll and Reed honorary tribal members. The Herald reports that “Chief Colmenero placed his feathered headdress on Joseph I. Driscoll, making him the honorary Tigua historian, and on Leslie Reed, inducting him into the tribe as an ‘indio,’ or Indian” (El Paso Herald, 1936). While Driscoll’s writing serves as a baseline for Tigua historiography, the booklet itself promoted El Paso as a tourist booster more than a study of Tigua history. As its pages seemingly commodified the Tigua to promote El Paso as an exotic tourist destination, they reinforced Tigua indigeneity and placed them at the center of the region’s history as real Indians (“El Pasoans and their Neighbors Greet You Amigo!” Cleofas Calleros Papers). Subsequently, El Paso invited the Tigua to present alongside the Mescalero Apache at the Sun Carnival’s “Indian Day” on December 31, 1936. For their presentation, the Tigua planned to display their “craftsmanship in weaving and silver working” as they performed “ancient tribal dances” at El Paso’s San Jacinto Plaza (Abilene Morning News 1936).

Although the Tigua made great public gains to be recognized as Native Americans during 1936, by the end of the year, life eventually caught up with them. Just before the Tigua’s presentation at El Paso’s Sun Carnival, Damasio Colmenero’s wife, Agustina, passed away, causing the tribe to cancel its performance (El Paso Herald Post, December 31, 1936; Ysleta Del Sur Pueblo, e-mail message to author, March 28, 2011). Despite this setback, 1936 served the Tigua as a year of transition, a turning point in which they established themselves in the public consciousness as being “real” Indians. While the Tigua lived everyday lives in Ysleta’s contemporary society, their self-representations of indigeneity throughout 1936 had rearticulated their socio-cultural positionality in the public imagination and influenced many to advocate tribal recognition (Houser 2005, 35).

Refuting the popular notion that they had vanished into Mexicanness, the Tigua solidified their indigenous identity through cultural performances at public events and state fairs during the Progressive and New Deal eras. They strategically used fairgrounds to rearticulate the popular misconceptions of the vanishing Indian by co-opting public stereotypes of Indianness and using them to their advantage. In spite of assimilationist discourse, the Tigua maintained their cultural lifestyles as they adapted to the changing world in which they lived. Persisting through the oppression of Progressive Era Indian policy, which sought to civilize and assimilate indigenous peoples, the Tigua emerged in the public sphere as real life people whose history played a significant role in the settlement and development of the El Paso region.


1. Ysleta del Sur refers to Ysleta of the South, in Texas, as compared to Isleta, New Mexico, which is further north. A cacique is a chief or tribal leader. A molcajete is a small stone bowl used for grinding food and spices. The grinding tool used to mash various foodstuffs in the molcajete is a smaller stone cylinder called a tejolote.

2 The term “real Indians” is from Garroutte (2003, 4).

3 For more on this idea see Bhabha (1994, 2-3).

4. For more on “ethnogenesis” see Radding (1997, 8-9, 249).

5. For further treatments of this topic see Bruyneel (2007).

6. For more on this dynamic see Duara (2008, 323, 330).

7. For Morgan’s notion of the transition from savagery to civilization see Morgan (1877, vi).

8. For indigenous heterogeneity see Hämäläinen (2008).

9. The Tigua celebrate St. Anthony’s Day on June 13th.

10. For more on Indians and Spanish Missions during this period see Bolton (1917, 42-61).


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One thought on “As the Sun Shined Brightly: Tigua Representations of Indigeneity and Agency Through Public Presentations, 1889-1936

  1. I was first educated about the Tigua Indians revolt at Isleta and thier retreat by Leon Metz, a local El Paso Historian. Having been born in El Paso, I was brought up to speak only English as our Grandparents witnessed how The Texas Rangers were treating non Indian/Mexican people.It was better to say you were Mexican than claiming your Indigenous . The Tiguas have prospered and despite the way they were treated in the past,have sponsered and helped the community tremendously. Great article. ..

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