We’rethe heritage of a native Texas
Stilltribe written off as extinct
With cane ornaments piercing their noses and nipples, Karankawa warriors were the stuff of nightmares. Reports of their savagery date to the accounts of French and Spanish explorers in the 17th and 18th centuries. The indigenous inhabitants of a strip of Texas coastal inlets, marshes, and forests from Galveston Bay to Corpus Christi Bay, the Karankawa were described as wearing breechcloths or nothing at all, revealing muscular bodies covered in tattoos and paint. The men were said to have frequently topped 7 feet in height, described as fleet of foot and powerful wrestlers. They coated themselves in a poultice made of either shark oil or alligator grease, which warded off mosquitoes and also gave them a pungent aroma. Their red cedar longbows were almost as tall as they were, and their strings sent steel-tipped, goose-feather guided arrows hissing with unerring accuracy through the bodies of their prey and combatants alike. And on top of everything else, we were told, the Karankawa were voracious cannibals.
“Ask any school-aged child in a Texas public school what they know about the Karankawa and you will, most likely, receive a testimony about their despicable savagery, gruesome cannibalism, and general lack of civility and appeal,” wrote Vivien Geneser, a former Texas A&M-San Antonio associate professor of early childhood education, in the American Educational History Journal.
While you might think such teachings are a thing of the past, Geneser—who wrote those words in 2011—says the same characterizations persist. She recently took an informal poll of Texan fourth graders on what they’d been taught about the Karankawa. “It was all, ‘Oh, they were terrible, they were horrible cannibals,’” she says. “The story prevails.”
And not just in the classroom. A 2015 installment of a newspaper column syndicated across Texas ran with the headline “Nobody Red or White Cared Much for Kronks.” The story went on to claim the tribe’s “prize catch was the occasional European who wound up the main dish at the next village feasts.”
You couldn’t get away with printing that about a group of living people in today’s press, but here’s the thing: Even now, most people think the Karankawa are extinct. As the 2015 column concluded, by 1860, they were “just an unpleasant memory.”
While you cannot libel the dead, this justification doesn’t hold up: The Karankawa are not extinct, and almost everything you thought you knew about them is wrong.
The revival of the Karankawa community can be traced to September 2009 when the Brownsville Herald ran a profile of Enrique Gonzalez Jr. A resident of Alamo, the U.S. Army veteran claimed to be a direct Karankawa descendent.
Gonzalez had a Karankawa grandparent on both sides of his family. When he was a child, his father would take him to tribal mitotes, where fellow Karankawa danced among mesquite trees to the rumble of drums and tambourines handmade with bottle caps. The dancers would sleep on the ground all weekend, and on Sundays, they’d bring out a bucket of ferocious bootleg mezcal.
“They’d pour some in another little container and set it on fire,” recalls Gonzalez, now 77. “They liked it if the flame burned blue.”
These rituals took place in El Gato, a Rio Grande Valley settlement where Gonzalez grew up and the same borderland region where his Karankawa ancestors fled after being driven first from the Texas coast and then from more populated areas along the Rio Grande in Texas and Mexico. He has heirlooms from the 19th century: You can see a fishing bow of his at the museum at Mission Espíritu Santo in Goliad, another bow at the Museum of the Coastal Bend in Victoria, and keepsakes including pictures and documents on display at the City of Alamo Museum.
Emboldened by Gonzalez’s revelation in the Herald, others followed. From one isolated crypto-Karankawa family to another, word got out over social media: You are not alone. In a process known as ethnogenesis, the Karankawa Kadla, or mixed Karankawa, are rising. A new people built on ancient foundations.
This is welcome news to hundreds of families across Texas and beyond. Absolem Yetzirah was one of the first to chime in on social media. “I’d heard the same stories growing up, and I got on a mission to find relatives,” says Yetzirah, who was born in Galveston and lives in Houston. “Every story I would see about the Karankawa, I would answer in the comment section.” Steadily, he heard from others with similar oral histories who wanted to learn more about their heritage. One person was 27-year-old Chiara Sunshine Beaumont. Now living in Austin, where she works as an outdoor adventure guide, Beaumont grew up in Virginia, where her Corpus Christi-raised mom had found work.
“Just like most folks grew up knowing that they were American, or maybe that they were Irish, I grew up knowing that I was Karankawa,” she says. “When I went to school and was learning about Native Americans, my mother would correct what I was being taught.” For example, the portrayal of tribes like the Karankawa as irrational savages.
In elementary school, there were “culture days,” Beaumont recalls, when students could talk about their heritage in front of the class. “I remember my mom telling us that we weren’t exactly Mexican, we were Tejanos: ‘You were there before the border—the border crossed us.’ We were related to Mexicans because they were also indigenous, but we were not Mexicans.”
Love Sanchez, a 40-year-old Corpus Christi resident and founder of the group Indigenous People of the Coastal Bend, says her Karankawa family’s heritage goes back to Goliad’s Mission Espíritu Santo, which the Spanish built to convert the natives to Christianity. Karankawa heritage is a prominent part of her family’s oral history. “We are definitely out here,” she says. “We were assimilated, but I was taught that my ancestors were bad, enemies of the whole land.”
Galveston native Alex Perez, the author of the 2021 book Karankawa Kadla Mixed Tongue: Medicine for the Land & Our People, is an authority on the Karankawa language. He peppers his emails and conversations with phrases like “M’tchawa” (How are you?). He believes oral history is key to Karankawa identity.
“It takes more than saying you have lived in Corpus Christi all your life, or Galveston,” he says. “If that’s true, half of Galveston or Corpus would be Karankawa. Sometimes the facts match up, and sometimes they don’t. We look for stories of forced migration to Mexico and back to Texas and then assimilation.”
Assimilation amounted to hiding in plain sight for 150 years—an “extinct” people who simply accepted new labels as Hispanic, Tejano, or American, and intermarried with other ethnicities while retaining their core identity. Perez is a believer in ancestral memory, that recollections travel down through generations in our DNA. That connection is strongest for him at the West End of Galveston Island. “Not just because of memories I have, some good, some bad, but I can also feel the memories of my ancestors there.”
As Perez notes, at about the same time the Karankawa Kadla revival began, scientists began studying the DNA of coyotes living in Galveston’s West End. For years, residents had been saying there was something different about these particular coyotes—their legs longer, their snouts pointier, their fur redder. Biologists conducted DNA tests and found the coyotes had as much as 30% of the DNA of the red wolf, a once-common species in the Southeast U.S. stretching to Texas that’s nearly extinct. Scientists believe these hybrids can be bred back into animals like the red wolf of old. In other words, hybridization had saved them from the extinction humans had intended for them.
Mixed red wolf descendants—hiding in plain sight, just like the people who’d lived alongside them for untold centuries. “We’ve had so many synchronicities like that,” Perez says. Coastal storms have uncovered human remains and possible Karankawa village sites, he says. Historians in Wharton handed over a trove of artifacts. To Perez, it all seems like fate—meant to be.
Few people have done as much to dispel the myths of the Karankawa as Tim Seiter, a doctoral candidate in history at SMU. He’s working on a history book of the people, and he maintains karankawas.com, a website for all things related to the tribe.
Seiter, who has no Karankawa blood, grew up in Friendswood within the tribe’s former homeland. As a schoolboy, Seiter rejected what his teachers taught him about the Karankawa. “I started researching the Karankawas simply because I grew up on their land,” he says. “The myths I heard about them being 7 feet tall and baby eaters didn’t really feel all that accurate.”
His work on their behalf has won him praise from Karankawa Kadla members. “Through his doctoral research, he has been able to correct misconceptions about our tribe,” Sanchez says. “And it has been well documented enough for it to change the false writings from the past.”
Seiter says modern archaeology has disproved the notion that Karankawa were giants. Though taller than the average European, their skeletal remains average about 5-foot-8. He also dispelled a theory that the tribe arrived on the Texas coast by boat from the Caribbean in the 1400s. He notes that archeologists have found Karankawa pottery—adorned with asphaltum, the naturally occurring tar balls from the Gulf of Mexico—predating the 1400s.
As for the cannibalism? Yes and no. “They did practice a very limited form temporarily,” Seiter says. “There are no firsthand accounts of them engaging in any form of cannibalism after the late 1600s.” Cannibalism was reserved for ancient enemies. “It served to dishonor an enemy and as a means of absorbing a foe’s power.” History’s only firsthand account of Karankawa cannibalism came from Jean-Baptiste Talon. In 1688, the 10-year-old colonist was abducted and adopted into the tribe after they attacked a French settlement known as Fort St. Louis in present-day Victoria County. Years later, in Spanish naval service, Talon was taken prisoner by the French, who interviewed him on all he knew about both New Spain and the Karankawa.
His interrogator reported: “The only meals that horrified him were those [the Karankawa] made of human flesh, as they are all cannibals, but toward their savage enemies only.” That account was enough to seed a pernicious and deadly myth, which later emerged as the Spanish launched their missionary program in Texas to pacify and Christianize the Native Americans. Making a mockery of the missions, the Karankawa would accept gifts but ignore religious services. When asked to work, they simply headed back to the coast. To them, the missions were a luxury, not a life-saving necessity, as they were for some tribes who needed Spanish protection from rivals. In 1767, Fray Gaspar José de Solís, the Zacatecas, Mexico-based superior of the Texas missions, blamed the missions’ futility on the savagery of the Karankawa: “Dancing and leaping and with sharp knives in their hands,” he wrote, “they draw near to the victim, cut off a piece of their flesh, come to the fire and half roast it, and, within sight of the victim himself devour it most ravenously.”
Traces of the Karankawa
Because the Karankawa were semi-nomadic and utilized mostly perishable materials such as wood and cane, there are no ruined village sites to see. The places they dwelled have been washed away or buried under the sand in river floods or by coastal erosion.
The greatest man-made remnants of Karankawa influence are Presidio La Bahía and Mission Espíritu Santo, both in Goliad. The Spanish built both in hopes of converting the tribe to Catholicism and staving off feared attacks. Presidio La Bahía, which is owned and operated by the Catholic Diocese of Victoria, is at 217 Loop 71. 361-645-3752; presidiolabahia.org. Mission Espíritu Santo is part of Goliad State Park, 108 Park Road 6. 361-645-3405; tpwd.texas.gov/state-parks/goliad.
In the Rio Grande Valley, the City of Alamo Museum chronicles the final days of the Karankawa as a distinct tribe both in Texas and Mexico, including a display of photos and family relics from Karankawa descendants. 130 S. Eighth St. in Alamo. 956-961-4398; alamotexas.org/government/departments/alamo-museum.
To get a sense of the unspoiled Texas coastline the Karankawa called home, visit a wildlife refuge—Brazoria National Wildlife Refuge in Angleton; San Bernard National Wildlife Refuge in Brazoria; and Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Austwell. fws.gov
Over the years that myth grew to include the false idea that the Karankawa hunted Europeans. Empresario Stephen F. Austin encountered a peaceful band of Karankawa in 1821, likely in Brazoria County, and apparently he was terrified by their appearance. “The Karankawas may be called universal enemies to man—they killed of all nations that came in their power, and frequently feast on the bodies of their victims,” Austin wrote. “There will be no way of subduing them but extermination.”
Western settlers, including companies of Texas Rangers, routed the Karankawa in a series of massacres that removed them from what is now Galveston, Brazoria, and Matagorda counties. In later years, different leaders from both sides of the Rio Grande would chase them farther and farther south and then up the Rio Grande Valley, where the last nine Karankawa warriors made a final stand against a force led by Juan Nepomeceno Cortina, a borderlands rancher, near the Mexican town of Mier.
“They were annihilated,” says Alex Oyoque, director of the City of Alamo Museum. “But not the women and children. They went to ranches and cities on both sides of the border. So when they say they are extinct, it’s not true. The children grew up, and they married and carried on the legacy.”
Today that legacy is becoming a living, breathing reality. The Karankawa descendants have a tribal council now and two clans—one centered in Corpus Christi and the other in Galveston. They have organized and fought to protect their ancient tribal lands, such as protesting industrial development on the coast. In November 2020, the first sentence of the Karankawa entry in the Handbook of Texas—the Texas State Historical Association’s encyclopedia of state history—was changed from “The now-extinct Karankawa Indians played an important role in the early history of Texas” to the Seiter-penned “The Karankawa Indians are an American Indian cultural group whose traditional homelands are located along Texas’ Gulf Coast.”
There is still plenty of work to be done. Sanchez hopes one day the federal government will recognize the tribe. But first Texas would have to recognize the tribe—a process tangled with red tape that takes years.
“None of this is about money,” she says. “All of us have good jobs, a roof over our head. It’s more about how we want to be recognized. We want people to know we are here.”