Looking Back: The Lipan Apaches

Port Isabel-South Padre Press

The native people known as the Lipan Apaches, the easternmost group of the indigenous Apache, were a resilient and adaptive tribe whose territory spanned through much of the what is now the American southwest. All Apaches belong to southern region of the widely dispersed Athabaskan language family. Though no one is certain of the exact date, sometime around 1000 A.D. the concentrated tribe from Alaska, many making their way down to the American Southwest. The cause and route of this dispersion remains unclear.

Around 1200 A.D. Athabaskan communities settled in the Texas panhandle region and became the nomadic bison hunters known as the “Lipan.” There is also much debate as to the origins of the term “Lipan” and its association to the mysterious Apache tribe.

Like many native people, the Lipans believed they were native to the place they lived- that their ancestors were sent from an underworld to the surface to occupy and merge with the land and their offspring had the endurance to keep their journey ongoing. Though carnivores, most anthropologists speculate this tribe avoided eating fish.

A severe drought in 1670 caused the tribe to divide into two entities — Plains Lipans and Forest Lipans. Around the 1710s, they were forced south by the rival Comanche tribe, though raids persisted. The first mention of the Lipan can be traced back to Spanish records around this time. Though they participated in a Spanish expedition against neighboring tribes and also later formed an alliance, the Lipans were often at odds with one another regarding colonization. The Spanish made many attempts to make the Lipans dependent on Spanish resources and convert them to Christianity through the establishment of missions. The tribe was often caught between the ongoing hostilities between Texans and Mexicans and reluctantly chose to side with the Mexicans rather than be pushed away from existence. The tribe was further decimated by the outbreak of smallpox and Spanish nobleman Marquis of Rubi began a campaign to exterminate the group in the 1760s. The group that remained was eventually forced to flee to the state of Chihuahua, Mexico in the late 1800s. They would be relocated several more times as a footnote to the ongoing civilization process of the New World.

The Lipan story is a heartbreaking one of both persistence and conflict, highlighted by endurance, warfare, and disease. Much of their culture remains seemingly lost forever. Even so, they are still a substantial part of the history of the region and there are those such as Dr. Tom Britain, who visited Port Isabel Feb. 26 to give a detailed lecture to the community on this little known tribe, that continue to explore their past and preserve their legacy for new generations.

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