Analysis Based on factual reporting, although it incorporates the expertise of the author/producer and may offer interpretations and conclusions.
Defending Native Sacred Sites From Elon Musk and SpaceX
From an observation deck near the top of his South Texas rocket launch tower, Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX and self-proclaimed proponent of free speech, looks northward to South Padre Island, home to many ancient village sites of the Carrizo Comecrudo Tribe of Texas.
In a video published last May to the YouTube channel Everyday Astronaut, Musk is seen looking over the tower’s railing and down at a “farm” of huge rocket fuel storage tanks filled with liquid oxygen and methane gas. These will service weekly launches of SpaceX’s massive Super Heavy and Starship orbital launch vehicles in 2023.
Musk surveys the land from the gleaming metal launch tower, looking down on an ecosystem filled with endangered species, such as ocelots and Kemp’s ridley sea turtles. To the east, he sees the waves of the Gulf of Mexico crashing on Boca Chica Beach, the site of the Carrizo Comecrudo creation story. To the northwest just a few miles away is Garcia Pasture, an archaeological site containing the remains of a pre-Columbian village nearly a thousand years old.
Musk wears a black T-shirt with “Occupy Mars” emblazoned across the front, as if his corporate conquest and colonization of space were some sort of righteous protest. As he stands atop his multibillion-dollar mountain of toxic machinery, he cannot see the Indigenous people below who have come to offer tobacco to their ancestors.
Musk doesn’t see them because, according to the Carrizo Comecrudo, he is blind to the concerns of the Indigenous people who fought and died for the land he now occupies.
“I don’t think they understand what a sacred site is, because they have no connection to anything that’s sacred to their lives,” says Juan Mancias, chair of the Carrizo Comecrudo Tribe of Texas.
Far From Extinct
In April, Mancias and two other tribal members attempted to make offerings and say prayers at Boca Chica Beach, where the Rio Grande flows into the Gulf of Mexico. These two bodies of water fed the Carrizo Comecrudo for thousands of years, providing them with fish and wildlife, medicinal plants, building materials, and fibers for clothing.
But on this spring day, the only road that provides access to the public beach was closed and guarded by a Cameron County sheriff’s deputy.
In a video Mancias posted to Facebook, the deputy is seen stopping Mancias’ truck from entering Highway 4, explaining that SpaceX is conducting ground testing.
“Today’s one of our holy days,” Mancias says to the deputy. “Of course, this is Holy Week for you guys, for you Christians. But for us, it’s a cross-quarter marker, and we want to come out here and drop some of our tobacco.”
The deputy commiserates with them, saying he wished he could let them through, but he can’t.
“That’s against the American Indian Religious Freedom Act,” Mancias tells him.
“Oh, I don’t know, sir,” the deputy says, quickly changing the subject.
In an interview on the YouTube channel Mouth of the Rio Grande, Mancias sums up the situation succinctly: “They say we’re extinct. I say kiss my ass.”
Access and Expansion
The Carrizo Comecrudo endured slavery by the Spanish, indoctrination by Catholic mission schools, intrusion by Big Oil, and fragmentation by the Mexican border and by Trump’s border wall. Now, they face the desecration of their sacred lands by liquefied natural gas plants and the SpaceX launch center, “Starbase.”
Last May, the tribe joined the environmental groups Save RGV and the Sierra Club in a lawsuit against Cameron County and the Texas General Land Office, stating that blocking access to a public beach violates the Texas Constitution. The judge dismissed the case, and it is currently on appeal.
Bekah Hinojosa, senior Gulf Coast representative for the Sierra Club, says the county now closes Boca Chica Beach and the road to it five days a week from early in the morning to late at night. They have also closed the beach on several occasions simply to allow SpaceX and Elon Musk to have press conferences or to use the beach for their own events.
“That’s wrong,” Hinojosa says. “People have been going there for generations. Those are sacred lands of the Carrizo Comecrudo Tribe. People need to go out there to fish to feed their families. And Cameron County is allowing a billionaire to close it for his own parties. That’s ridiculous!”
The suit is essentially a shot across the bow to get the attention of SpaceX, which began invading Boca Chica in 2014, buying out existing homeowners and moving in an army of tech employees, threatening to gentrify the nearby city of Brownsville, a largely Latino community.
The spectacle of rockets also draws scores of tourists to Boca Chica Beach on days when it’s open to the public. What was once a pristine beach where sea turtles buried their eggs is now a dumping ground strewn with empty bottles, fast-food containers, and other litter. Parts of the beach are still black from a wildfire in 2019 set off by a test of SpaceX’s Raptor rocket engine.
But what concerns Mancias most is the planned expansion of the launch center and the possible destruction of ancient village sites and the artifacts and human remains they may contain.
The launch center was originally designed to handle smaller rockets, such as the SpaceX Falcon 9, and Falcon Heavy vehicles. But the company is switching to the much larger Super Heavy and Starship rockets that will eventually place thousands of Starlink internet satellites into low-earth orbit. The company plans to launch up to one rocket a week starting next year, requiring a larger support facility and additional launchpads.
The original people of the area were migratory, moving inland during hurricane season, then back out to the gulf during fishing season. Over thousands of years, countless villages formed and dissolved, buried in the marshland soils of the area.
“That was a fishing colony there for us,” Mancias explains. “It was a major gathering place during the times when hunting was not available.”
In the past, companies doing mining or dredging or other development projects in the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas were often caught stealing artifacts and even human remains they found. Some sold them or locked them away in private collections, according to Mancias.
According to archived documents at the Texas Railroad Commission, in 1871, surveyors discovered a mound along a proposed rail line that contained the bones of more than 325 men, women, and children. The railroad company at the time questioned a very old local Native man who described how, as a boy, he had witnessed the massacre of his entire village by Spanish soldiers accompanied by Catholic priests.
The bodies of his people and family, including his father, who had fought the Spanish valiantly in previous battles, were thrown into a pit and burned. The mound of buried bones the railroad surveyors found was all that was left of the old man’s village.
The old man who recounted the story was Manuel Cavazos, the sole survivor of what became known as the Devil’s River Massacre. And he was the great-great-great-grandfather of Juan Mancias, the chair of the Carrizo Comecrudo Tribe of Texas today.
No one knows how much of the tribe’s history has been lost in this way. It’s more than likely ancient villages were bulldozed and any artifacts or remains uncovered were lost in the fog of construction when the launch center was first built in 2016.
“We have no idea what [Musk] did with the artifacts … if they just threw them over to the side, or sold them to collectors,” Mancias says.
SpaceX did not reply to an email request for comment.
Border Walls and Gas Plants
SpaceX isn’t the only threat to the traditional tribal lands of the Carrizo Comecrudo. In 2017, the tribe fought against former President Trump’s border wall. Construction of the wall, which continues to this day, threatened the Eli Jackson Cemetery, where many of the tribe’s ancestors are buried. Thanks in large part to the tribe’s efforts, the path of the wall was altered to bypass the cemetery. However, the cemetery is now closed to visitors due to its proximity to the wall.
More recently, the tribe has been fighting the construction of two liquefied natural gas (LNG) plants, both of which infringe on Garcia Pasture, an area held sacred by the tribe. The site contains the remnants of a pre-Columbian village around a thousand years old. Earlier this year, the World Monuments Fund added Garcia Pasture to the 2022 World Monuments Watch, and it is included in the National Register of Historic Places.
Still, the Rio Grande LNG terminal began construction last month to create a natural gas export facility at the Port of Brownsville that is within the boundaries of Garcia Pasture. The facility will take fracked gas from the Rio Bravo Pipeline and convert it into a condensed liquid cooled to minus 259 degrees Fahrenheit, which would then be loaded onto tanker ships for transport to foreign countries.
Cindy Cochran, a researcher for the tribe and general assistant to Chairman Mancias, says she was shocked by pictures of how the massive site was going to be cleared before construction begins.
“They just bulldoze everything,” Cochran says. “They don’t care. It doesn’t matter what is there. They don’t think about how they can restore, they don’t think about environmental impacts, nothing. They just get in there and bulldoze.”
On Nov. 3, Mancias and his tribe served a cease-and-desist order on the Port of Brownsville and on NextDecade, the parent company of Rio Grande LNG, to stop construction to prevent damage to the ancient village site. Neither organization has yet responded to the letter.
Fighting for Recognition
The Carrizo Comecrudo have a history and an identity that goes back as far as anyone can remember, fighting and dying for their land and sanctifying it with prayers and ceremonies. Yet they have almost no legal rights to protect it.
The Carrizo Comecrudo have been fighting for federal recognition since 1998, but the process takes years; requires teams of lawyers, genealogists, and other specialists; and can cost as much as a million dollars. There are more than 200 tribes in the U.S. that lack federal recognition, many of them stuck in this unimaginably complex process. But the legal protection afforded to most Native tribes, such as the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) and the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, only apply to federally recognized tribes.
Nevertheless, with a membership of around 1,200, the Carrizo Comecrudo function as a tribal nation like any other. In addition to maintaining and supporting the tribe’s culture and traditions, they regularly come together as a community, along with other Indigenous and environmental groups, to protect Native land and rights.
“We work with a lot of people, because we are human beings and we want everybody to be welcomed on our land,” says Christa Mancias-Zapata, tribal secretary and daughter of Juan Mancias, “especially those that are fighting extractive industries helping us to protect our sacred sites and the land itself.”
Unfortunately, not being federally recognized means Elon Musk and SpaceX have no legal requirement to consult with the tribe regarding the planned expansion of the launch center. And there is definitely no requirement to gain the tribe’s consent.
Musk has bought the favor of local governments with generous donations and received tax breaks and other concessions in return for jobs and an infusion of his famous wealth into the community. So while Musk may not recognize the Carrizo Comecrudo, they definitely recognize him.
The wealthy capitalist uses his riches to exploit a new world across the solar system while standing on the backs of Indigenous people here on Earth. He is a colonizer, just like the Spanish who slaughtered the village of Juan Mancias’ great-great-great-grandfather Manuel Cavazos in 1801. And Juan Mancias carries that same fighting spirit. Fighting Musk’s SpaceX empire thus becomes a powerful act of decolonization for the Carrizo Comecrudo tribe.
Musk’s goal is to abandon the Earth, while Mancias and his tribe fight to heal it.
CORRECTION: This article was updated at 12:47 p.m. on Dec. 22, 2022, to correct an error in the subheading that mis-identified the defendants in the lawsuit filed by the Carrizo Commecrudo Tribe. The defendants are Cameron County and the Texas General Land Office. Read our corrections policy.
Frank Hopper , Tlingit, is a freelance Native journalist born in Juneau, Alaska, now living in Tacoma, Washington. His work appears in Last Real Indians, The Stranger, and Indian Country Today. His self-titled YouTube channel features videos about Native issues. He can be reached at [email protected] His YouTube link is https://youtube.com/c/FrankHopper1