Native American Tribes in Texas

Updated December 6, 2022 | Infoplease Staff
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Indigenous peoples exist throughout the world, from South America to Asia, Europe to Australia. And North America is no different— with 574 recognized tribes in the continental United States alone. But what about the people indigenous to the state of Texas and its environs? Read on to find out more about the Native American tribes in Texas! 

The Native History of Texas

The region that is now known as Texas state has been home to Native American tribes for millennia. Archaeologists' finds have revealed the remnants of ancient tribes which have largely been lost to history due to Native Americans’ mostly oral traditions.

It was with the arrival of Europeans in the 16th century that written documentation of the Native American tribes in Texas began as settlers interacted with groups like the Comanche, Apache, Kiowa, Coushatta, Caddo, and Tigua. While many of these tribes have dwindled, the Lone Star State remains home to a large and diverse mix of American Indian communities.

What Is the Oldest Native American Tribe in Texas?

The Tigua Pueblo tribe can lay claim to being the oldest in Texas with influences that can be traced back to the Antelope Creek people of around AD 1200. The Antelope Creek people lived in a region around the present-day city of Borger, Texas.

They were bison hunters and maize farmers with cultures and traditions that suggest links to the later Tigua Pueblo tribes that are documented in the 18th century. One common trait is their shared tradition of permanent settlements, building homes from stone slabs and plaster.

Which Tribe First had Contact with Europeans in Texas?

The Karankawas were the first tribe to have a documented encounter with Europeans in Texas. This took place in 1528 after Spanish explorer Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca was shipwrecked off the coast of Texas. 

Two small boats carrying the survivors came ashore on an island to the west of Galveston Island where the Spanish explorer and the remaining crew were captured by the Karankawa tribe. They were held by the tribe and Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca would live among them for four years before escaping and returning to Mexico.

The Karankawa were indigenous people that lived along the coast of southern Texas and the Gulf of Mexico. Along with groups like the Caddo, Tonkawa, and Coahuiltecans, these were the first tribes to interact with the European settlers.

The Karankawa was not a cohesive group but a range of nomadic tribes that shared a similar language and culture. They are among the tribes known to use smoke signals to communicate, using a network of earth mounds on which fires were lit to raise alerts and share information.

From the early 18th century the Karankawa were involved in repeated hostilities with European colonizers, primarily Spanish and French. They also faced attacks from rival American Indian groups such as the Comanche, Cherokee, and Apache.

While the tribe initially managed to withstand initial contact with Europeans, their numbers started to decline dramatically through conflict and disease. The last remaining Karankawas are believed to have been killed during an attack near Rio Grande City in 1858.

Which Indian Tribe in Texas Was Considered the Most Powerful?

The Comanche, known as “Lords of the Plains”, can be considered the most powerful of the American Indian tribes in Texas. Their strength came from their skilled use of horses to hunt and fight with their main territory being the great plains of Central Texas.

Their hunting skills and the abundance of buffaloes allowed the nomadic tribe to grow in strength. They were able to pose a formidable threat to European colonists and Mexican forces.

The Comanche developed a reputation for their ferocity as warriors with incidents of large-scale raids, kidnappings, lootings, and conflicts.

The tribe was decimated by a combination of warfare, loss of lands, and the impact of diseases such as smallpox that saw their numbers dwindle by the late 1870s.

What Are the Main Tribes in Texas?

Texas contains a wide range of communities with tribal links but only three groups are federally recognized. This is based on meeting a set of criteria that are used to classify an American Indian tribe such as heritage that dates back to before 1900 and evidence of a community structure.

The three federally recognized tribes in Texas are as follows:

Alabama-Coushatta Tribe of Texas

The present-day tribe combines two tribes, the Alabamas and Coushattas, that have close historic ties. The tribes migrated across the Sabine river in the 1780s to a Spanish-controlled territory that is now eastern Texas. 

They joined the fight against the Spanish in the Mexican War of Independence before backing the 1835 Texas War of Independence against Mexico. In return for their support, the tribes were allocated land between the Neches and Sabine rivers. 

The Alabama-Coushatta Reservation was established in 1854, covering an area of around 1,110 acres of land.

In 2022, nearly half of the 1,300 tribe members live within the reservation which now covers more than 4,500 acres. The Alabama-Coushatta Tribe operates a tribal council with headquarters in Livingston, Texas. The tribe’s main economic enterprises are a casino in Livingstone, Naskila Gaming, and A.C.T. Holdings, an economic development company. They also have a 26-acre camping area on Lake Tombigbee.

The tribe has become known for its conservation work to protect the longleaf pine forests which supplied the wood used by their ancestors to craft baskets and build homes. The Alabama-Coushatta has partnered with an environmental organization, The Nature Conservancy, to restore and maintain the longleaf pine forests.

Kickapoo Traditional Tribe of Texas

The Kickapoo Tribe of Texas is believed to have arrived in the area sometime in the early 1800s. They were invited to migrate into the territory by the Spanish Government who were hoping the presence of Native Americans would deter American settlers. The tribe, however, remained semi-migratory and in 1852 were granted land in Coahuila by the Mexican government.

The tribe maintains its connections with the U.S. as seasonal migrant farmers and the Texas tribe is one of three Kickapoo groups officially that are recognized in the U.S., along with tribes in Kansas and Oklahoma. In 2022, there are more than 3,000 Kickapoo with many continuing to migrate between the groups' bases in the U.S. and Mexico. Many members still speak the Kickapoo language with a Mexican variant known for its use of whistled messages.

The Kickapoo Indian Reservation was established in 1985 on land to the south of Eagle Pass in Maverick County. They are governed by a tribal council and have a variety of economic enterprises including Kickapoo Lucky Eagle Casino Hotel, a convenience store, a pecan farm, and ranches.

Ysleta Del Sur Pueblo Tribe

The Ysleta Del Sur Pueblo, also known as Tigua Pueblo, is a federally recognized tribe and sovereign nation that’s located within El Paso County in west Texas. The tribal community, known as “Tigua”, was forced by drought to leave its homelands of Quarai Pueblo in the 17th century. They relocated to Isleta Pueblo in New Mexico but were later captured during the 1680 Pueblo Revolt and migrated south.

The Ysleta del Sur, which means the”‘Little Island of the South”, was established in 1682 in what is now El Paso country. The Tigua developed a system of canals (acequia) that helped to sustain an agricultural-based community. The population sizes and traditions of the tribe were gradually weakened through assimilation and intermarriage with surrounding Mexican and American communities.

With numbers dwindling to less than 200 and most of their land having been lost during the 1950s, efforts were made to protect the group through state aid in the 1960s. 

The state of Texas officially recognized the Ysleta Del Sur Pueblo tribe in 1987 and in 2020 the number of enrolled members was 4,696. The tribe operates a range of businesses includes including Speaking Rock Entertainment Center, a casino and concert venue, and Big Bear Oil Company.

Continue Exploring Native American History

The story of Texas provides a glimpse of the fascinating and rich Native American history that exists. To delve further into the subject, Infoplease has a trail of links and reports that cover everything, from Native American tribes and culture to some of the most interesting characters from history.

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