“An Extraordinary Gift” — San Antonio’s new American Indian Center opens Friday

The Texas American Indian staff at the Spanish colonial missions is still settling into its new digs.

The four-building, 12,000-square-foot campus is located on East Commerce Street on San Antonio’s nearby East Side. AIT bought it last April for $1.2 million from Communities in Schools, an educational nonprofit.

On Friday, the campus will be christened AIT’s American Indian Center, the first in the city to be owned and operated by American Indians.

The grand opening will begin at 10am the same way AIT and its parent organization, Tap Pilam Coahuiltecan Nation, begin all rallies, with a blessing.

Throughout the day, the public will be free to tour the new facilities, talk to staff members, and enjoy indigenous music and food from AIT’s mobile food trailer.

Admission is free.

The tribal center is a long-delayed dream.

It has taken four decades to get here, yet it already appears that AIT’s staff of 23 full-time and 20 contract workers will need a larger space for all of the organization’s social service programs, health work and welfare, history and heritage projects, and cultural arts programming.

It is a bittersweet moment as we are still coming to terms with San Antonio’s rich indigenous heritage and how badly the native peoples have been mistreated and misunderstood.

The new space tells many stories.

The walls of all four buildings are filled with artwork and posters celebrating AIT’s health, wellness and cultural campaigns.

Mounted newspaper articles chronicle AIT’s successes and struggles, especially those surrounding the controversial redevelopment of the Alamo, which Native Americans call Mission Valero.

Signs will soon be posted identifying the center’s buildings and rooms, including restrooms, in pajalate (pronounced pa-ha-lat), a Coahuiltecan language that children of the Tap Pilam Coahuiltecan Nation study in Sunday classes.

Archival documents adorn the offices and colorful walls display information about each AIT program.

It all reflects the organization’s growth and its status as San Antonio’s oldest tribal organization, with the largest tribal center in the state, said Executive Director Ramon Vasquez, who has traveled across the country to visit the headquarters of other indigenous groups.

On the center’s walls, in its collections of books, artifacts and photographs, and its budding archives, visitors will see evidence that American Indians have been here longer than any other people, long before they led the famous Indian pueblos in the city’s five 18-18 year olds. Spanish colonial missions of the century.

Friday’s festivities will culminate with the 6:00 pm opening of the downtown’s Spiritual Waters Art Gallery. The inaugural show will feature work by Ramon Vasquez y Sanchez dating back 70 years to his student days at Lanier High School. He is the father of the executive director and an elder of Tap Pilam.

When Tap Pilam was founded in 1988, the young Vasquez said, the community dreamed of a place where families could come together and nurture their culture and heritage, which had largely been erased by traditional history.

It’s “still all very surreal,” Vasquez said as he gave me a tour of downtown, which is a half-mile east of the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center.

Until now, the only place AIT displayed its name and logo was on business cards.

“Seeing it actually on a physical structure gives us a sense of permanence. It gives a sense of autonomy to be able to do what we have to do now for our story” Vasquez said.

Like Mexican Americans, Native Americans struggled to tell their story and claim authority over it, often in the face of scholars and government officials who deemed it unworthy of study, Vasquez said.

For American Indians, that experience included the added burden of being considered extinct by many Americans.

Vasquez recalled his own relatives’ fatalistic speech on that idea: “that it was better to be beaten as a Mexican American than killed as an Indian.”

However, the center comes at an opportune time. Vasquez said that San Antonio has the tenth-largest American Indian population per capita in the nation.

“The 2020 census reported a 150% increase in American Indians in Texas and a 115% increase in Bexar County,” he said. Many of these are people who have recently identified as Native Americans, she said. Others have moved to San Antonio in connection with military service.

The tribal organization and AIT, its nonprofit, were guided by data showing that 74 percent of American Indians live in cities.

Those living in cities with American Indian centers fare better in several health and social categories than those without access to centers. American Indians leaving their reservations and moving to urban areas with no tribal centers were better off staying, Vasquez said.

“We know that and we want them to thrive like other communities in San Antonio.”

Next year, AIT will mark its 30th anniversary.

By then, the American Indian Center will feel lived in, less surreal, more permanent.

By then, perhaps San Antonio will appreciate how in 2023 AIT and Tap Pilam Coahuiltecan Nation gave this city an extraordinary gift, its American Indian Center.

A newspaper reporter for nearly 40 years, Elaine Ayala has held a variety of journalistic jobs, including news reporter, feature editor, blogger, and op-ed page editor. She covers San Antonio and Bexar County with a focus on communities of color, demographic change, Latino politics, migration, education, arts and culture.

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