I bet that most of my friends are not aware that I am an Indian . . . a proud Kickapoo! I surely am, but I haven’t always been.
When the oil glut hit Texas in the mid 80’s, I was a young guy who had just been in business a short while. I had actually done quite well and had some nice accounts receivable, but also had some debt, too. I had invested ahead in several future ventures . . . Optioning up land for apartments and investing in loan-packages development . . . when it hit. I had several deals working and, in fact, had several years work in the planning process. Prices on real estate hit new lows, and my future deals only appraised for about 50 cents on the dollar. Actually, I found myself at a really peculiar place . . . I had built several apartment complexes and I was responsible for managing them and all that entails, but the portfolio was just not yet large enough to enable me to make a living for my family. There I was . . . in debt, a middle-man in New York had embezzled most of my receivables, obligated to manage what I had created, a husband, a dad with a young family, and unable to make a living and pay my bills.
Sometimes our situation can look so overwhelming . . . and that was certainly where I was at that moment in time. I had no clue what I could do . . . but I knew the Lord had always met my needs in the past and that He promised to continue to do that. Soon into my dilemma, my phone rang one afternoon and it was not a call that I wanted . . . but it was the call I needed. The caller was my old friend, Jim Hickman, Housing Chief at the HUD office in San Antonio. I can still remember his words, “Tiger, we need your help again! We have placed the Eagle Pass operation in receivership, and need you to go out and clean it up, hire and train a staff to run the operation after you leave.” He also told me that the FBI had made a number of arrests up and down in the organization and that things were in a mess. I shuttered at the thoughts of living/working in Eagle Pass, but when we talked money, the amount was just what I needed . . . so I knew it was the Lord’s provision. I agreed to go out the next week and meet with his staff and get started. I knew I had a challenge on my hands, and when I told my family that evening over dinner, it became clear my biggest challenge would be my wife. She was horrified at the prospects of vacating her new home and moving to that desert place on the border. Courtney was a champ and never complained one bit . . . and she had some words for her Mom, too!
We arrived there at an interesting time in Maverick County history . . . the Kickapoo Indians (several hundred people of all ages) were living under the International bridge. They were building cardboard houses from appliance boxes they removed from the nearby Sear’s mail-order-store dumpsters. They were cooking over camp-fires and bathing in the Rio Grande. One morning several months prior, a large mass of people showed up at the river and proceeded to cross over, much to the dismay of the Border Patrol Service. Using bull horns, the Agents ran up and down the riverbank issuing orders in both Spanish and English, but the people continued crossing the river. When they had crossed over, the Agents stopped the people and tried to communicate, but these folks spoke neither English nor Spanish. A decision was made to get some food and water for the people and detain them until a linguist could be flown in. Suddenly the airwaves picked up the story and the Nation’s attention was focused on these people . . . who are these people and where did they come from? Over a few days, it was determined that they were Indians, but no one seemed to be certain of which tribe. A request was issued to several tribes to send a representative in an effort to establish communications with these visitors. As it turns out, they were Kickapoo’s and part of the tribe in Oklahoma. As communications were established, it was discovered that something like 100 years before, a battle broke out amongst the people and there was a blood-letting. A portion of the tribe left Oklahoma and headed South ultimately wandering deep into the jungles of Mexico. These had long been a nomadic people . . . and actually are the last of the nomads. As the story unfolded, it was learned that one morning . . . just out of the clear blue someone said that they ought to go back and see their kinfolk, so they gathered their meager possessions and headed north. That was what put them at the bridge originally. Congress acted and granted these lost Indians dual citizenship and they were allowed to go on their way. The tribe walked all the way to Oklahoma; they traveled along the highways and by ways. Many communities along the route proved to be good Samaritans to these nomads. Of course, it was all on the news and garnering much attention. The first lost Indians to show up in over 100 years! As the story goes, they ultimately arrived at the reservation in Oklahoma and were warmly received. However, whatever that old problem had been, it reared its ugly head in just a few days and there was another blood-letting. The people left again, now fully understanding why their ancestors had refused to live with the likes of their Oklahoma kin!
The problem . . . they had no place to go. Someone mentioned that the best they had ever been treated was when they stayed under the bridge along the river. So, on the spur of the moment the decision was made to return to the bridge, and that is just what they did. The officials in Eagle Pass and Maverick County were sure surprised that their visitors had returned with the intention of claiming the community as their new home!
National attention continued to be focused on the situation, and amazingly Teddy Kennedy and the Heritage Foundation partnered up and purchased 1,000 acres along the El Indio Hiway and gave it as a reservation. Soon after closing, most of the people moved to the reservation, but a number of them remained under the bridge. That was when I arrived on the scene. Of course, like everyone else I had to drive down and rubber-neck. As I looked at that situation, it broke my heart to see children living is such conditions. I told myself that if I didn’t do something to help these poor people I wasn’t worth the salt that went into my gravy (an absolute and certain measurement of character often used by my sweet, little Mama).
I had my new Administrative Assistant, Alicia, schedule a meeting with the Chief and the linguist that was helping the tribe. When they arrived at the Hi-Rise, we served them lunch and showed them around. I explained that I wanted to assist the Kickapoo’s by building homes for them. The Chief had adopted the name Raul Garza to do business on behalf of the tribe. Raul and I would become good friends, but at that moment in time he was wary of all offers of help, and the truth of the matter is that he was wise to be cautious, especially in the “free state of Maverick!” Just a side note: three years later as I was moving back home I had a printer make 500 bumper stickers saying, “Welcome to Illegal Pass” and passed them out. I promised the Chief that any and all work that I would ever do for the Kickapoo people would be done without any fees.
After they left, I called the National Center for Housing and told them that I wanted them to set up a seminar in Oklahoma City in the immediate future. I needed to get to OK City, but I simply could not afford to fly there at my own expense. Once the Center and I got the dates worked out for the seminar, I called the Bureau of Indian Affairs – Indian Housing Regional Office located in OK City. I talked with the director, Hugh Green; Hugh would also become my friend. I told him that I would be in OK City doing a seminar and invited him to attend and to bring along a few of his staffers. He did. Through the course of the three-day seminar, I talked with them about the Kickapoo tribe and its situation. I left OK City at the end of the week with an application and a long “To Do” list!
Over a period of a few months, we managed to set some legal work accomplished, and the Kickapoo Indian Housing Agency formed and an application for a grant to fund 32 new dwellings submitted into the federal system. It didn’t take long to obtain funding. As the announcement was made Architects and Engineers came out of the wood work, realizing what a rare opportunity this was. We interviewed and received proposals from a large number of firms. The design contract was awarded to Ron Barbutti of Barbutti & Associates, of Hondo. I had insisted that the firm selected be required to move some form of portable housing to the reservation and observe the people and their lifestyle for a couple of weeks prior to beginning any serious design work, and Ron was good to do that. He hooked up his 5th wheel, loaded up his bride, Evelyn, and the dogs, and headed for the reservation. Ron and Evelyn would walk of an evening and as the Kickapoo’s cooked over their open-fires, they would make an effort to visit. Ron is a good artist and he started setting up his easel and painting the people, which the Kickapoo people delighted in. They enjoyed being the focus of attention.
One afternoon, Ron showed up at my office quite disturbed and insisted on seeing me. Alicia brought him back to my office. He had a very troubled look on his face and announced, “We have a serious problem with the Kickapoo housing grant.” I inquired what that problem might be, and he exclaimed, “The Chief has refused for me to design the housing with kitchens, and insists that Kickapoo women cook outdoors! I am telling you that dude is not going to change his mind.” I assured Ron that I would speak with the Chief about it, and he suggested that I was not taking it seriously enough . . . It seemed to be a cultural thing for the Chief.
I had Alicia invite the Chief in for lunch the next day. As we ate lunch, I mentioned Ron’s concern. The Chief looked me in the eye and had the linguist tell me that, “Kickapoo women cook outside,” and I saw in his eyes the thing that had troubled Ron. There was something up with this and I wanted to try to understand. As we talked, I informed him that all housing built with government money had to meet certain required, minimal standards in order to be funded, and that standard included a sanitary place to store and prepare food. He once again said, “Kickapoo women cook outside!” I told him that the tribe would lose the money. Once again he said, “Kickapoo women cook outside!” I tried to push him on it a bit, but he would not budge. He reminded me that this was all my idea and that his people had lived forever without white man’s houses, but they would not break their tradition. In frustration, I commented, “Our women once cooked like that too, but for 100 years now they have been cooking in a kitchen.” When the linguist told him what I had said, he got a perplexed look on his face and asked me, “Do you want our women to become like your women?” In a second I understood that I had just been out done by a guy who could not speak one word of English and had never lived in a house, and I thought to myself, “How in the heck can you argue with that question?”
It seems to me . . . when white folks showed up in America, they discovered a people with a most unusual lifestyle. The men hunted, fished, played games, and sat around talking while the women took care of the kids, planted, watered, picked the corn, and skinned the animals the men killed and brought home. The women used the hides to make clothes for her family and cooked the meat and served her warrior, and cleaned his fish. All the while she had no say in much of anything, nor did she even expect to be consulted. There were no taxes, no government dictates, no seasons or restrictions on hunting or fishing, and a woman never even considered saying, “I do wish you would help out!” Everyone was happy, the women didn’t complain, families stayed together, children obeyed their parents, and there was no crime to speak of.
I have concluded that my friend, the Chief was actually a very wise man. I don’t think we introduced an improved system.
In closing, ultimately the houses were built with kitchens — including appliances, along with brick cookers in the yard. It is still something of a mystery about what happened to those appliances the night following the final inspection. As I recall the FBI spent a little time trying to figure that out, without any success. I sometimes wonder if one meal has ever been prepared inside one of those houses.
As I finished my work and we prepared to move back home, the tribe held a special ceremony in which I was the guest of honor. The simple ceremony was held inside their lovely new community center. By this time, the grant money was really rolling in and they had hired a professional tribal administrator and the tribe was doing well. It had a new medical clinic and a number of other services. At the ceremony I was presented with a formal resolution adopted by the tribal council of the Kickapoo Traditional Tribe of Texas, declaring that I was officially adopted into the tribe as a “favorite son,” and that I was entitled to all of the privileges of tribal membership. Each member of the tribal council signed the Resolution with an X as his signature. I was also presented with a marvelous spear engraved with my name and containing a Smithsonian quality spear point. It was truly a work of art. I was told that it was to be used defending my lodge and they presented my squaw with a lovely pair of handmade moccasins.
I brought my family home, the economy improved, and I got back to growing my company. The Kickapoo’s built a casino, of which I am quite sure has caused great misery, just as it has historically done in other areas.
I think about my tribal brothers and sisters from time to time, and I wonder if there is anyone on the reservation who might even remember me these 25 years later. One thing in all of that of which I am particularly proud is that my insistence that I would never receive a fee for any services I rendered to the tribe (at a time when I really needed the money and consultant fees were both normal and expected by the Bureau of Indian Affairs) opened a door that might not have been opened otherwise. My gesture was so appreciated by the Chief and tribal council, that later at my request, they approved a Baptist missionary to set up shop on the reservation and begin ministering to the tribe. I am thinking that was a wise sacrifice/investment.