The Mexican Kickapoo live in wooden shacks and traditional tribal dwellings, rounded huts of river cane, at the southern entrance to this city along the vega of the Rio Grande. Their village has no electricity and little plumbing. Most of the pickup trucks and cars parked along dirt pathways bear license plates from Colorado, one stop along the trail for these extraordinary travelers.
Above the village looms the International Bridge to Piedras Negras, Mexico. To one side is a golf course with electric carts and sand traps, to another a downtown avenue lined with money-exchange windows and souvenir shops.
Every weekday morning since January, Rosendo Suke, 19, has donned his fine black hat and left the village for a trip across town to a community center where he and eight of his friends and relatives are learning to read and write in English. Kickapoo, an Algonquin dialect, is their first language, and in their second, Spanish, they are unschooled.
The Mexican Kickapoo have made many great journeys in their history but none so fraught with hope and apprehension as this, the Americanization of Rosendo Suke. With every step he takes into the literate world, Suke moves away from centuries of Mexican Kickapoo cultural isolation and freedom, away from a tradition that regarded the white man's ways as no better than those of the coyote.
It was once said of these Indians that they understood enough about modern civilization to resist its advances, and for a hundred years and more that seemed true to an extent perhaps unparalleled among Indians of North America. In the mid-1800s, they fled from Oklahoma to El Nacimiento in the Mexican foothills of the Sierra Madres to avoid white settlers and reservations. The Mexicans seldom interfered with them but, twice this century when they built schools nearby, the Indian children refused to attend, and the buildings soon burned to the ground.
Now the rhythms of daily life are changing for the Mexican Kickapoo, whose numbers have dwindled to about 600, and so are their visions of the future. While retaining property in their Mexican homeland for religious purposes, they have essentially ended their long exile there and begun the delicate, risky process of U.S. acculturation.
Two years ago, with the help of church and university groups in Texas, the tribe bought a new home here in Maverick County, 125 rolling acres with a mile of riverfront along the Rio Grande about eight miles south of Eagle Pass. It marked the first privately funded reacquisition of Indian land in the United States.
The Kickapoo have not moved to it, although they are feeling pressure from city officials to leave their makeshift village under the bridge, where they are said to be squatters.
Their church benefactors regard the new property, called Nuevo Nacimiento (New Birth), as a permanent home for the migratory tribe. But that remains to be seen, because permanence, to the Mexican Kickapoo, has a meaning apart from the physical world.
Last year, after Congress formally recognized them as a subtribe of the Oklahoma Kickapoo, 142 Mexican Kickapoo chose to become U.S. citizens, which, among other things, made them eligible for sorely needed government health and welfare programs.
And this year, with Suke in the vanguard, several Mexican Kickapoo went to school. They hope to succeed in American society without turning away from Kitzihiat, the Great Spirit, and Wisaka, Kitzihiat's son, maker of the Indian world.
"What the Kickapoo now seek is what all Indians have sought," said Ray Apodaca, a Tigua Indian from El Paso and director of the Texas Indian Commission. "They want to make sure their children have opportunities in life. They want better housing, education and health care. And they want to still be Indian. That is not always easy. That hasn't happened for all tribes. Things have been lost that were good for all of us."
That the Mexican Kickapoo face this dilemma much later than most other Indians is evidence of their will. In the 18th and 19th centuries, after being pushed from Algonquin territory in New York, they moved through Wisconsin, Illinois, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas, fighting efforts to contain them or convert them to Christianity.
From the late 1830s to 1861, tribe members made three migrations across the border to the Mexican state of Coahila.
The first was made with Seminoles and black Seminoles. The last was interrupted by the Texas Confederate cavalry, whose unprovoked attack at Dove Creek led to decades of violence by the Kickapoo against settlers along the Texas border.
A larger band within the Kickapoo tribe stayed in the Oklahoma territory and gradually adjusted to schools and permanent workplaces. Until very recently, their Mexican relatives did not.
When Suke and his classmates, most in their late teens and early 20s, arrived at the adult education center here four months ago, teachers Maria Elena Daniel, Florencio Rodriguez and Adriana Vasquez were not sure how to begin instruction.
Do you know English? Rodriguez asked Suke.
Do you know Spanish?
"I didn't know what was going on, but I slowly realized," Rodriguez said. "The Kickapoo are not ignorant people. They just don't trust quickly. They really don't want anyone telling them what to do. If you say, 'Antonio, do this exercise,' he'll just look at you. You have to be careful how you approach them. I finally broke through with them by teaching them how to play the guitar."
Suke likes to play slow Mexican ballads.
One recent morning, lessons were being conducted by program director Daniel. She asked the students to read a paragraph and answer a fill-in-the-blank quiz.
"Mas y menos, no exacto," she wrote in one student's notebook next to an answer. ("More or less, not exactly.")
"Is this mucho or macho?" she wrote in another's.
The students were shy but attentive. They have learned to trust their instructors.
Daniel wrote the alphabet on a chalkboard and asked the Kickapoo to correspond each letter with the first letter of a word.
For Z, someone chose Zebra.
For X, Suke said X-ray.
For Y, it was Yes.
For U, the response was USA.
During a break, Suke was asked why he decided to go to school after living without it for 19 years. "Because I wanted to learn," he said. "There are a lot of things to read when you go to a lot of places."
Eagle Pass has many migrants. Rodriguez, one of Suke's teachers, picked cucumbers in Michigan and tomatoes in Ohio with his parents and four brothers and sisters when he was a child. The Mexican Kickapoo have been part of the migrant stream since the late 1940s, when they reemerged from their Mexican homeland for a few months every year to camp under the bridge and pick onions and cotton in south Texas. Their migration takes them from the Midwest in summer to Colorado and Utah in the late summer and early fall.
They have been migrant workers as much by choice as necessity. The seasonal work allows them freedom to work, travel and practice their religion at their own pace. Dozens of times each year, they return across the border and down Mexico's two-lane highways to El Nacimiento, where they celebrate the new year, the naming of the clans, feast of the first fruits, the rain, feast for the dead and many other occasions.
Being on the road is not just a means to an end for the Mexican Kickapoo. It is not uncommon for tribal members to drive 20 hours from Provo, Utah, to Eagle Pass, stay for an hour and drive back.
On a recent weekend, one young man did just that to renew his driver's license. Travel represents freedom, according to Aurelio Garcia, the Mexican Kickapoo who is perhaps the most fluent in English.
"The Kickapoo are different than most American Indians. Most have their reservations," he said. "They stay there. Nowhere to go. These people, the Kickapoo, are free, like birds or whatever. They're free to feel free. They feel like they can go anywhere. We've been traveling for centuries. One day Wisconsin. Another day Kansas. Oklahoma. It's a long way. Long way. Two thousand miles we've traveled in our days."
They are being helped on their latest journey into modern America by several outsiders, including Nakai Breen, a Cherokee woman who lives in nearby Bracketville, two Indian Health Service nurses and Lila Sailors, a Mexican-American who operates the local office of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Sailors is paid as a secretary, a GS-4, but does the work of a director and more.
Her duties include placing Kickapoo in jobs at the local feed mill, helping to enroll children in school, arranging the move to Nuevo Nacimiento, and through her friendly presence, easing the transition.
To many residents of Eagle Pass, which is about 90 percent Mexican-American, the Kickapoo are a curiosity at best. Their village, on prime city land, is thought to be a breeding ground for disease and despair. The tribe's most serious health problem is inhalant abuse.
"Paint-sniffing in particular is epidemic," Sailors said. " . . . Of 600 people, maybe 100 have paint-sniffing or alcohol problems. They can't sleep. People are running up and down the street, yelling . . . .
"People say they get severe headaches if they don't sniff after doing it for a while. And they don't want to eat. I've seen it. Some are funny. Some are aggressive. We've noticed that they stop when they go up north for migrant work. They are busy working, they don't inhale as much. They come here and stop working, they do it. If they start working, they stop."
To Sailors, the Mexican Kickapoo are exceptional people trying to deal with external forces beyond their control.
"In two years, I cannot remember one time when I've had problems with them," she said. "When I came here in October 1984, I was scared, to tell you the truth. It took about four or five months for the Kickapoo to trust me. It took them that long for them to start coming to the office. Now they are here all day, starting at 10 and going through the afternoon. One women brings me a Diet Coke and a sweet roll. I say it is nice but she will make me fat," Sailors said.
She is somewhat bewildered why it has taken so long, more than a year, for the Kickapoo to start moving to Nuevo Nacimiento.
The property has been surveyed, water lines are in, lots have been assigned to different families, and a new cyclone fence surrounds a small plot that is supposed to be the cemetery.
But the Kickapoo remain downtown under the bridge. They do not question the good intentions of those who helped them buy the land and say they realize that the city wants them to move. But it is not that easy, they say. Some younger members, such as Suke, do not want to be so far from town. Others fear that the property will seem too much like a reservation. And some, such as Garcia, think it is foolish to try to present this new land as a replacement for El Nacimiento in Mexico.
"There is only one Nacimiento," Garcia said. "It is where our ancestors are buried. It is our sacred land. This new land can only be temporary. It doesn't have our ancestors. Some people think there will be a cemetery at this new land. They have a fence. The people will not use it. There's no sacred land. You can't just make it sacred with a fence. "The Kickapoo world is a beautiful world. When we go to the mountain, we do not ask for what we want. We have what we want."