Karankawa Myth-Busting: SMU Historian Sets Record Straight for Texas Native American Tribe
Tim Seiter, a Ph.D. candidate at SMU’s Clements Center for Southwest Studies, is writing a book about the Karankawas, Persistent People. “The book will spotlight the Karankawa people today who are reclaiming their land and who are revitalizing their culture. Instead of being ‘extinct’ as previously claimed, the Karankawas persistently survive.”
DALLAS (SMU) – As a fourth-grader growing up near Houston, SMU history graduate student Tim Seiter became fascinated by the Karankawas, a coastal Indian tribe unique to Texas. No wonder. His Texas history textbook described the Karankawas as long-extinct 7-foot cannibals who gobbled like turkeys.
Years later, as a budding historian, Seiter discovered that much of what he had learned as a 10-year-old was myth, passed on and documented for more than a hundred years.
Today, together with Karankawa descendants, he is working to correct their historic record. Alex Perez, a Karankawa descendent and author of a book that captures the Karakawan language, has given Seiter a name in the tribe’s native language that translates to, “Friend Giving Back.”
The Karakawans lived for hundreds of years between Galveston Bay and Corpus Christi Bay, fishing the rich waters, hunting and migrating between nearby islands and the mainland. Skilled warriors, they protected their borders on the Texas coast for more than 570 years. Illustration by Michelle Huang.
“A fresh history is needed,” says Seiter, who as a Ph.D. candidate at SMU’s Clements Center for Southwest Studies, is writing a book about the Karankawas, Persistent People. “The book will spotlight the Karankawa people today who are reclaiming their land and who are revitalizing their culture. Instead of being ‘extinct’ as previously claimed, the Karankawas persistently survive.”
Karankawa is an umbrella term given to several coastal Texas Native American groups who shared a language and culture. They lived for hundreds of years between Galveston Bay and Corpus Christi Bay, fishing the rich waters, hunting and migrating between nearby islands and the mainland. Skilled warriors, they protected their borders on the Texas coast for more than 570 years, Seiter says.
The first written record of contact between any American Indians in Texas and Europeans occurred in 1528 when survivors of a shipwrecked Spanish expedition landed near what is now Galveston. French and Spanish expeditions attempted in the 1600s and 1700s to establish forts and missions in the Karankawas’ territory, with little success.
Myths about the Karankawas date to these first failed conquerors, says Seiter, who has read the correspondence from Spanish explorers and missionaries to the Spanish government depicting the Karankawas as demons.
“They created propaganda to justify their failed attacks,” he said.
By the 1820s, however, disease, pressures from other Indian groups, and a changing environment reduced the once 8,000-strong Karankawa population to about 500. Frequent attacks from Anglo-Americans and Tejanos drove the Karankawas from the coast and deeper south into the Rio Grande Valley until 1858, when a Tejano force massacred what was thought to be the last of the Karankawas.
But it wasn’t the end, Seiter says. “By that time, many Karankawas had moved south to Mexico, joined other tribes, or were forcibly assimilated into white society. Women and the children were usually the ones that survived.”
SMU history graduate student Tim Seiter
Seiter’s post-elementary school study of the Karankawas began as an undergraduate at the University of Houston. Seiter selected the coastal Indigenous culture as the subject of a website he created in 2017 as a recipient of a summer Texas history grant.
“I thought the Karankawa were extinct,” he said. “Every resource I read said they were extinct.” After the website posted, to his surprise, Seiter began hearing from Karankawa descendants. The young history major, who until then intended to devote his career to Russian studies, changed his course.
Further research revealed that many of the myths about the Karankawas were untrue. Archaeological studies found that Karankawas’ height averaged five-foot eight inches, taller than most Europeans at the time, but not seven feet tall. The Karankawas practiced a ceremonial form of cannibalism used to symbolically absorb the power of their foes, Seiter says, but they ended that practice by the late 1600s. And making sounds like turkeys? Seiter has found nothing to support that myth.
Bit-by-bit he is correcting the historic record, including revising the Karankawa entry in the Texas Handbook, a digital encyclopedia developed by the Texas State Historical Association, which lists Karankawa as its most researched topic.
About the same time Seiter developed the website, Karankawas.com, other Karankawas were coming forward to help re-write their history. Enrique Gonzalez, Jr., with a Karankawa grandparent on each side of his family, was profiled in 2009 by the Brownsville Herald. Others connected through a Facebook group, the Karankawa Kadla. A nonprofit group, Indigenous People of the Coastal Bend, organized to protest industrial expansion on the eastern side of Corpus Christi Bay near McGloin’s Bluff, an area once occupied by the Karankawas where more than 40,000 Karankawa artifacts have been excavated.
Construction has been halted.
Seiter is quick to credit the Karankawa descendants with their revival. “The credit for the Karankawas revitalization goes squarely to the members of the Karankawa Kadla,” he says. “They did the heavy lifting, and I simply provided academic aid to make their recognition go smoother.”
Andrew Graybill, director of the Clements Center for Southwest Studies, recognizes the contribution of Seiter’s work. “Tim arrived at SMU with a clear plan to write a badly needed update to the history of the Karankawa people,” he said. “In the process he has become perhaps the group’s leading non-tribal historian, a veritable clearinghouse of information on the Karankawa.”
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