This article by Ray Spitzenberger first appeared in IMAGES for February 13, 2020, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.
When my twin brother and I were kids growing up in Dime Box, Texas, we played “Cowboys and Indians” endlessly, no doubt because the tent show in town every summer showed so many very old Western movies, including silent ones with actors like Tom Mix. In many of those, the Cowboys were the “good guys” and the Indians were the “bad guys.” Except for two Indians. Tonto, the Lone Ranger’s sidekick, and Little Beaver, the little Indian boy with Red Ryder.
Those were the days before “political correctness” discouraged the use of the word “Indian,” and, I must admit, the way the Indians were often depicted in Westerns was unfavorable. The Indian “bad guys” were usually Comanche and Apaches, who were known for their ferociousness. However, I was taught in Dime Box Rural School and Giddings High School that the first and oldest tribe in Lee County was the Tonkawa, a very friendly Indian group who were raided by the Comanche as often as were the white settlers. Some question whether the Comanche traveled and raided as far into Texas as what is now called Lee County, but I think they did (I’m no historian, so don’t take my word for it).
These friendly Tonkawa “Indians” were even attacked and raided by the Cherokees (newcomers to Texas, arriving from the Louisiana Territory in 1820). In 1855, the good Tonkawa were moved by the U. S. Government to the Brazos Indian Reservation, which was abandoned four years later. I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for the Tonkawa.
The word “Indian” became “politically incorrect” in more recent times, not merely because it was factually incorrect, but mainly because of the white man’s derogatory use of the word, as in “drunk as an Indian,” “like a wooden Indian,” etc. Such usage of the word caused its pejoration.
When concern for political correctness began, journalists were at a loss as to what term to use for these indigenous people of the Americas. If you shouldn’t call them “Indians,” and not even, “American Indians,” then what? Although “Native Americans” seemed to be the most popular choice, the “Indians” themselves preferred to be called by the names of their specific tribes or nations, — Cherokee, Comanche, Caddo, Kickapoo, etc. – rather than any of those labels. Scholars who study various aspects of “Indian” culture and language use the term, “Amerindian,” for America’s indigenous people.
Researching the names for all the tribes and nations in the United States is an enormous job, especially considering that there are many branches of tribes and nations. For example, the Tejas Indians are just one of thirty or so branches of the Caddo. I’ve been researching Indian tribes in Texas for years, and I’ve come up with 13 or 14 that are well known in history, but the sub-divisions are very complicated.
Those of us who live in Wharton County, Texas, know that the main Indian tribe to live here was the Karankawa. Not only were they Wharton County Indians, but they were the first Native Americans to live in Texas, no doubt predating the Tonkawa. As I stated before, the Cherokees who are thought of by many as “real Texas Indians,” were late comers to Texas, arriving in 1820. The Karankawa received some bad publicity from the early Spanish explorers, so I don’t think they were as “bad” as depicted. By 1850, most Karankawa had left Wharton County and the general Houston area and moved to Mexico.
The Karankawa survived and moved on, but many Native Americans died out from epidemics brought by the early European explorers. I’ve always had a heart for our Native Americans. Even as a kid, when we played Cowboys and Indians, I always wanted to be one of the Indians. No one else did, so, often there were four cowboys with cap guns against one Indian with a rubber hatchet!
Ray Spitzenberger is a retired teacher and pastor, and is the author of a book, It Must Be the Noodles.