Seeking Refuge In Mexico

Following the creation of the United States, Mexico was seen by some Indian people as a place of refuge, a place where they might be able to escape from the brutality of American Indian policies designed to eradicate Indian cultures and Indian peoples. Initially Indian groups could obtain sanctuary in Mexico by simply crossing the Mississippi River. During the first half of the nineteenth century, however, American imperialism drove the border between the two countries farther south and following the Mexican American War, the Río Grande (Río del Norte in Mexico) was designated as the border. For the next century, however, many tribes from the eastern United States continued to establish villages in northern Mexico, particularly in the Mexican state of Coahuila where they could continue their languages and traditional ways of life without governmental interference. One of the attempts to relocate in Mexico during the 19th century was led by the Seminole war leader known as Wildcat.  

Background: Wildcat and the Seminole

During the 19th century, the United States engaged in a series of three wars against the Seminole in an attempt to remove them from Florida and relocate them in Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma). Wildcat was one of several Seminole leaders who led small bands against the Americans and their army. While Wildcat led a number of successful raids, the Americans in 1841 began a scorched earth policy in which they burned all of the Seminole crops, homes, canoes, and supplies which they could find. As a result, Wildcat surrendered to the army.

The Americans loaded Wildcat and his people onto boats to begin their removal to Indian Territory. At New Orleans, the Americans stopped the ship and had Wildcat and his warriors return to Florida. The Americans wanted to use Wildcat’s services to convince other Seminole to agree to removal. As a result of Wildcat’s efforts, 211 Seminole were shipped out for Indian Territory.

Background: Mexico

While American-oriented history books often tell about Mexican-based Indian tribes raiding the American ranches and settlements in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona, Mexico faced a similar problem. Mexico’s northern border was its “wild west” and Mexican settlements in the north were often raided by Comanche, Apache, and other Indian warriors from the United States. Mexico, with limited resources and a small army, was often unable to do much to deter these raids. One way of dealing with the raids was to encourage other Indian groups, including the Cherokee, Seminole, Kickapoo, Delaware, and others, to settle in the area. In addition, the Mexican army often employed these warriors as scouts and soldiers in their wars against the northern raiders.

In 1839, for example, some of the Kickapoo, seeking refuge from the Texans, fled to Mexico where they established a village. Many of the warriors enlisted in the Mexican army where they were used as scouts. The new village also served as a base for the Kickapoo warriors as they raided into Texas communities.

The Mexican Venture

Life for the newly removed Seminole in Indian Territory was not pleasant. First, the climate and ecology of Oklahoma is somewhat different than that of Florida. Second, the Americans, in their infinite wisdom, had placed the Seminole on the lands reserved for the Creek Nation, thus placing them under Creek jurisdiction.

In 1849 Seminole leader Wildcat wanted to separate the Seminole from the Creek government. After a series of discussions with the Mexican government, he decided to locate the new community in the Mexican state of Coahuila. This would place the new Indian community outside of the jurisdiction of the United States. He then visited the Kickapoo, Comanche, Kiowa, Caddo, and Wichita in an attempt to persuade these tribes to join his intertribal venture. Of these, only the Kickapoo showed any interest.

In attempting to persuade the other tribes to join him in Mexico, Wildcat emphasized the many injustices to the Indians committed by both the United States government and the American settlers who had invaded Indian lands. He emphasized the evils of contact with these intruders, and the necessity for a unified Indian resistance to their eternal impositions. His words had a familiar ring to the Kickapoos. The teachings of Tenskatawa (the Shawnee Prophet) and his brother still lingered in the traditions of the Kickapoos. Wildcat’s words were welcomed by them.

In 1850, Wildcat led a party of 250 Seminole and Kickapoo warriors into Mexico where they temporarily settled at Piedras Negras. The Kickapoo were under the leadership of Papequah. The Mexican officials in Coahuila, faced with regular and devastating forays by the Kiowa, Comanche, and Apache raiders into the northern settlements, welcomed Wildcat and his Seminole and Kickapoo followers. The Mexicans promised to provide the arrivals with livestock and farming tools if they helped defend against the raids by other Indian groups.

Wildcat then returned from Mexico for the purpose of recruiting additional mercenaries for Mexico’s northern defense. Once again, only the Kickapoo showed any interest in joining him in Mexico. However, Chief Pecan, the leader of the Canadian River Kickapoo, opposed the idea of any his warriors leaving as he felt they were needed to protect the Creek from raids by the Comanche, Pawnee, and Osage. Chief Pacanah, head of the Wild Horse Creek Kickapoo, told his warriors that they shouldn’t go to Mexico.

Wildcat promised the Kickapoo warriors that they would be able to keep all booty taken from the Comanche and Apache raiders. In addition, he told them that the Mexican government would pay them for their services. Finally, 200 warriors agreed to go to Mexico with him.

In 1851, Comanche and Apache raiding parties attacked the Mexican settlements to the west of Wildcat’s Seminole and Kickapoo villages. The Seminole and Kickapoo relentless tracked down the raiders in West Texas, recovering several hundred horses and mules as well as a great deal of plunder.

In 1851, Kickapoo chiefs Pecan and Pacanah travelled to Coahuila, Mexico to persuade their warriors who had joined with Wildcat’s Seminole to return home. After several days of pleading, all of the Kickapoo warriors decided to return to their people on the Canadian River and Wild Horse Creek in Indian Territory. Their departure left Wildcat with only 40 Seminole warriors and about 80 African-Americans. The Kickapoo warriors took with them the plunder, horses, and mules which they had captured from the Comanche.

The Seminole and Kickapoo villages established by Wildcat would continue to attract American Indian refugees from United States oppression over the next century. The warriors continued to defend Mexico’s northern frontier. New immigrant villages were also established as new immigrants arrived, sometimes only a handful of family members, while at other times entire bands would move to Mexico. Mexico, unlike the United States, gave its Indians citizenship and voting rights.  

Ancient America: The Gods of Palenque

For most people, the Maya and the Aztec are the best-known Mesoamerican cultures. The area occupied by the Maya included southern Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Belize, and El Salvador. The ancient Maya city of Palenque was “discovered” by Europeans in the 1700s. For the next several centuries, European explorers would marvel at the city’s architecture, loot its art, and destroy many of its buildings. Many people were convinced that the city was too complex, too well-built to have been constructed by American Indians, so they assumed that it must have been built by Romans, Egyptians, Greeks, the Lost Tribes of Israel, Europeans, or others. In the twentieth century, some pseudo-scholars, whose works are still promoted by certain television networks, claimed that the builders must have been ancient aliens from distant planets who brought a now-forgotten technology to the Maya.

Palenque Palace

Palenque is best known for its exquisite stone and stucco sculpture, its extensive hieroglyphic texts, and the funerary pyramid of Pakal the Great. For archaeologists it is a site that has also provided a great deal of insight into ancient America, particularly with regard to the ancient gods.


Pakal the Great is shown above.

Today Palenque is an archaeological and a tourist attraction managed by Mexico’s Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia.

Palenque Main Plaza

The main plaza at Palenque is shown above.

The Maya:

Archaeologists usually divide Mesoamerican history into three broad time periods: Preclassic (2000 BCE to 250 CE), Classic (250 to 900), and Postclassic (900 to 1500). During the Classic Period, the Maya were divided into many small kingdoms centered around cities. The largest of these cities-Calakmul, Tikal, Cobá, and Caracol-had populations of more than 75,000 and served as regional centers for powerful kings and queens and their royal courts.

Maya Map

The various Classic Maya kingdoms not only traded among themselves, but also waged war on one another. In addition, they traded with non-Maya kingdoms, such as Teotihuacán and also waged war against non-Maya kingdoms.



The ancient Maya city of Palenque has an urban core which is slightly larger than the Principality of Monaco. Archaeologists have noted the remains of some 1,500 structures within this core clustered into at least 35 major building complexes. Like other Maya cities, Palenque shows that the ancient Maya carefully managed their water supplies: there are stone aqueducts and walled stream banks. The area is characterized by fluctuations in dry and wet seasons and the maintenance of an adequate water supply throughout the year was critical to urban life.

As with other Maya cities, the primary building material was stone. At Palenque, the masons had available to them limestone that was as dense and flawless as fine lithographic stone. The stones in the Palenque area have natural cleavage planes which mean that it was easy to break into great slabs. The Maya masons used these stones to produce buildings of great beauty and Maya artists and scribes used them to produce panels with hieroglyphic texts and scenes of Maya life.

Palenque was initially settled about 500 BCE and had grown into a small city by 400 CE. By 850 CE, the city was largely abandoned. The last known date recorded at Palenque is 799.

Palenque Temple

Palenque Relief

The Kings of Palenque:

The Maya cities were ruled by kings and the kingship was usually passed down through the male line, from father to son. Palenque is famous in the archaeological world because it contains the first Maya royal tomb ever excavated. At one time it was thought that the Maya stepped-pyramids served solely as platforms for temples. At Palenque, however, archaeologists found the intact tomb of Palenque’s greatest king inside a pyramid. This was the tomb of K’inish Janab Pakal, or simply Pakal.

One of the interesting anomalies in Palenque occurred with the death king Kan Bahlam in 583. Royal descent traditionally passed from father to son, but in this case the person who assumed the throne, Ix Yohl Ik’nal, was a woman. While some people assume that she was the daughter of Kan Bahlam, there is no actual evidence of this. During her reign, in 599, Palenque was defeated militarily by Calakmul, another Mayan kingdom. At this time, the Palenque Triad gods were “thrown down” and the Great Jaguar, the militaristic totem of the Calakmul kings, appears.  

In 615, the twelve-year-old K’inich Janab Pakal assumed the throne of Palenque and went on to become its longest and greatest ruler. His father was K’an Hix Mo’ (Yellow Jaguar Macaw) who may have been a noble of foreign origin. There is no indication that his father ever occupied the throne of Palenque. The origins of his mother, Ix Sak K’uk’ (Lady White Quetzal), are also obscure, but during her son’s reign she became a powerful figure. There are some scholars who feel that Pakal was installed on the throne by the king of Calakmul to rule as a puppet.

The last known king of Palenque was K’inich K’uk’ Bahlam whose reign began on 8 March 764 and lasted for at least 20 years. There is, however, a vase which suggests that Six Death Janab Pakal was inaugurated on 17 November 1799. Little is known about this person who may have been Palenque’s last king.

Kan Balam

The Gods of Palenque:

Palenque provides us with some insights into Maya religion. First, a caution: we should not assume that there was a single religious tradition among the Maya. As with many other parts of the world, including ancient Egypt, the gods were associated with specific places. Thus the gods of Palenque should be considered just that: the gods of Palenque, not universal Maya gods.

Religious expression at Palenque focused on the Triad: three gods which were hierarchically arranged from most-to-least important and each of which had their own temple. These three gods were the creation of another god, known today as the Triad Progenitor who was born in 3121 BCE and who is considered a maize god.

Just prior to Pakal’s rule, the Triad had been thrown down, and during his rule there was a political and religious renaissance in which the Triad rituals were reinstated. During the rule of Pakal’s son, Ki’inich Kan Bahlam, the three temples of the Triad were constructed and made more opulent and impressive than before. All three of the temples currently designated as the Cross Group were dedicated on the same day: 10 January 692. At this dedication, according to the inscriptions, the three patron gods of the Palenque dynasty were housed in their respective shrines. The dedication was timed to coincide with the completion of the thirteenth K’atun: in the Maya calendar. The thirteenth K’atun was special in its own right as the number 13 is sacred in Maya numerology.

Cross Group

A reconstruction of the temples of the Cross Group is shown above.

God 1 (often designed as G1) was the most important of the Triad. His actual name is obscure, but he was born in the mythical realm of Matwiil on 21 October 2360 BCE. His shrine at Palenque is currently designated as the Temple of the Cross. He was an aquatic deity with associations with the sun. He was associated with the east. Near the time of Maya creation, he descended from the sky and lived in a northern temple known as Six Heaven. The Temple of the Cross is the sky temple which is associated with solar re-birth and with the ancestral authority of rulership.

The great cross shown in the temple, and from which Europeans have given the temple its name, is not a European religious symbol, but rather is a representation of a sacred world tree. On top of this tree sits an elaborate supernatural bird.

God 2 (often designated as G2), whose name is Unen K’awiil, was born on 8 November 2360 BCE and is thus the youngest of the Triad though second in power. He was the god of lightning and was seen as a manifestation of royal power and agriculture. His temple at Palenque is currently designated as the Temple of the Foliated Cross. One of his titles was the Young Lord of the Five Heavenly Houses. The Temple of the Foliated Cross represented the middle place where maize agriculture and water meet. It also symbolizes the procreative powers of the king.

God 3 (often designated as G3), the most junior member of the Triad (in terms of importance), was born on 25 October 2360 BCE. He was associated with the sun and was often seen as a warrior. His temple at Palenque is currently known as the Temple of the Sun. Within the Temple of the Sun is the depiction of a cave within the earth which houses the solar god associated with warfare and military authority. The symbol of this temple of sacred warfare is the crossed spears and the shield.

The Triad gods provided a model of kingship for Palenque. They established a mythical charter for how the kings were to interact with the gods. It was the kings who were entrusted with the care and protection of these gods.

At the K’atun (the celebration of the twenty year cycle of the Maya calendar) the gods of the Triad were dressed by the king and given proper offerings. It was the duty of the king to give them ornaments and ritual clothing. This aspect of the veneration of the Triad, seen as a form of caretaking, was extremely important to the Maya. A number of scholars have noted that the dressing rituals described in the Palenque texts are very similar to today’s rituals in the region in which the images of the Catholic saints are dressed in native ceremonial dress and given necklaces of gold coins.

Indians 101: Acorns

Long before the arrival of the first Europeans, California was the home to an extremely diverse variety of Indian cultures. The California culture area has the widest variety of native languages, ecological settings, and house types of any North American culture area.

One of the mainstays of the diet for the region was the acorn which was used in soup, porridge, and bread. Sixteen different species of oak provided the acorns. Because of the nutrition provided by acorns, the Native American people in California did not develop agriculture. Acorns contributed to the fact that California peoples did not experience annual famine months or develop traditions or legends dealing with famine. It is estimated that among one tribe, the Yokut, a typical family consumed 1,000 to 2,000 pounds of acorns each year.

While many of the early non-Indians in California noticed that the acorn oaks which were so important to many of the California Indian nations tended to grow in regular rows, they did not understand that these trees had been planted as orchards by the Indians.

There are a number of steps involved in gathering and processing the acorns. They are gathered in September and October. Traditionally, the people gathered the acorns by climbing the tree and then beating off the nuts with a long slender pole. The acorns which are collected have white bottoms and no insect holes. The acorns are then dried in their shells, a process which takes anywhere from a few weeks to a few months. During this time, the acorns are stirred to increase air circulation and encourage drying.

Once dry, the acorns are cracked to remove the nutmeat. This was traditionally done with a small, handheld stone pestle. The acorns are then ground or pounded into acorn flour. The flour is pounded as fine as possible. Once the acorns are ground into flour, it is then leached. Acorns contain tannic acid which is very bitter and which is poisonous in large amounts. The leaching process removes the tannic acid from the acorn flour. The leaching was traditionally done by digging a shallow sand pit near a creek. The flour was then carefully spread in the bottom of the pit and water was continuously poured over it until it was sweet. It would take several hours of pouring to leach the flour.

One analysis of uncooked acorn meal shows that it is 21% fat, 5% protein, 62% carbohydrate, and 14% water, mineral, and fiber.

Among the Miwok, the leached acorn meal was cooked as soup, mush, biscuits, or bread. The soup was a thin gruel. Mush was thicker and it was often eaten by dipping with the first and second fingers. A special mush stirrer was used in preparing the mush.

To make biscuits, the acorn meal was first cooked as mush, then the mush was poured slowly from a height of about two feet into a cooking basket. This thickened the mush even more. When the material had reached the proper consistency, it was dipped out into another basket and placed in cool water-sometimes a running stream-for a minute or two. When the material remaining in the cooking basket had cooled, it was easily loosened from the sides of the basket by overturning the basket. This resulted in a small loaf of bread which was placed in water for a couple of minutes. The biscuits had the consistency of a modern gelatine desert. This was not only a daily food, but was also used at feasts.

A kind of bread was made by adding a small amount of water oak bark ashes to the meal which would sweeten it. This was then baked on a hot stone or in an earth oven.  

( Mrs Ojibwa notes: There are easier, faster ways now in which to prepare acorn meal. A quick check on the internet turned up several. I’ve also heard, but do not know if it is true, that you can buy acorn meal where Korean food products are sold [I know, defeats the idea of gathering your own food or using Native American ingredients-but can be helpful for those who do not have access to their own acorns. Be careful not to buy acorn starch).

The following recipe for Acorn Griddle Cakes has been modified for modern cooks from the traditional foods of the Northern California tribes: Hupa, Karok, Miwok, Pomo, and Yurok.

The recipe:

2/3 cup finely ground acorn meal or finely ground hazelnuts

1/3 cup unbleached flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

¼ teaspoon salt

1 egg, beaten

¾ cup milk

1 tablespoon honey

3 tablespoons melted butter

Combine dry ingredients in a mixing bowl. Mix together egg, milk, and honey and beat into dry ingredients to form a smooth batter. Stir in melted butter. Drop by tablespoonfuls onto a hot, greased griddle. Cook, turning each cake when it is browned on the underside and puffed and slight set on top.

(Mrs Ojibwa notes: Acorn meal can also be substituted for half of the cornmeal in things like cornbread or cornmeal muffins. Keep in mind that acorn meal has no glutin, so you don’t want to do a full substitution of acorn meal for other flours or meals.)