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Who Were the Karankawa Indians?

If you visit Jamaica Beach on Galveston Island, you will find an official Texas State Historical marker that reads: “In this area is one of several known Karankawa campsites or burial grounds. Now extinct, the nomadic Indians lived along the Texas coast, depending on the Gulf for survival. In 1528 they aided Spanish explorer Cabeza de Vaca, but resisted all intruders from the time of the French expedition of La Salle in 1685. The tribe later declined because of disease and warfare with pirates and Anglo-American settlers. Known for tall tribesmen and alleged practices of ceremonial cannibalism, they had virtually disappeared from Texas by the 1840s. This campsite was discovered in 1962.”

The Karankawa Indian band was comprised of five distinct groups of people with similar language, customs, and religion. At first they were friendly, until they realized that the newcomers had come to take their territory. Long before Cabeza de Vaca came in 1528, the Karankawa had dominated the land and people of the area. Because they wore little clothing, they greased their bodies with alligator oil for protection against the mosquitoes. They adorned their bodies with piercings of cane and sea-shells, outlandish tattoos, and vivid designs painted from face to toe. Not only did they look frightening, they also emitted a loathsome odor from the various oils and animal matter they sported.

Another distinguishing characteristic of the Karankawa was that the men stood between six and seven feet tall! They were noted for their amazing archery skills with the long bow and arrow. Since most bows were made to the height of the warrior, the range and deadliness of a seven foot bow and four foot arrow was catastrophic to their enemies. Can you imagine being attacked by several hundred Karankawa warriors as described? No wondered they were the most feared tribe in Texas.

There is no record that the Karankawa had a written language. Few settlers ever learned their spoken language before they vanished from history. It is said that the Karankawa communicated with a curious mixture of whistling, smoke signals, guttural sounds, and intriguing body language accompanied by hand sign gestures. To this day, only about 100 words from their language has survived.

The obscure religion they practiced appears to have centered on worshipping the sun with ceremonies called “mitotes.” These events included seasonal dances, bizarre rituals, and the consuming of intoxicating swills like the “black drink.” This hallucinogenic concoction was made from the leaves of the youpon shrub that is native to South Texas. As an endocannibalistic act, it was common to bind a lone captive from the battle to a pole in the center of the dance, and to consume pieces of the victims body, while the warriors sipped the “black drink.” Ritual cannibalism was practiced as an occultish absorption of powers to obtain the strength and courage from the defeated foe. This same practice was observed among the Carib Indians of the West Indies, who may have been the forefathers of the Karankawa.

The Spanish missionaries had only moderate success converting some of the Karankawa to Christianity. But as time wore on, most of the converts rejected the controls and regulations forced upon them by the church, and returned to their ancient ways. As the Anglo-settlers began to dominate the land, they either destroyed the Karankawa, or pushed the few remaining members of the band into Mexico where they vanished.

Several years ago, Texas historian C. Herndon Williams shared a fascinating account in his book, Texas Gulf Coast Stories. He gives a vivid description of the Karankawa band, and how they lived and interacted with the newcomers. After they had been driven out of Texas, and possibly becoming extinct, one Karankawa women was discovered buried in St. Joseph’s Cemetery in Beeville, Texas. Her name was Mary Amaroo, and she was adopted into the Philip Power family when she became an orphan. As a young woman, Mary became a seamstress and married Charles Frederich Pothoff. They had one son, Tom. It appears that the last known full blooded Karankawa soul accepted Christ as Savior, and was given a Christian burial. The tombstone, with a Cross on it, reads: “Mary Pothoff – Died May 21, 1911.”

Until we reach Heaven, we will not know how many Christian converts were rescued from the Karankawa Indians. But knowing that at least one was saved and that makes all the efforts of the noble missionaries worth it. Charles Spurgeon said, “Lost! Lost! Lost! Better a whole world on fire than a soul lost! Better every star quenched and the skies a wreck than a single soul to be lost!”

Do you remember the well-worn story about an old man, walking on the beach at dawn, who noticed a young man ahead of him picking up starfish and flinging them into the sea? Catching up with the youth, he asked what he was doing. The young man said that the starfish would die if they were left on the beach in the morning sun. “But the beach goes on for miles, and there are millions of starfish,” countered the old man. “How can your effort make any difference?” The young man looked at the starfish in his hand and then threw it to safety in the waves. “It makes a difference to this one,” He said.

Jesus said, “There is joy in Heaven in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents!” (Luke 15:10)

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