The Kizh-Gabrieleño Factor

Despite a centuries-long campaign by Southern Californians to eradicate them, OC's remaining Gabrieleños are making a comeback

The Kizh-Gabrieleño Factor

"The purpose of nature is to utilize it, not to look at it," 37-year-old Buena Park resident Matt Teutimez says, as he and his father stand in the middle of the Bolsa Chica wetlands during a crisp, winter morning. All around them, suburbanites zip along the ecological preserve's cement-covered paths, strolling, jogging, walking dogs, basking in what Teutimez considers holy land under siege.

Off in the distance is suburban sprawl, inching closer and closer. Nearby is a graded mesa of dirt, the proposed site for a luxury community designed by Hearthside Homes. In 2005, construction workers unearthed the remains of 174 people, the ancestors of the Teutimezes and hundreds of others in Orange and Los Angeles counties. Here stood a village that held special significance for the people who called themselves Kizh but whom the Spaniards called Gabrieleños, after the mission they herded them into during the 18th and 19th centuries. When activists demanded Hearthside halt construction to properly reinter the dead and take scope of the stunning discovery, a Hearthside vice president dismissed their concerns as "just another obstacle to overcome" and carried on with construction for a planned development where new residents are promised "an intimate connection with nature."

This morning, though, standing by a fence with "KEEP OUT" signs serving as sentries, Teutimez and his father are busy doing what their ancestors did for hundreds of years: identifying wildlife, examining plants and discussing their uses. Matt, a biologist, says the area is so fertile he can make a full meal from the bounty that grows beyond the wire fence and never go hungry: nasturtium, stinging nettle, salt bush, elderberries, among other native plants.

Ernie Salas
John Gilhooley
Ernie Salas
Andy Salas at the Bolsa Chica Wetlands
John Gilhooley
Andy Salas at the Bolsa Chica Wetlands

"This habitat is unique because you would have fresh water from the Santa Ana River and salt water," he says. "There would have been an abundance of animals and plants, clams, mussels, abalone. This area is perfect for a village."

But Teutimez cannot legally harvest this bounty; though this was his ancestors' land for generations, he now has no claim to it.

Nevertheless, he and others try. Remaining descendants of the Gabrieleños in Orange County and beyond are gamely trying to retain and revive their heritage via actions sweeping and subtle: by mapping out old village sites, by reconstructing languages and customs through a combination of archive searches and word-of-mouth stories, by protesting loudly whenever another development unearths a part of their past and treats it as just another shovel of dirt or opportunists come to divide and conquer. Fear burned into the subconscious of elders from past slaughters of California Indians kept generations of Gabrieleños living in the shadows. But this new wave is proud and ready to save what is left of its culture—and with only about 650 documented Gabrieleños left, many middle-aged to elderly, time is running short.

"You can't separate them in the Indian mind," Teutimez says of nature and spirituality, of his people's Bolsa Chica and Southern California. "Our ancestors never thought they could do it better than God. They accepted what God gave them, and God gave them plenty. Now what we've said is 'We can do it better.'"

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The Gabrieleños are associated primarily with Los Angeles County because their villages in what's now Orange County fell under the domain of LA in the days of the padres. But they thrived across north, central and coastal OC. Local villages included Lopuuknga, Hotuuknga, Pasbenga and Motuucheynga, located roughly where Costa Mesa, Fullerton, Santa Ana and Seal Beach, respectively, now exist. Gabrieleño domain extended to Aliso Creek, where they had close ties with their neighbors to the south, the Acjachemen, or Juaneños, says Andy Tautimez Salas, Matt's cousin and chairman of the Kizh-Gabrieleño. Salas and others recently learned their pre-colonial ancestors referred to themselves as the Kizh (pronounced "keech," a name derived from their homes, built with willow-branch roofs) and now disavow the widely used term "Tongva," saying it's not really a word, but rather an Anglo bastardization of the name the village Toviscangna.

"There is no such thing as 'Tongva,'" Salas explains. "It wasn't who we were. My grandmother was born in 1912, and she never used that word."

But they're almost universally known as Gabrieleños—even among tribal members—due to the longtime repression and stigma attached to being Indian in Southern California. The Catholic Church forced the Kizh into servitude at Mission San Gabriel upon its inception in 1771 and changed their religion and names, banning the old ways under threat of the whip and eternal damnation. Things only got worse after the decline of the missions with Mexican independence, then the conquest of California after the 1848 Mexican-American War. Upon its admittance into the Union, it was legal, even encouraged under California law to harass Native Americans to the point of death. "You actually got money for Indian scalps," says Nikishna Polequaptewa, a Hopi from northern Arizona who is the director of the American Indian Resource Center at UC Irvine.

Legalized racism and violence against Gabrieleños and other California Indians into the early 20th century forced them to assimilate as a means of survival. Matt's father, John Teutimez, a retired, 25-year veteran of the Santa Ana Police Department, says his own father had to choose between his identity and feeding his family. "My dad would say he was Mexican because if he told anyone he was Indian, he couldn't get any work," John says. "They wanted to assimilate us because they didn't want to deal with us."

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