The Kizh-Gabrieleño Factor

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

As a result, Gabrieleños took Spanish names, intermarried with Mexicans and, if asked, would say they were anything but Indian. In the process, vast troves of Kizh culture, language and knowledge were lost, and the fear of being discovered as an Indian was passed down to future generations.

"My parents told me, 'Never let them know you're Native American,'" says 81-year-old Ernie Teutimez Salas, of San Gabriel. He's Andy's father, Matt's uncle, and the tribe's chief and spiritual leader. He functions as a bridge to past generations, telling word-of-mouth stories passed down among his family members. An ancestor, Saturnina Ochoa, was one of the few survivors of an infamous 1821 massacre by Mexican soldiers that nearly wiped out the entire Gabrieleño community. "They would slaughter any of us. They wanted to get rid of us one way or another."

Nevertheless, Gabrieleño families quietly, secretly kept memories, stories and their Indian identity alive. The elder Salas remembers going to the Patton Ranch near Pasadena to visit relatives as a child and attending nighttime Gabrieleño meetings there under the protection of Benjamin Wilson, General George Patton's grandfather. But public displays of Gabrieleño identity were frowned upon through most of the 20th century; past experiences were still raw in the tribe's psyche.

Ernie Salas teaching a new generation the way of the Kizh
John Gilhooley
Ernie Salas teaching a new generation the way of the Kizh
The Salas clan: Nadine, Ernie and Ernie’s sister
John Gilhooley
The Salas clan: Nadine, Ernie and Ernie’s sister

The Salases finally broke their silence about who they are and what they've been through after an ugly public fallout over a proposed Indian gaming casino. In 1998, Santa Monica attorney Jonathan Stein and a self-identified Gabrieleño named Sam Dunlap approached the tribe, dangling the carrot of vast gambling profits. Before that, there was only one group, led by Ernie Salas, Andy says.

"Stein sold the elders on a casino," he says. "Throughout their lives, they lived through hardship; they were poor. So they just followed him."

The Gabrieleños already had an established nonprofit that worked as the legal branch of the tribe, but schisms soon followed. People who were not Gabrieleños began meddling in tribal affairs, dollar signs in their eyes. Soon Stein and Dunlap were at odds and formed their own groups; others followed suit. The fallout was a decade of lawsuits and bitter fighting; nowadays, a half-dozen groups call themselves "Tongva," "Gabrieleño" or a combination of both, claiming to be the one true voice of the tribe and its legacy.

"Finally, I said, 'If I don't get up and speak about what I know is true and what I know as a native about my family, no one is ever going to know,'" Andy Salas recalls. "That's why these [troublemakers] were able to take this over—because none of us stood up for what we should have defended."

As Salas became more assertive, others followed his lead. Matt Teutimez credited the renewed surge in the tribe to his cousin, a veritable walking encyclopedia of Gabrieleño knowledge and local history with boundless energy.

"Without our family contacting us, we would have been living our own little lives, never knowing about the tribe," he says. "I said, 'I'll help out with my biological knowledge; my dad has police work and legal knowledge.'" They've also teamed with veterinarian Christina Swindall and Tim Poyorena Miguel, the tribe's historian and archivist.

"I started seeing people dropping and dying and people getting taken advantage of, and dad's sick because the tribe got overtaken—it hurt me," Salas says. "I said, 'No, I'm not going to let up. I'm going to take it all the way. It's not done yet.'"

* * *

Just as Spaniards, Mexicans and Anglos alike worked to rid California of its native people, the ravages of progress continue their work. Time and again, Gabrieleños find themselves standing on the sidelines, powerlessly watching as developers stumble onto ancient graves and sacred sites, then pave over them with little thought for the past.

The Bolsa Chica Mesa controversy is the latest fight. Though it's one of Southern California's last wetland habitats, private developers have long desired to plop multimillion-dollar homes there.

"This has been a generational fight," says Chris Lobo, outgoing tribal councilman for the Acjachemen-Juaneño Indians, vocal opponents of the project. "It was a very significant site, and it's been known about for decades. It was a very ancient, historical, powerful, spiritual place."

In the 1980s, developers earned permits to do an investigation of the grounds and "data recovery" at the site, says Teresa Henry, district manager for the California Coastal Commission. "All through the '90s, they didn't find any burials," she says. "They weren't expecting to find anything. . . . By the time they came in 2005 [for a development permit], there was no way we could have stopped the work that was already permitted. Some of the opposition filed a revocation request, but that was unsuccessful because the grounds for revocation are very narrow—they would have had to have known [in advance] there were burials there."

Land grading by Hearthside Homes in 2005 uncovered a massive find that shocked even Gabrieleños and Juaneños. While digging up the ground, archaeologists discovered it was not only a village, but also a regional religious destination that predated the Egyptian pyramids and Imperial China—more than 9,000 years of continual living. Along with almost 200 human burials and animal burials (including a dolphin), there was an unusually rich array of artifacts such as cogged stones, crystals and other religious instruments, as well as evidence of building structures.

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