The Kizh-Gabrieleño Factor

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

"That's very important to us," he says. "It belonged to the Gabrieleño Kizh Indian. They lived there, and they died there. We go there and look at it and see it doesn't belong to us anymore."

Despite the victory, Salas claims his group of Gabrieleños is banned from the annual powwow. "They don't invite us, and they keep our family away because they know we are who we are," he says. "That's their way of keeping people who want to know the truth about the Gabrieleño away from it."

It's vital tribes stand together, especially in California, where hundreds of tribes, some of them tiny, are pitted against one another for resources, Polequaptewa says. "The most important thing is to carry on your language and traditions. It's not about blood quantum; it's about traditional participation," he says. "That's what makes us who we are, and that's our greatest strength."

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

"If we don't step up to the plate today, it's over; it's done," Salas says. "Enough is enough, and that's the bottom line. It is my responsibility."

* * *

From a hilltop on the eastern border of Walnut Park in the San Gabriel Valley, Andy Salas points out the old villages—Asusangna (now the city of Azusa), Alupkangna, Acuangna, Hahamongna, Tobingna. All of them were former Kizh settlements, and where Salas stood was the former town of Winingna. Off in the distance, just visible through bluish fog, is Yangna—now better known as downtown Los Angeles. From this hill, Salas says, the Winingna community could see what all their neighbors were up to and who was coming for a visit.

On a late summer day last year, Salas and a handful of fellow Kizh led the way through Winingna, describing how the villagers learned through thousands of years of trial and error to use their landscape for survival. The term "Winingna" roughly means the place where pestles and mortars for food preparation were made; to this day, the porous, lava-like rock the Kizh used for tools is found by the creek and willow trees whose leaves roofed Kizh homes.

Salas begins to explain the old ways. Under what's now a 57 freeway overpass at Via Verde Street, the Winingna Kizh would hunt rabbits. They'd bathe in natural hot springs at modern-day Frank G. Bonnelli Regional Park in San Dimas. According to Salas, nature's bounty was seen as a gift; this led to a culture of gift giving and mindset of reciprocity. Taking care of the land and one another ensured the tribe's survival.

"This area is plentiful with food. People just don't know it or don't know how to prepare it," Matt Teutimez says. "A lot of cures to our ailments are right around us."

Picking leaves and crumbling dried blossoms in his hand to release sage or vanilla-like scents, he hypothesizes that based on the abundance of aromatic plants in the region, his ancestors must have placed emphasis on fragrances. Their diets, he assumes, were probably similar to that of the Japanese—a lot of vegetation and ocean life, considering their temperate climate and proximity to the sea.

"I wouldn't be surprised if the cultures here were advanced, like the Maya or Aztecs," he says. "They were not nomadic—even now, we don't move."

Despite all their travails, the Gabrieleños simply won't disappear from the Orange County landscape. In 1992, remains of a woman found while excavating at Fullerton Municipal Airport were determined to be Gabrieleño; just recently, bones that washed out of the ground with heavy rains at Hillcrest Park in December were found to be burial remains of the Gabrieleño village of Hotuuknga.

While the Gabrieleños are left with the task of figuring out who they are and grappling with various levels of government and internecine battles, Ernie Salas guides them through. As part of his spiritual ceremonies, he faces east. He thanks "Father Sun for the daylight and warmth, Father Moon for the night light, Mother Earth who gives us food."

Every year, he leads Gabrieleños to Mission San Juan Bautista near the Bay Area to honor Toypurina, a Kizh spiritual leader who led a failed revolt against the Spanish at the San Gabriel Mission. In retaliation, the Spanish dismembered her father, killed the Indians they suspected participated in the uprising, and exiled Toypurina to northern California, where she lived the rest of her short life.

"We do a pilgrimage, and my dad does a blessing for her," Andy Salas says. He and others are putting the finishing touches on a book they claim will tell the "true story" about Toypurina. "That really means a lot to him."

Whatever challenges that face it, this generation of Gabrieleños seems driven by the underlying understanding that it will decide the future of its people.

"Little by little, they're killing us with documents, with blood quantum, saying, 'You're one-12th or one-14th or one-16th,'" Salas says. "I wouldn't be here today if my grandma and grandpa hadn't survived the holocausts. So my blood runs with Indian blood no matter what I look like.

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