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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
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
Matt Teutimez: “The purpose of nature is to utilize it, not to look at it”
John Gilhooley
Matt Teutimez: “The purpose of nature is to utilize it, not to look at it”

"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.'"

* * *

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."

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.

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.

"The site was of international significance—it was very unique," says Dave Singleton, program analyst for the California Native American Heritage Commission. He is charged by the state with monitoring sacred sites. "It was very impressive—you're talking about 10,000 artifacts at least, all different varieties."

Despite its cultural significance, Hearthside obliterated the terrain. "They destroyed the site," Singleton says, "and after this destruction, we're seeing how important it was."

The artifacts were photographed and cataloged, and the remains were reburied on a different part of the site, Henry says. "Based on the preliminary information [Hearthside] had, they thought it was a seasonal village, not a place of permanent inhabitance. Had the commission had the correct information, they would have taken different action" and banned Hearthside from further development.

The Hearthside fiasco highlighted a significant problem for the Gabrieleños and other Southern California tribes: Even in the present day—when California law has been crafted to be more sympathetic to ancient human remains and native concerns—wealthy real-estate investors and property owners with keen interest in preventing Native Americans from claiming any part of their ancestral territory continually win. And it doesn't help the Gabrieleños' plight that their ancestral lands sit on some of the highest-priced real estate in the United States.

"When you deal with densely populated areas, that's where politics really matter," UCI's Polequaptewa says. "They're in some of the most affluent, wealthy and powerful areas of the country, regardless of right or wrong."

State law recommends developers have a Native American monitor on-site during land grading, and developers are supposed to halt construction and contact local law enforcement when remains are found. If the bones are determined to be Indian, authorities contact the Native American Heritage Commission (NAHC), which then selects from a list of most likely descendants (better known by the acronym MLDs) a group to send to the site to tell the developer how the remains should be treated.

But that doesn't mean much. Developers can hire anyone they want, and the annals of Indian monitors in Southern California development are rife with accusations of sell-outs and charlatans. According to Singleton, MLDs don't even have to be Indian, but can be "representatives" of Indian tribes that magically form when there's money to be made from being native. It dates back to the vagaries of the 1928 California Indian Jurisdictional Act: What was intended to redress broken promises of goods and land to Native Americans with a money settlement instead became a free-for-all in which all that was required to cash in was to self-identify.

"Half the people who applied and got approved in Orange County weren't even Indian," says Lorraine Escobar, a genealogist who specializes in Native American ancestry. Some of those non-Indians with CDIB cards ("certificates of degree of Indian blood," issued by the Bureau of Indian Affairs) show up at burial sites with developers as paid monitors, while others appear on the NAHC's MLDs list even though they have no Indian blood. And there's no process to kick them off the NAHC's list, even though Salas, Lobo and others have complained repeatedly about certain individuals for years.

"You've got people who are claiming to be Indian, making dispositions of ancestors' bodies, burial goods and artifacts, who are not experts, who are just people willing to sign off and get paid off by land developers to develop a site, whether it's culturally significant or not," Lobo says.

And the most tragic part: Even if the monitor is legitimate, developers ultimately don't need to care. In the most recent Gabrieleño example, work continued for months after remains were discovered in 2010 on the grounds of La Placita Olvera in downtown Los Angeles during construction of the county's new LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes, even though the NAHC demanded a halt. That same year, the California Coastal Commission fined a family trust that owned land near Bolsa Chica and wanted to turn it into homes worth $430,000 each and ordered it to rebury artifacts and restore areas disturbed after it unearthed artifacts.

"Sometimes it's cheaper to pay a fine than it is to stop a development," Polequaptewa says.

The Gabrieleños' hand would be significantly strengthened in defending against such desecrations if they were federally recognized, but the American government has refused to do so, ironically claiming there aren't enough "real" Gabrieleños to justify such a move. Out of continuous frustration over this issue, and after learning hard lessons from the casino disaster, Salas has enlisted the help of Escobar (herself a California Indian of Esselen and Rumsen lineage) to track down the ancestry of people claiming Gabrieleño descent but who don't have it and publicly call them out.

Salas says such a step is necessary for self-preservation of the tribe. "They're desecrating our sacred villages and interfering in Indian affairs," he explains.

These incidents have led to serious bad blood. Every year, a Native American powwow is held on the grounds of Long Beach State University. In the 1990s, the university and developers planned to build a strip mall over the site of a sacred natural spring that once burbled where the western edge of the university grounds lie, in what was the Gabrieleño village of Puvunga. But Native Americans and professors campaigned successfully to save it. Ernie Salas was one of the activists who helped to save it from development.

"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."

"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.

"Federal recognition isn't to show power—that's not what we're looking for," he adds. "Why can't they recognize the small portion of people who are alive today who can prove we are who we are? Give us at least the recognition for all we've been through. Recognize us. We're here."

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