Gabrieleños struggle for recognition, face challenges
By Bethania Palma Markus, Staff Writer
Posted: 01/30/2011 06:06:59 PM PST
Ernest Tautimies Salas holds historical family photos in Covina, Thursday, January 27, 2011. They are direct descendants of Southern California's original people, the Gabrielino Indians who have California recognition but are struggling to get federal recognition. (SGVN/Staff Photo by Eric Reed)
When Gabrielino Indian Ernie Salas recently voiced concerns about the unearthing of ancestral bones during a construction project near Olvera Street, the builder of the Mexican cultural center said he heard Salas and his relatives were not "real Indians."
Salas can trace his lineage back to the first California inhabitants that built the state's Catholic missions. But Gabrielinos aren't recognized by the federal government.
And, if you ask any of the four groups claiming to be the legitimate leaders of the Gabrielinos, they will each claim to be the legitimate representatives of their people.
So it goes for what remains of Southern California's indigenous people.
Salas' son, Andy Salas, 42, of Covina, is pushing to gain federal recognition and preserve what remains of the Gabrielino heritage. But he's not alone. There are a handful of groups working separately toward the same thing.
"I just want the culture to be preserved for my kids and their kids and their kids to come so they can see where they come from," Andy Salas said. "Maybe we could get a little piece of land where we could put a cultural center and maybe some windmills and generate revenue for everybody."
Archaeologist Gary Stickel backs Salas.
"His group is legitimate - they can trace their ancestry back to the San Gabriel Mission records, to the actual villages their ancestors came from," he said. "In a humanistic way, I found this group of Gabrielinos behave with the utmost integrity and nobility. They have no ulterior motives."
Officials at the Bureau of Indian Affairs did not return several messages left over the past two weeks.
But records show that four groups using the Gabrielino name have applied for recognition.
The BIA lists seven criteria for becoming federally recognized, but most of them include that the group show a common identity and a common governance - traits the Gabrielinos don't have.
The tribe began splintering after a large faction partnered with Santa Monica-based attorney Jonathan Stein about a decade ago in hopes of winning rights to build and run a casino in the Los Angeles area.
Stein said his group's membership is 1,688 strong.
"You got 2,000 people who are completely unified saying let's go get it, then you have these little fringe groups of ego centered personalities who say, `What I want is more important than what 2,000 people want,"' Stein said. "That's why they're on their own."
He estimates there are about 2,500 living Gabrielinos.
Bernie Acunas, a tribal councilman in the group allied with Stein, said the situation is far from ideal.
Like most of the L.A. area's first inhabitants and settlers, the Gabrielinos who survive today are blood relatives. Acunas, who now lives near San Diego, is Andy Salas' cousin.
"It's a terrible family thing to be honest with you," said Acunas, a Gabrielino who grew up in San Gabriel. "I wish we'd all stayed together and got one thing accomplished at a time. Everyone is trying to do different things and it makes things hard."
But the culture dwindles with every generation and some said this could be a last chance to save it.
"This is a really crucial time that the Gabrielinos need to work on recognition as a tribe, not as a casino," said Ron Andrade, executive director for the L.A. City and County Native American Commission.
Andrade backs a group lead by Anthony Morales, who didn't return phone calls seeking comment. Morales, whose group is based in San Gabriel, opposes gaming.
He is also related to Andy and Ernie Salas.
"The problem is in L.A. County it's been totally based in greed," Andrade said of efforts to open a casino. "Anthony's (group) is based in religion and culture. He's very active in all the varying (cultural) aspects."
Federal recognition gives tribes sovereignty and provides protection for the culture and language, Andrade said.
"It's extremely important that they get federally recognized so they can have these protections," he said.
Because contact between the Spanish, Mexican and American settlers was intense and often brutally oppressive, much of the Gabrielino culture and language has been lost over time, said Lowell Bean, an anthropologist who is an authority on California Indians.
When the Spanish came in the late 1700s, California natives were "missionized," Bean said. They were taken from their homes to build and work at the missions. The Gabrielinos are named for the first L.A. mission - Mission San Gabriel Arcangel.
Under Mexicans and later Americans, the Gabrielino culture was all but obliterated, experts said. Being an Indian was stigmatized. Many were killed.
"There are very few fluent speakers of any of the California languages," Bean said. "Indians weren't allowed to speak their language - they were sent to schools where teachers would punish them if they spoke their language."
Matt Teutimez, a Gabrielino from Cypress, agreed.
"My great grandfather knew you could get killed by stating you were Indian," he said. "My grandfather said he was Mexican when he needed work. That's what a lot of families did - they integrated themselves."
They learned Spanish and English and took Spanish surnames, he said.
But younger Gabrielinos are trying to revive the culture and language and hope getting federal recognition helps.
Teutimez said the majority of Gabrielino language is written down and there are recordings of it.
And while developers in places like Playa Vista, Long Beach and downtown Los Angeles have been digging up native remains for years, Gabrielinos don't have a place to bury their ancestors in peace.
Federal law dictates the remains of Indians be returned to their descendants for burial.
"With the Gabrielinos, there are some remains that are ready to be repatriated but they have no land, so they have no place to repatriate them," said Eugene Ruyle, a retired anthropology professor at Cal State Long Beach who helped Native Americans fight development of a strip mall on a sacred site. "It's a long process and I'm sure it's very painful for a lot of Native Americans that want to see their ancestors treated with respect."
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