Mapping Indigenous Los Angeles: Excavating the Sacred Space of the City


PART 1 ///

MELANIE K. YAZZIE: Please describe the Mapping Indigenous LA project. How and why did it start, who has been involved and what are the goals of the project?

MISHUANA GOEMAN: The project began about five years ago when a bunch of faculty came to the project, from different areas and different levels of engagement with the communities in Indigenous Los Angeles. It started when the Institute of American Cultures at UCLA instituted a call for grants, The Dream Fund, and in that call they wanted to bring different segments of the campus together. We had been talking about these Indigenous issues and in different respective centers. Maylei Blackwell had been dealing with Indigenous Latin American diaspora, I of course have been doing American Indian, but also a little work with the Tongva, and Keith Camacho in Asian-American studies worked with the Pacific Islander community. Wendy Teeter had been working with the Tongva communities for over 25 years, and so the project for her has been ongoing for 25 years, and it has been something that she has wanted to disseminate the knowledge about the Tongva community in Los Angeles in a particular, community-driven ways. My interests spurred when I was on a trip to Pimu (Catalina) and we discussed the fact that there was a medicine man brought out from Rosebud to deal with the buffalo overpopulation issue, and so there were transferring buffalo all the way to Rosebud — which is crazy. When the medicine man was there, he felt a presence. Nobody had consulted the Tongva community at all! In this transfer, they consulted an Indigenous person because they felt that was right, but not the people whose land they were on. Cindi Alvitre spoke about it being a village site, so the importance of place was well known. So, I was talking one day to Maylei around that and about points of Indigenous convergence and thinking through the multi-layered segments of Los Angeles, and its Indigeneity. I think the goals of the project really emanated from starting a conversation among these disparate Indigenous groups that the faculty has been having in our work, because we’re compelled to do that. But, how do we begin to have a conversation with community members so that the Pacific Islander community understands that they’re on Tongva Land or those newly arriving from the south as they are dispossessed. They want to be respectful too, but they’re just haven’t been a lot of avenues for people to be respectful to each other.

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Mural (1995) by Johanna Poethig and Roberto Salas paying homage to Vera Rocha, Gabrielino (Tongva) in San Pedro, Los Angeles.

Now, Los Angeles, because of its reputation or the way Hollywood has impacted Indians and places importance on American Indians, even the American Indian community often times they’d overlook Tongva as the First People of Los Angeles. And this, I think ,stands in a praxis of my work that I engage in my theoretical underpinnings. Thinking of cities as not Native land comes from colonial geographies where the only authenticity is the reservation, which is in itself is a colonial construction, yet places people have made home. So how do we begin to think of this and recognize people whose land we’re on at every stage of our lives? So that was part of how I came to it.

Wendy Teeter, as I said, she’s been an ally to the Tongva community for over 25 years, she’s been the main NAGPRA coordinator at the Fowler Museum, so she’s been working quite closely with the Tongva and surrounding community. She’s the person that’s been able to make sure that we portray accurately on the map and cite the information as well. I’ve already been in conversation with Craig Torres, Cindi Alvitre, and some of the community leaders of Tongva, so we just continued that process of consulting. One of the other goals they wanted to achieve in this mapping project was not only to tell their own story or to rethink what LA is like, but also to get rid of the misconception that LA is a desert, that LA has no sacred sites, that LA has no places that are remembered. Because they remember those places, they have a very clear knowledge, and they also have a clear relationship to places in Los Angeles. So that was one other aspect that they wanted to portray. In elementary schools for years it was taught that this is Chumash land, totally erasing the Tongva. That notion stems largely from O’dells Island of the Blue Dolphin and the lone woman of Nicholas Island and the misconceptions there. So thinking through visibility for them is also important.

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“An Angeleno Atlas” Indigenous map of Los Angeles by David Deis and Cindi Alvitre (2015).

What we wanted was to bring that conversations to the community and bring the community to UCLA, create a wider understanding and also have a teaching resource page. Because we’re getting contacted a lot as Indigenous scholars and community educators for material, we also wanted to develop K-12 resources. Especially 3rd and 4th grade teachers. At first we were going to focus on the mission project but we realized earlier on that we had to start with 3rd-grade curriculum which is when they do land and environment. This was actually the emphasis that Craig Torres wanted on land and environment in Los Angeles. He wanted to teach kids about the meaning of place in ways that encouraged respect and thoughtfulness. A lot of interventions have been made into the mission curriculum resulting in dismantling the damaging ways it has been taught over the years. As such we decided to think through what would be good for kids in the earlier grades to learn. We organized a Tongva cultural workshop to address the teaching on Tongva along with state standards guidelines. We meet at Kuruvungna springs, with 6 different cultural educators, who on their own had been educating in Los Angeles county area single-handedly. It is a lot of work for them! Together we developed curriculum which we’re at the very end stages of putting together now. One of MILA’s goal to be an educational resource, to tell stories, to let people know that the Cartesian maps of Los Angeles aren’t really the geographies of the Tongva themselves, and to just give people little information about the land that they’re on so that even though there is massive development and gentrification of Los Angeles, they have a better understanding of the environment, its history and the present day Tongva as well as the other Indigenous peoples who have come to call Tovaangar their home.


The scope of the project is incredible. I’m wondering if you could talk about it from your own perspective as a Tonawanda Seneca woman in LA. What are some of the major issues that you (and other Indigenous people) face living in LA?


Some of the major issues I think is that there’s so many Indigenous peoples in LA, but often communities don’t meet and talk with each other. They’re small and close-knit but don’t intermingle a lot. So, for instance, bringing the Pacific Islander into communication with the American Indian community to me has been something I’ve been trying to do through my teaching, but also through work with the Tongva. Because the Tongva see themselves as part of Eastern Oceania and sometimes, our relationships have developed in ways that are set by colonial maps and not by our relationship to land or to each other. So I think that’s a big issue that I see, living in LA. And traffic, traffic of course traffic also is going to be the big thing in LA. As a Tonawanda woman the traffic in LA is something I don’t know how much longer I can handle it! (laughs) More seriously, I think the traffic also keeps people from talking to each other or having these interconnections I think that normally they would have. Because some things are just impractical. When school gets out at 3.30 you can’t get from one side of LA to the other and sometimes I make difficult choices in regards to my children participating in things like UAII, the United American Indian involvement organization. I really wanted them to participate in beading workshops, dance workshops, but I just can’t get there by 4:30. Because they’re out of school and have after school sports and stuff. I think these are decisions that are hard to make for parents a lot of times and I’ve chosen Lacrosse over of having my son participating in some of the American Indian events. Lacrosse is meaningful.

MKY: You were talking about traffic and how the actual infrastructure of LA prevents you and other Indigenous folks from making connections with each other, so the next question is about how the infrastructure of LA contributes to ongoing dispossession and erasure of Tongva lands and presence, and how Mapping Indigenous LA challenges this erasure?

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Conference Press to announce reburial of Indigenous ancestors at California State University, Long Beach with CSU CHancellor, CSULB President, and NAGPRA Committee members (2016).



Well, Indigenous LA is just all of LA basically. There are living sections: the Latin American Indigenous diaspora, the Oaxacan community, the Zapoteca community — they have set up their own housing authority which they use, where they have a political processing their diasporic community issues in Los Angeles. So each community has kind of set up its own infrastructure. Pacific Islanders live a lot in Carson City or in that area, so people have moved in the city around areas where their people are and have set up either formal forms of political ways of being, or they have set up by the informal forms and political ways of being. If you ask people who the leaders are in the Pacific Islander community they’ll tell you, they know. And so there are these people who are respected and called upon to do various things like officiate weddings, funerals, putting action plans together, those kind of things. And that’s across all the different Indigenous communities in Los Angeles. People work in their own individual community and community infrastructures. In part this is actually the way that LA is so racialized in a sense, in the way that it’s so fastly speed up in terms of gentrification and dispossession.

The Tongva, since they live here, they know all over, even West LA which is not noted as a place where Indigenous people and why there’s very few services for Indigenous people in the West side. The massive wealth is an obstacle for many to live on the west side. In LA it is a place where less people of color live. But at the same time, there are a lot of sites on the West side. In particular, our project started with Kuruvungna Springs because it was close to UCLA. I believe that you got to start in the place that you’re at and recognize those relationships. The springs is one of the few non-developed spots that the Tongva have and it produces hundreds of gallons of fresh spring water a day. So that spot is incredibly important. That’s important to the Tongva, but it’s also important to other Indigenous people as it becomes a gathering spot. The spirit run is one such event and it is run by Latin American diaspora folks and Indigenous folks coming together. It’s a spot that also hosts what used to be the “Before Columbus” event which they’re now changing the name to reflect a more Tongva meaning, it is called Kihaayy Paar Kuruvugna. I feel like that community is so overburdened because it’s so small and they’re called upon to do all kinds of things — they know where the sites are and they’re always gonna hope that a gas station doesn’t get built there. That’s why I think the over-development of Los Angeles is key and as Los Angeles developed in the 1940s and the 1950s, they didn’t go deep for infrastructure. Sites that have been previously determined as not-sites is where they could possibly find remains now because they have to go deeper as they develop earthquake-ready buildings. So the deeper they go in the ground, the more they’re finding sites all over Los Angeles and the busier Tongva become. Land and having places to gather is important.

MKY: I had no idea any of this was going on. I’m grateful to have this interview published as a reference for folks who are working on the politics of space and challenging the authenticity politics behind race-based understandings of Indigeneity. Your comments are helping me formulate another question about the relationship between gentrification, dispossession, and development. There seems to be a particularly powerful nexus in LA around these three processes, so I think fleshing out the connection might be important. If you have any other thoughts on the relationship between gentrification, dispossession, and development, please feel free to share them.

MG: This gets back to an overall structural way that we organize the project. There has been several people that contacted us about doing massacre sites, setting up tributes or something to those massacre sites. Well, we don’t do anything that the Tongva don’t want us to do with their Mapping project. A lot of time, the Tongva aren’t even contacted, people are doing these decolonization projects that are not even talking to the community about their wants and their needs. So one of the priorities we have in Mapping Indigenous LA is that we actually work with every community who wants to produce a map. And it is self-determined what they want to publish for information or what they don’t. So for the Tongva, for instance, when we had all these people who only wanted to concentrate on massacre sites — there was several people actually who have been shocked by it — and setting up something tangible in these sites so that people would know. The Tongva have been like “No! We fight against the building of man-made structures on all of our land, all of the time. That is not a way to honor us, to build something and monumentalize it.” It was a very profound moment for me, in terms of thinking of geography as different. They would much rather return land. The way to honor Tongva people was to return land to non-developed stage, letting the earth grow. To them, that would be honoring; not creating a man-made monumental structure. There are very profound different ways of thinking through geographies and space.

So that’s one thing in relation to that. And then there’s another, I’m thinking about dispossession the way is this work for some tribes like the Tataviam who’re coming up for federal recognition. Kimia Fathiai worked on this map with the tribal council and it took several attempts and was run by the community and the Elder’s council. We had to be careful because of recognition, anything we put in there because you have to show to the criteria that you have a long withstanding relationship to the land. Federal recognition policy is not a law for community meeting and understandings. It’s about claiming. Claiming territory.


Right, it’s about claiming territory; but you’ve been talking a lot about relationality, too, which is important. I’ve been using your work when I was formulating my analysis of land-water-body relationality from an Indigenous feminist perspective. Claiming land is as much about a relationship to land as it is about the relationship of Indigenous nations to other Indigenous nations. That’s fundamentally about our ethics of kinship and relationality with one another. Colonial mapping and infrastructures that enforce colonial geographies don’t allow for this kind of relationality. Relationality creates actual relationships that make us stronger politically as Indigenous peoples. Of course the logic of elimination underlying settler colonialism clearly doesn’t want that to happen.

MG: I do believe that out of this mapping project there have been a lot more coming together of communities. The Tongva have more visibility and presence and people are recognizing it is disrespectful not to include the First Peoples.

MKY: How do you understand the Indigenous geography of LA and are there plural Indigenous geographies of the city? Do they come into conflict? I’m just thinking about where Indigenous people live, historic locations, how Indigenous people move across space in the city, or the location of sacred sites? So how does the MILA project help understand the Indigenous geography of LA and then what are the stakes in that understanding?

MG: Well I have to say, one thing that MILA conveys is Indigenous spaces are everywhere, sacred spaces are everywhere, they could be a block away, and Indigenous people live all over the city. It’s a very mobile city. Because of gentrification, because of different areas, we get an understanding of past and present place-making for people. We talked to Angie Behrns early on in the project. She’s a Tongva elder who worked to maintain the springs despite years of wanting to develop that space. She planted oak trees early on which is just so smart. I believe she really had a foresight, a different temporality that Native people have at times. She planted oak trees and now the oak trees have grown so much that now they can’t cut them down to make a parking lot out of it, or extend the YMCA. So that’s one way to maintain that site and another way is to use the colonial markers of geography. She and the other founders worked to get it declared a historic site but only because it was a site on the Portola expedition. Angie could claim it, and they planted this large tree. So she used colonial geography against itself in order to maintain that spot.

A lot of people were still unaware of that spot and that’s one of the things that we wanted to highlight — that Indigenous spaces are everywhere over the city, Indigenous people are everywhere. We’ve just recently posted a new map by Larry Smith; he did Native American Airwaves in Los Angeles for 30 years. Before relocation even, Los Angeles was an informal relocation place because of Hollywood. Indians were flocking here because of the jobs were better, because of the Dust Bowl issues. In the 1930s, the poverty that was existing in reservation and then people migrated because Los Angeles was booming and had more economy and more jobs to offer people. So Larry did a map of all these different places where really famous Indians from the 1930s lived all over Los Angeles, it’s a really awesome historic map that talks about these certain figures where they stayed in Los Angeles. I find this map fairly interesting in terms of something that might be curiosity or contemporary versus the Tongva maps. The Tongva didn’t want their geographies told through Cartesian maps but through symbols, how they map their own place through different cultural ways like Navajo maps of the mountains. So those two maps are different in our project.

The MILA project allows all different kinds of Indigenous mapping to take place. We only ask that it’s community-initiated and that it’s respectful so we have some control mechanisms; we try to make sure it comes from reputable community places, that everything is copyrighted, and we have researched the sites as well. We’ve had some maps we had to walk away from because I have some great footage by an activist filmmaker but no waivers. You can find, how to create a story map on our website. We were very forthright in our community and scholarly expectations. If the communities don’t want it in a map, then we don’t do it.

PART 2///

MELANIE K. YAZZIE: My first question is specifically about the Mapping Indigenous LA project. Please describe the project, how and why did it start, who has been involved, and what are the goals of the project?

DESIREE MARTINEZ: They got a grant at UCLA in order to think about all of the Indigenous spaces and places that were important to a number of communities, both Indigenous native like the Gabrielino (Tongva), but as well as other Indigenous populations. I was actually brought in quite early because one of the first things that they wanted to do in terms of mapping was to make sure that they acknowledged and asked the original people first, which was the Gabrielino (Tongva). So they brought me in and asked me who are the proper people they should ask. Anytime I talked about the Indigenous Mapping Project — because I have been involved in a whole bunch of digital workshops and stuff like that — I always think that they did it right the first time in that when they had an idea, before they went anywhere forward with it, they reached out to the local people first. LA is one of the cities where a lot of people were relocated during the 1950s and 1960s and people forget that we’re here, because we don’t fit the typical Indian ideal. When they see other Indigenous people out there, they only see them as the only Native people. As opposed to us who are much more invisible. We’ve been trying to make sure that isn’t the case anymore and that’s one of the reasons why we got involved in Mapping Indigenous LA; not only to bring our spaces and places forward, but also to develop something that could be used in education.

CINDI ALVITRE: I wasn’t early in the conversations, and I think, as Desiree said, all of the people that have been involved have a relationship with the Indigenous people and are practicing the way all of it should. When we go to some places, I always want to know who the Indigenous people of the land are and I want to know where they are at. It’s part of the “3 Rs”: Recognition, Respect and Responsibility. I think a lot of what MILA is a response to us back. Because we requested some sort of a venue, some type of a project where we could become more visible and the other challenge is with the educational systems because it is all pretty cut/paste “this is the Gabrielino-Tongva 4th grade education,” everybody has their pet projects and those romantic notions of California that have to perpetuate such a submissions projects where in 4th grade all Indians kids need to build tiny little death camps. So it’s a response in a couple ways: 1) it’s by those who organize that are paying respect to Indigenous people, 2) it’s a response back to us in our request and our concerns about our own invisibility at that level.

MKY: Thank you! It will be great to combine Mishuana’s interview with yours because I don’t think a lot of people know that this project exists. And a lot of people don’t even know who the Tongva are! So a feature on your work with MILA is incredibly important. What are the major issues you face as Indigenous people whose lands are colonized and erased by megacities, but also by other Indigenous people?

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Cindi Alvitre helping community members make tobacco offerings during vigil held outside the La Plaza Cultura y Artes on January 9, 2011. / Photographs by Desiree Martinez.

DM: One of major projects that really hurt happened in 2002, when over 400 of our ancestors were removed and it was the last open area within LA proper that hadn’t been developed. It was the old Howard Hughes area, which was used for the Playa Vista Development. The Ballona Wetlands, of course, has this environmental specialities but they have now put in all of these townhouses, mix-used areas, Google headquarters is now within the Howard Hughes hangers and stuff like that. When they were putting in all the infrastructures they hit a cemetary! And unfortunately it was at the time where prehistoric burials were not considered a cemetery under California law. That’s what’s always happening. Los Angeles has always been revisioned, any open space is now coming under development, or being redeveloped in some instances a lot of people think because it has been built over previously that there isn’t anything there, which is not the case. We had a deal with the La Plaza Museum de Cultura y Artes in downtown LA where they leased lands from the LA county which is right next to La Placita, the first Catholic church in downtown LA. It had previously been a parking lot, but it actually covered the known cemetery for the church. So when they started to redevelop that, they hit the cemetery. All of this details is that people have forgotten history in some instances. Particularly the developers are forgetting it purposefully, so they don’t have to deal with culture resources, human burials, Native American history, etc. In the end, it bites them back, but in the end, that’s what we are always having to do is to look at places and spaces that have not been developed so we can protect them, particularly if we know that there are places that we know exist in terms of our prehistory. And then we also make sure that the environmental review process for all of new projects take into consideration that just because it has not been recorded, it does not mean that there has never been anything there.

CA: And just to continue with that, as Desiree said history is invisible, in our way. We are the one percenters of the one percenters with LA’s Native american population being the 1%, but we are the 1% of that 1%. There’s such a misunderstanding and a lack of education even on the part of the Native American people who come to LA. They understand their own history that we were not triangular hierarchy as a tribe. There are women war leaders. We appear to look more like Pacific island people because we’re coastal. Just because you don’t see us doesn’t mean we don’t exist. And the bottom line is we’re in a constant state of mourning. We constantly have to rebury our ancestors. In 2016, we did a reburial of 2,600 of our ancestors from UCLA travelling island museum and here at California State Long Beach. And what is ironic is that “Indian Country Today” wouldn’t cover this story — that was a testimony as far as I was concerned. That’s why we’re invisible; they don’t consider us to be a tribe, they don’t take us seriously and what’s really painful is that people don’t take our pain as authentic as theirs. The honest truth is that we are hanging by the skin of of our teeth. We don’t even have the luxury to practice and to live everyday, to choose and to participate in this political action or to be here at this event because we’re sunk deep in the deepest of crap, really. Between everything in LA, and that when that’s imposed by Native American people themselves who just can’t understand us. What you do see is that a lot of the tribes that come here because they’re federally recognized, they take — maybe not intentionally — a lot of our resources are absorbed in their own practices with their organizations. It’s crazy stuff; it really is.

MKY:  That makes me want to go deeper into the way development and gentrification contribute to dispossession, the desecration of sacred sites, but then also the way that Native people contribute to this. What kind of effect does all of this have on Tongva relationship with land, nationhood, resistance, and territory, things that I think many of the rest of us, Native people, take for granted? Especially those of us who are attached to larger land bases or politically dominant Indigenous nations like my nation, the Navajo Nation. I imagine many Native people come to LA and completely ignore the fact that the Tongva are constantly struggling to maintain visibility and presence, let alone your relationship with the land and the ocean, in your own home.

CA: Developments, settler colonization, continued use of natural resources — I don’t like that word — unacknowledgement of the nature: our traditional plants, our traditional animals, the air, the Ocean! You’re Navajo, you know the sacredness of the ocean. In fact I would say probably the ones who understand the relationship to the Ocean, apart from Tongvas, are Navajos. [laughs]

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Fabric Creation depicting Cindi Alvitre’s dream of bringing back maritime cultural practices on Display at Rancho Los Cerritos. / Photograph by Desiree Martinez.

As first contact tribes, we’ve completely been displaced. Everyday, you feel that displacement and its trauma; every single day. We’re a landless tribe, but all of the land is ours. Here in CalState Long Beach is where’s our sacred site Puvungna. It is the site where the spiritual philosophy and many Southern California Indian tribes emerged from here, it’s completely emergers human beings, and that’s part of my role here. I take care of the ancestors that have been displaced from Puvungna. But last of that land base, which is about 23 acres that is on the national register of historical places. That national register protection is just for a few folks, not for Indian folks. Just like sovereignty, just like a lot of other things you gotta keep on. You gotta keep on because you turn your back and it’ll be gone. And that’s kind of our reality, every time we turn our back, if there is an empty lot we turn our back, and guess what happen. If we have a place where we know we can gather, we turn our backs and it’s gone. It just takes an instant for things to disappear here. But the thing about living in LA too is I think we are very adaptable, really empathetic and compassionate to a lot of people’s tragedy. Maybe sometimes I think we get so much that we become quiet too, because we don’t want to attack people. We want to feel people, we want to honor people, and sometimes it backfires on us.

MKY: I was living in Southern California while I worked at UC Riverside up until the end of June [2018]. Being an Indigenous person who was in a territory that was not my own homeland, I was thinking about the implications of that and how I am contributing to the displacement and the dispossession of my Indigenous relatives who are constantly inundated by the mega-development and the very intense colonial and capitalist infrastructure that exists in Southern California. I found myself constantly thinking about how I could contribute to the decolonization of my relatives whose home I was occupying (uninvited), while also constantly missing and mourning my distance from our homelands between the four sacred mountains. I’m back in Albuquerque now, and I am more at peace being closer to our Easternmost mountain, Tso Dził. The mountains are our leaders; we look to them and we pray to them to give us guidance everyday. Their presence and proximity makes all the difference for my daily well being. This said, resource extraction is ravaging our territory; it is a kind of development that is very different from the development that comes from the infrastructure of a megacity like LA or the urban sprawl that surrounds it. I nevertheless can understand the pain of being displaced from the lands and waters you hold so close and dear to who you are as Tongva women. I want to ask a couple more questions about geography and space in LA: how do you understand the Indigenous geography of LA and are there plural Indigenous geographies of the city?

DM: My family is from inland, San Gabriel valley, more specifically, Montebello area that were redeveloped in the 1960s-1970s. Although we are a maritime people, there are different environmental areas: we have the foothills, we have people living on the coast, people living in the valleys, etc. I went to school back east for 12 years and I missed my [San Gabriel] mountains. I lived within 10 miles of being in the foothills, in the mountains. When you talk about your four sacred mountains, I think about my mountains. Back east, first in Philadelphia and then in Boston, it was all flat. When I would come home, I was home; seeing my country but also seeing my mountains. In terms of looking and seeing how waters are important to us, the hills, the mountains… people think of LA as being flat! That was also one of the big things about making a digitized map as well. Having Google Earth, being able to zoom in and turn on the terrain,etc. This is one of the discussions we had with Mishuana and everybody: we should have UCLA students, some type of freshmen class, where I would take them all over, to get different vantage points and realize that it is not flat and that Tongva territory encompasses all these different environmental zones. Depending on where you grew up and where your family was originally from, you have a different sense. That’s not to say I don’t respect water, I love water, but I mostly lived in the valley away from the Ocean most of the time. Although there were local man-made lakes that I would go to with my family but that was because they was no other open space that we could congregate at.

I think depending on who you talk to, you’ll get a different sensibility in terms of the geography of Tongva land. I know the geography much better now because of my education and of both teaching as well as learning myself from other community members about important places and spaces.

CA: You have to connect to certain geographies that are part of your world view. I am not just Californian Indian, I am mixed. And people have said : “So why do you hold so tightly to your Indigenous ancestry, that part of you?’ I said “It’s easy, it’s the way the world was described to me since I was a baby.” This mountain is Tujunga, these are those deep ponds and you don’t look in there and you don’t talk because that’s where the water babies are and they will pull you in the water… that’s what it was all about: it was about the natural world, about the dirt, about gathering in all those cycles. I continued to see this world, even with all the asphalte, I drive down the road and I am in my mind and with my eyes and driving, big distraction. I am peeling away the asphalte and I am looking at the topography and thinking “oh, this is a high spot, I know this is where a village was.” I know Desiree does the same thing. It is constant.

MKY: Progressing naturally from how you are speaking about your relationship with the land, and what you see when you are traversing LA versus what other people typically see in LA, what are the stakes (political, historical) in our understanding of how Tongva people specifically understand the geography of LA?

CA: A lot is at stake. We are at this intersection in our society and on our planet that we are losing our Mother Earth, we’re losing the air, the water, the essence of the sun, and that whole connect and that’s because we don’t look up and we don’t look down. We just look at whatever is in front of us.

There are ways for us to contribute and all of it has been said previously. I mean firstly as an educator, I have an obligation to teach other human beings especially the young people how to be human, how to be. As an example, today I took my students to the site over Puvungna sacred site, which is right here on campus and I explained to them how this place was described to me and as a child, my father was told by my grandfather “you don’t speak loud here.” I explained to my students how I am violating every tenant about how I should behave, by teaching here. But that was more important and I realized it once every time I bring them out there. They don’t know anything. They knew nothing about the land, and by the time I described and re-narrated, I refocused our cultural lands, renegotiated that old narrative that they all have a relation to. It makes a difference of how they see the world around them and how they will learn to be humans again at a major institution and make contributions to providing a future for humans and for all life.

It is very painful and we flipped from being angry to hurt to but mostly I think that being indigenous in LA for us “Native Natives,” we are really adaptable too. By our very nature, Southern California Indians, our tribes are very diverse. We were confederations more than we were tribes, we had diversity of food, we had an abundance of everything, even in gender roles; we had women leaders and everybody was embraced, and the pain has nothing to do with that. Now we have to remember who we are and everybody comes from different levels and introductions to that sacred knowledge. The path is a journey and we keep going. We don’t stop.

MKY: Elizabeth Cook-Lynn, a Dakota scholar, calls it “keeping the plot moving.” The whole purpose of Indigenous intellectual production is to ensure that our people will continue to exist in history and that we will be able to have a continual relationship with land and water and ancestors and relatives into the future. One last question for you: given how intensely development, colonialism, and capitalism have saturated the region of Southern California, your homelands that you hold so dear to your hearts and your spirits as Tongva women, what would it mean to decolonize LA?

Both: [laughing] That’s a huge question!

CA: We might knock at everybody’s door and tell them to go out and get rid of their hair products and no more of this damn pedicure! Forget your water bottles, go gather water! [all laughs]

In the midst of the biggest tragedy, major purification of the land consists in seeing a science again, experiencing your science and the healing. It’s gonna be very hard. We keep hoping that people will learn some lessons, the social, the geographical, the geological, the philosophical, the spiritual and we have to simplify again I just see simplicity. I lived a long time in Alaska too. My ex-husband is Yupik, my daughters are Yupik. I am not a completely typical Southern California Indian, I lived in villages. I think that is part of it, maybe you know what that melody is when you have lived in places that are silent. Our kids don’t experience that. I think that would be my hope in the dismantling, the renegotiation of all the chemical and cleanlinesses… they would have the opportunity to see the beauty that our ancestors saw.

MKY: I thought about this question a lot when I lived in San Bernardino. I can feel things; I can feel the land and sense whether or not it is cared for. I was often sad for the Earth in that place; she wasn’t cared for, she was exploited and taken advantage of. I was even more sad for my Indigenous relatives of that place who have to constantly see and experience their homelands in that condition. Often when I was driving down the 215 going from San Bernardino to Riverside for work, I would imagine what the land looked like before all of that was there. I would sometimes pray and think, “I hope that someday this land will be that way again,” for Her sake but also for the sake of the Indigenous people who hold those lands and waters in their hearts. I felt like it was one small thing I could do as one Diné sister in a sea of people and sprawl.

CA: Yes but the Mother is speaking, she does everyday, she is always patient as she can be. The water and the wind and the air, the grass, the sun trying to be patient, calling attention, and people just don’t. I don’t know what to think, I just keep feeling at. It’s there everyday, especially in dreamtime. it’s there, the relief. We have profits and we have people and you see and experience it and you try to manifest it, sometimes speaking in words is difficult. Textual articulation is difficult. Ceremonials speaks much louder, and sometimes softer, and more meaningful. We all have to be in ceremony. Just as an endnote, I hear from many Indigenous people, “hey do you know somebody to do our initiation ceremony?” and I reply “If you want to do the most powerful ceremony let me teach you one. When you wake in the morning you take that water, you hold it in the cup, when you are going to drink, put it in your mouth and you say thank you, a just graceful thank you. That is the most powerful ceremony you’ll ever do.”