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The Plight of Native Americans on the 'Urban Reservation' : Los Angeles Indians Express Concern Over Growing Discrimination at Bell Gardens Hearing

April 16, 1986|LYNN SIMROSS | Times Staff Writer

If we don't go around wearing braids, beads or turquoise, people mistake us for another race. We are invisible as Native Americans . ... And it is a cultural characteristic of our people to be passive, not to speak out. We will go somewhere else to live, even though it might not be where we wanted to live, to keep harmony within our households, with neighbors and with the universe.

--Morningstar, a Winnebago woman who serves as a housing counselor for the Metro-Harbor Fair Housing Council.

The silent minority of Los Angeles County--Native-American Indians--decided to speak up last weekend about discrimination toward its growing urban community here.

At a first-of-its-kind meeting in Bell Gardens, members of the Native-American Indian community here, the largest urban Indian population in the country, estimated at from 60,000 to 80,000 in Los Angeles County, testified at a two-day hearing co-sponsored by the Los Angeles County Commission on Human Relations and the City-County Native-American Indian Commission.

"Basically, Los Angeles is the biggest reservation, an urban one, in the United States," said Ute lawyer Sanford Smith, a Harvard-educated attorney in private practice in Los Angeles. "But the federal government treaties generally deal with those on the reservation. The problem here is urban."

The hearing also dealt with matters of politics, health, education and Indian youth, employment, housing and media coverage. The participants talked, too, of spiritual things, of the prejudice against them concerning their religious practices, of the desecration of Indian burial sites.

Because American Indians are treated as "wards" of the federal government under existing treaties, Smith said, they often fall into a "legal limbo" between federal and state and local governments.

"More and more, the federal government tries to pass on to state and local levels Indian health services, education," Smith told the commissioners. "In the last century, the federal government said, 'This (American Indians) is our problem and we are going to try to deal with it.' But that has passed out of the picture now."

Smith, who worked on numerous treaty lawsuits in the East in the 1970s, said that there still are about 300 treaties in effect between American Indians and the U.S. government.

"Compare Canada and the United States. Treaty-making in the U.S. ended in 1871. Canada is still making treaties," Smith explained. "Here the federal government has always assumed the language of the treaty holds. You give two blankets per year to Indians in 1850. The U.S. attitude is, you stick to the rule and that should mean a clothing allowance today. There is no easy answer the way things are to the situation, a situation that's changing over time."

It is this change, the urbanization of the Native-American Indian and the mounting socioeconomic problems arising from it, that prompted the commission hearing last week.

"Literally, the urban scene is a complete cultural shock for Native Americans, especially the ones who are still being relocated," said Human Relations Commissioner Kate Stern. "Those coming from the Navajo reservation are in shock when they get off the bus." (The federal government is moving 10,000 Navajos from reservation land and many of them are moving to cities.)

A Human Relations commissioner for 27 years, Stern continued: "American Indians come here because they know there's a large Indian population here. But then, they have no center or place to go. And their values are different. The land has a special meaning for them, and on a reservation, nobody owns anything. There aren't any sidewalks or fences."

On Friday and Saturday, an impressive group of Native-American Indians who live and work in the Los Angeles area came to John Anson Ford Park to present their community's problems before members of the two Los Angeles commissions.

There were Native Americans representing health care organizations, Indian studies programs, several county departments, housing groups, communications, religious groups, college students.

The combined group of commissioners decided on the Bell Gardens-Cudahy-South Gate location, because 3% of the Native-American population in Los Angeles resides in that area, although American Indians are among the smallest ethnic minorities in the county, 1%.

For the most part, though, Native Americans, according to representatives who spoke, tend not to form tight urban communities, a problem that haunts them when they attempt to be a visible, viable community voicing concerns for their own.

Tom Sellars, a Northern Montana Blackfeet who has lived in the Los Angeles area for 25 years and serves full time on the City-County Native-American Indian Commission, told the group: "We are faced with various socioeconomic problems, but the largest and most perplexing problem is our inherent lack of visibility. We are an unseen and unheard voice.

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