PECHANGA INDIAN RESERVATION, Calif. — Pechanga Indian Vincent Ibanez will never forget the day his fourth-grade teacher ordered him to stand in front of the class so that "the kids could see whose ancestors killed their ancestors."
"My teacher's name was Mrs. Rice, and it happened at Graham Elementary School in South Los Angeles," said Ibanez, 56, who lives in a mobile home on the 4,000-acre Pechanga Indian Reservation near the Riverside County community of Temecula. "I just stood there. It really hurt."
Over the years, the former California Regional Water Quality Control Board official learned to rely on the advice of tribal elders: When a white man asks a question, be polite to him, listen to him--but don't say anything.
Sometimes, however, he deflects bigotry with a humorous aside, although "I have friends who would punch someone for things like that."
Ibanez mentioned the time he was negotiating a road easement with Caltrans officials and local non-Indian residents at a coffee shop in Temecula when a man in the group said, "All you Indians sponge off the government."
Ibanez smiled and said, "I just hope you keep paying your taxes so I can keep getting my government check."
In an interview later, Ibanez, a heavy-set man with shoulder-length gray hair who served four years on a U.S. Navy battle cruiser that saw action in the Korean War, said, "In fact, we don't get government checks."
Ibanez's experiences reflect those of many American Indians whose modern history is told mostly through a struggle to overcome economic hardship, bigotry and stereotypes.
The problem is seen today in elementary school lessons that suggest American Indians were a primitive people who spoke with their hands, ate acorns and no longer exist; in sports mascots that cavort around the playing field wearing a fake big nose and feathers, and in movies and Saturday morning cartoons that exaggerate Indian features and customs for comical relief.
"They say it's all in fun," said Alfreda Mitre, 34, a Piute Indian from southern Nevada and director of the Native American Student Program at UC Riverside. "But Indians look at those things and wonder when is it all going to end?"
In 1976, Ibanez helped organize the Native American Observer Training Assn. to help his people defend themselves against non-Indians who try to make a quick profit on reservations through illegal development schemes.
The association, which operates as a technical school, also teaches Indians 18 and older how existing environmental laws can be used to protect areas of historical or religious significance.
In recent years, the once-remote Pechanga reservation has been surrounded by housing developments and commercial growth that he said "threatens to impact our way of life."
"There are many spiritual places in these hills," Ibanez said, pointing in the darkness toward a mountain ridge sprinkled with the lights of new homes built just outside the reservation's border. "When things got hard, I used to go there and pray."