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Native Souls : The media's romanticized image of the Indian community ignores a rich diversity, says a member of the Native American Indian Commission.

July 04, 1993|KARINA L. WALTERS | Karina L. Walters was appointed in March to serve on the Native American Indian Commission of Los Angeles. Born in Glendale and raised there and in Hollywood, she is a member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. Walters lives in Palms and is working on her doctoral thesis at UCLA on urban American Indian mental health. A former research assistant at UCLA's American Indian Studies Center, she is a liaison between the center and the Indian Child Welfare Advisory Board of Los Angeles. Walters, 29, is also a clinical social work associate and therapist. She was interviewed by Libby Slate.

People's understanding of what it means to be Indian has been shaped by movies and television. The Indian community isn't this homogenous group everyone imagines us to be. We're very diverse. There have been different types of European contact. My tribe had a lot, so we look more European than the Navajo would. That diversity needs to be recognized. We come in all kinds of languages, shapes, sizes, world views, not the romanticized view where we end up being these warriors or noble savages.

If we are recognized, it's very often on our stereotypes: of being drunk, being lazy. There's little focus on our resiliency, our strength--we've survived 500 years! We are struggling with issues, such as drugs and mental health, but I see that more as an issue of forced acculturation, being stripped of your identity, your soul. We're bicultural, and we have to maintain our integrity, our ways, while surviving in the urban environment.

The Native American Indian Commission acts as an advocate and liaison between the Indian community and other organizations, helps to bring in money and is concerned with policy development. But I'm speaking for myself here. I'm not representing the commission as a whole.

The Los Angeles area has the largest urban American Indian population in the United States. The 1990 U.S. Census data says 45,000, but in my opinion, that's a real severe undercount--I've heard from 65,000 to as high as 200,000. The census data is really unreliable, because some people are biracial: I'm Choctaw and Irish on my mother's side and Cherokee, Seminole and Welsh on my father's side.

Also, there are approximately 500 tribes recognized by the federal government, but at least 200 more that Indians recognize. There are a lot of Southwest tribes here--Navajo, Sioux, Pueblo and California indigenous tribes. There are so many indigenous tribes that are lost or lumped into "other."

Indians have blood quantum standards imposed by the federal government, going back to the Dawes Act, or General Allotment Act of 1887, which dealt with land allotment. What that means is: We have to carry around a certificate of what degree of Indian blood we have. No other ethnic group has to do that. Setting up standards breeds conflicts among Indians, of "Who's more Indian?"

We face a lot of discrimination. It was always on my records that I was Choctaw Indian, and in the fourth grade I was held back, put into a second-grade reading class--and here I'm getting my doctorate. Based on stereotypes, Indians are quite often sent to vocational schools. In the educational system, in housing, there are assumptions made of what you're supposed to be like because you're Indian.

Also, the assumption is that anything that's Indian is up for grabs. So there are individual daily battles as well as tribal ones, like for strip-mining rights, gaming rights and water rights.

In Los Angeles, the issues (concern) poverty, health and mental health. As a result of poverty, you have problems with the other two. We have Indian centers throughout Los Angeles, as well as places that are Indian-sensitive.

Another big issue is making sure that the 1978 Indian Child Welfare Act is enforced. Basically, the law says that tribes have first dibs at jurisdiction over Indian children. It emphasizes placing Indian children in Indian foster homes when necessary and sets up funding for Indian mental health and social services.

Repatriation is also a big issue. We have to be able to get the Indian community together and find ways to get our artifacts back from all the major schools. UCLA, for instance, has a number of skeletons, bones and artifacts taken from archeological digs that are in storage or in their museum. The Indian nation has asked for them back. It would restore a sense of balance and could be a healing process.

I'd like to see a number of other things happen, such as the Indian agencies not having to compete against each other for funds. You can't address social problems until you get funding. I'd like to see Indians become more empowered, more self-determining in an urban environment.

I have to officially hand in my resignation from the Native American Indian Commission in October because there is a new mayor, but I can also hand in a letter saying I want to stay. I hope to be a voice for the Indian people in Los Angeles, really be able to bridge the gap between the community and its needs. I think Indian people are rightfully cautious when Indians take a leadership position, because there are a lot who have then been co-opted by the system. I'm going to understand the system, but always advocate for Indians' needs. I hope to win their trust.

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