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August 07, 1994|MARY HELEN BERG

Behind the counter of a local Taco Bell, a teen-ager with dark hair and brown skin stood ready to take an order from a well-dressed Latina. But when the customer spoke in Spanish, the girl stopped.

"I do not speak Spanish," she said wearily in English, as if she'd played this scene 100 times. "I am Native American."

As a bystander translated her words, the customer's face glowed in wonder. "A real Indian!" the woman exclaimed, leaning across the counter and touching her as if to confirm her authenticity.

This incident, related by John Orendorff, a Cherokee who witnessed the exchange and interpreted in Spanish for the customer, illustrates the Native American experience in Los Angeles County. Time after time, on the street, in school or in workplaces, local Native Americans are victims of mistaken identity, said Orendorff, acting director of the American Indian Education Commission for the Los Angeles Unified School District.

They may be Navajo, Cherokee or Creek, but because they have brown skin in a county of 3.3 million Latinos, they are assumed to be Latino, expected to speak Spanish and celebrate Cinco de Mayo. And, Native Americans say, when they correct the assumption and identify their heritage, they are treated as relics of a forgotten history.

While the 1990 U.S. Census puts the number of Native Americans in Los Angeles County at 45,500, community leaders say it is at least twice that size. Regardless, Los Angeles County has the largest Native American population in the country outside a reservation--but it is still the county's smallest ethnic group.

Unlike other area ethnic groups, Native Americans have never been concentrated in a geographical center, but are scattered throughout the county. Bell Gardens and Cudahy are the only two cities in the county where Native Americans have ever represented more than 2% of the population, said Joan Weibel-Orlando, an associate professor of anthropology at USC.

To be a Native American in Los Angeles, some say, is to be invisible.

When Laura Dillard, 46, of Bell enrolled her 10-year-old daughter, Ayla, in a Los Angeles elementary school a few years ago, the girl with a braid that hangs down to her waist was automatically placed in a bilingual class. Ayla came home complaining that she couldn't understand her teacher, who was instructing in Spanish. Dillard discovered that officials assumed Ayla was a Latina and spoke Spanish.

"There's a real problem of misidentification," Orendorff said. Native Americans make up less than 1% of the Los Angeles district's student body, he said, and sometimes teachers and administrators can be insensitive toward them.

"I get complaints about teachers celebrating Columbus Day or calling a kid chief ," Orendorff said.

Comments from other youngsters can be just as demeaning. One local high school teacher opened a recent class discussion on Native Americans, he said, when one of her students interrupted with a question: "Aren't all Native Americans dead?"

Charles Narcho, a teacher's aide at Nimitz Junior High and a Los Angeles City/County Native American Indian commissioner, believes that persistent feelings of invisibility--and a conflict between traditional belief systems and mainstream culture--may partly explain some of the social problems Native Americans face.

Nationwide, Native Americans have higher rates of suicide, homicide and alcohol-related deaths than any other ethnic group, according to the Indian Health Service, a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. They are also among the poorest people in the country. One-third of the Native American population live below the poverty line, according to the 1990 census.

Choctaws, Sioux, Apaches and other members of more than 200 tribes who left reservations where unemployment loomed as high as 80% in search of a better life frequently find themselves isolated in urban Los Angeles. Separated from families back home and from other Native Americans here, they often discover they are the only Native American in their neighborhood, on the job, or in their grade at school.

Dillard was born in a hogan, a traditional Navajo earthen home, on the reservation in Blue Gap, Ariz. Raised in a home without running water or electricity, Dillard's mother taught her that if there was nothing in the house to eat when a stranger comes to call, offer the stranger water.


Over a traditional lunch of mutton and steamed corn, she recalled how as a 7-year-old, federal officials placed her in a boarding school 30 miles from home. Once there, she was forbidden to speak Navajo and rarely saw her parents, who traveled only by horse.

"I didn't know why we were there," she said, looking down into her bowl of stew.

Dillard graduated from high school, sought work in Los Angeles and married a white man, but held onto many of her tribe's customs. Thirty years after leaving the reservation, she passes what she can on to her three children, partly as a way to pay homage to her ancestors.

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