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Native Americans Resurrect Heritage

Ancestry: The missions' assimilation of tribes into Spanish culture left many with no knowledge of their roots.

September 03, 1997|SANDY BANKS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

He lived most of his life in the city of San Fernando, in the shadow of the mission that his grandfather had called home. Five generations of his family--hailing from ancient American Indian tribes--were born or died behind mission walls.

But Rudy Ortega--like many Native Americans of his era--grew up oblivious to the American Indian blood running through his veins. In his family, "we were brought up as Mexicans, we spoke Spanish at home," said Ortega, 70. "Maybe they were ashamed.

"Or maybe they were just afraid, after all they went through."

What they went through--the thousands of Native Americans who lived at San Fernando Mission--gave birth to the San Fernando Valley, but left their native culture in tatters, their people adrift, and a legacy of shame and confusion that is only now giving way to pride and a revival of American Indian ways.

Today, 200 years after the mission's founding, the celebration of all things Indian is in full bloom, both within the Native American community and beyond. Genealogists report a boom among people searching their family trees for American Indian roots, and stores do brisk business peddling accessories--from sage-scented candles to medicine bags--linked to Indian lore.

The local Native American community has shored up its identity as well. There are now almost a dozen groups in the Valley and Ventura County promoting American Indian culture through a variety of educational, political and social events.

Their powwows--intertribal celebrations held almost every weekend during the spring and summer--draw hundreds of American Indians and others who celebrate native culture through traditional dances, stories and food. There, young Indian children practice the rituals of their ancestors, and in the process, keep alive a culture that extends back thousands of years.

Still, the enduring legacy of the missions for Southern California's Native Americans is a particularly bitter one. Unlike tribes consigned to reservations that passed their traditions from generation to generation, the missions' American Indians have been forced to try to resurrect a culture buried by years of allegiance to the customs of Catholicism and Spain.

"Other tribes across the country were able to preserve a lot of their beliefs, a lot of their language. But our people were scattered," explains Paul Varela, a Chumash who lives and works on the grounds of a Chumash cultural center in Thousand Oaks.

When the mission era ended, "they told the [American Indian] people to assimilate," he said, "and so they vanished. And that gave the illusion that there were no [native] people left."

Varela, 41, used mission records to trace his ancestry back 10 generations--"100 years before California became a state"--to the Chumash villages that once dotted the southern California coast.

An Oxnard computer technician, Varela began working with Ventura County officials eight years ago to plan the $1.7-million Chumash Interpretive Center, a county-funded museum built on the site of an ancient Chumash village in Oakbrook Regional Park.

Today, he lives with his wife and teenage son in a small apartment at the center, running its educational programs and assisting the 430-member Oakbrook Chumash Nation, which considers the center its social and cultural home.

The group--which includes more than 300 descendants of San Fernando Mission American Indians--is among several Southern California groups petitioning the federal government for official tribal recognition, a status that conveys educational, medical and financial benefits to American Indian tribes that can document their history and demonstrate that their political and cultural institutions have continued to exist through the years.

That burden of proof is so high that fewer than a dozen tribes have been granted federal recognition across the country in the past 20 years. And it is especially difficult for California's native tribes, whose land was seized and whose tribal governments were wiped out when they were consigned to the missions more than 200 years ago.

Historians estimate that there were 300,000 Native Americans in California when explorers claimed the land for Spain in the 1700s and set out to colonize its natives and convert them to Catholicism.

The San Fernando Mission was the 17th of 21 built, and the 120,000 acres it controlled was home to half a dozen separate American Indian tribes, spread throughout hundreds of small villages and communities.

To populate the mission, the Chumash were lured from villages in the Santa Monica mountains, the Simi Hills and along the Malibu coast; the Tongva and Tataviam from the San Fernando and Antelope valleys; and the Kitanemuk, Cahuilla and Serrano tribes, scattered from the Tehachapi Mountains to the Mojave Desert.

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