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Descendants of Mission Indians Revisit Heritage

History: San Fernando settlement helped lead to destruction of tribal identities. But new pride and interest in the cultures has bloomed within the Native American community and beyond.

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 Indian tribes--were born or died behind mission walls.

But Rudy Ortega--like many Native Americans of his era--grew up oblivious to the 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--those thousands of Indians 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 Indian ways.

Today, 200 years after the mission was founded, 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 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, and dozens of groups now promote Indian culture through educational, political and social events, including intertribal powwows held almost every weekend during the spring and summer that draw thousands from across the state to participate in traditional dances and stories and share Indian food and crafts. Still, the enduring legacy of the missions for Southern California's Indians is a particularly bitter one. Unlike tribes consigned to reservations, the mission Indians are trying 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," said Paul Varela, director of Ventura County's Chumash Interpretive Center, built on the site of a former Chumash village in Thousand Oaks.

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.

A former Oxnard computer technician, he now 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 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 Indian tribes that can document their history and demonstrate that their political and cultural institutions have continued to exist through the years.

The burden of proof is so high that fewer than a dozen tribes have been granted federal recognition nationwide 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 200 years ago.

The San Fernando Mission was the 17th of 21 built in the 1700s by Spanish friars seeking to claim California for Spain and convert its 300,000 Indian natives to Catholicism.

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 from their homes ranging from the Tehachapi Mountains to the Mojave Desert.

The mission "became a melting pot for . . Indian communities that were completely unrelated, with different languages, traditions, religious customs and political structures," said Santa Barbara Natural History Museum curator John Johnson, who has studied the history of California's Chumash and Tataviam.

"This was a process that occurred all over California during the mission period," Johnson said. "People who had been separate cultures were amalgamated" as the Spanish friars combined Indian tribes and set about undoing their native ways.

Baptized Catholic and given new Spanish names, they were forbidden to follow their own spiritual laws. They were taught to speak Spanish, but lost their own languages. They learned new skills, but forgot how to live off the land.

Those who fled the mission were hunted down as fugitives, captured and flogged. Of those who stayed, thousands perished from diseases borne by the Europeans--measles, influenza, dysentery, tuberculosis, syphilis--to which they had no immunity. More than twice as many Indians died as were born in captivity, mission records show.

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