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In Search of the Lost Gabrielinos

Descendants of L.A. Basin's indigenous tribe, in a quest for federal recognition, pore through mission records and seek to rebuild a vanished culture. It is a daunting task.


Victoria Duarte pores over old Spanish records in the San Gabriel Mission rectory, tracking bloodlines into prehistory.

Hidden in the padres' scrawl are the names of some of the last full-blooded Gabrielino Indians, who lived in Southern California long before Spain subjugated them, took their land and shattered their culture. One is Duarte's ancestor, Prospero, who came to the mission as a child in 1804.

He was one of about 5,000 indigenous Californians living in villages reaching from wind-swept San Nicolas Island to the San Gabriel foothills, and from Topanga Canyon to Laguna Beach.

Unlike the Navajo and Apache, theirs was a loose-knit culture with many clans, each having its own chief. But they shared religious practices, language and legends, wove intricate baskets and plied the ocean in swift canoes.

Anthropologists have grouped them under the labels Gabrielino and Fernandeno, derived from the Spanish missions that lent their names to the Indians' homelands some 230 years ago.

In the mission courtyard at San Gabriel, more than 6,000 Gabrielino skeletons are buried beneath grapevines frayed and thick with age.

Inside, Duarte grumbles at the padres' poor penmanship. But the 87-year-old widow knows it is here, in this cramped office, where she can help unearth the story of a people who were once thought extinct. With records of births, baptisms, marriages and deaths, she connects modern Californians to their Native American ancestors.

Now, due in part to Duarte's work, the Gabrielinos are slowly staging a comeback. The tribal council in San Gabriel is pushing for federal recognition, and some members are busy trying to reconstruct a culture that vanished with the vaqueros and ranchlands of last century.

"What depresses me is not so much what was lost," said Mark Acuna, who is reviving the tribe's dances, language and folklore. "What bothers me is the failure of people to recognize that we were, and now are, here."

In an era when more people are embracing their American Indian heritage, the Gabrielinos are fighting to assert pride for an ethnicity many thought was gone or never existed.

At stake is also something more tangible: federal recognition, bringing eligibility for housing and education benefits, small business loans, health care and gaming rights.

Complicating the effort are divisions among Gabrielino descendants, and lack of documentation on a culture destroyed by successive waves of conquerors. By the end of the 19th century, the Gabrielinos melded into the local Mexican barrios, leaving their last customs to crumble with the adobe ruins in the mustard weeds.

"When you get down to it, we have a very small amount of information that is really rock solid about the Gabrielino," said Mark Raab, a Cal State Northridge archeologist who studies the tribe.

The Fernandenos are facing much the same obstacles in the San Fernando Valley. They had shared the Gabrielino culture until the two missions--in San Gabriel and in Mission Hills, near San Fernando--divided the groups into separate communities, as they largely remain today.

In recent years, the Fernandenos have pursued their history and genealogy, as Acuna and Duarte are doing, and lately began working with an anthropologist.

Duarte has been researching for almost two decades. Spry and quick-witted, the former hairdresser with bouffant black hair drives her scraped white Chevy Cavalier around the area, looking for scraps of history. She's fascinated with events that brought together far-flung families from Europe, Mexico and Southern California so long ago.

Sometimes, she lies awake until 3 a.m. at her condo in Duarte--her family's namesake city--going over lineages in her head.

"I didn't even know I was Indian until the government started offering us money," she said with a raspy laugh. "When they started talking about money, of course we got interested."

That was the 1930s, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs was offering small payments to American Indian descendants for the land that was taken from them. Money went to those who could show they were descended from Indian ancestors. A friend and mission historian learned that Duarte's grandmother's grandfather was Native American, given the name Prospero by the Franciscans.

No one knows why Prospero came to the mission. He was 7 years old, and his parents, Menanqunar and Cuclir, had not been baptized. They were listed on the registry as gentiles and lived in a village called Comicrabit, reportedly near the pueblo of Los Angeles.

Nearby, the Los Angeles River ran free. Willows, cottonwoods and tule reeds lined the braided banks, giving Prospero's people ample materials for shelters, sweat-huts and baskets. The tribe hunted small game with bows and arrows and ate almost anything that gave fuel--grasshoppers, shellfish, snails and snakes. In fall, many harvested acorns in the mountains.

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