By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
“Who are you again?” Martin Alcala, vice chair of California’s Tongva tribe, wanted to know.
According to the literal meaning of their tribal name, the Tongva are “people of the earth.” Having survived for 100 centuries in Southern California, they are original Angelenos. So when I learned that the United Nations had passed a declaration calling on all countries to recognize the rights of all indigenous people to maintain their own traditions, cultural identities, languages, employment, health and education — a declaration that had taken 22 years of deliberation before coming to a vote mid-September — I called the Tongva to see how the indigens of Los Angeles would be celebrating the good news.
“I hadn’t heard,” Alcala said when I explained why I was calling. I told him how a U.N. declaration isn’t the same thing as a U.N. resolution, that it isn’t legally binding, but instead — like the Declaration of Human Rights adopted 60 years ago — it’s meant to be a benchmark that the world’s dispossessed natives, estimated to be 370 million people, could invoke as an international truism, perhaps slowing or halting the crime of forced migration or forced integration by sitting governments or future invaders. I said that the final vote had been 143 countries for passage and four against, the dissenters being Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United States.
“The U.S. opposed the declaration because they said it gave indigenous people too many rights that clash with existing laws, despite the fact that it is not legally binding and gives no rights whatsoever. All it does is make public the pronouncement that the discrimination and marginalization of indigens is morally wrong.”
“Uh huh,” sighed Alcala, as if I’d been telling him how I like to put on my wife’s underpants and spend long afternoons throwing baked potatoes through a tire swing.
I cut to the chase. “Any chance of my coming down to the council headquarters and talking to some folks about how they feel about the declaration in some detail? Maybe I could take a walk with some tribal members and they could point out some locations where the Tongva might have hunted or congregated for religious ceremonies, a place that’s now a Taco Bell or a Home Depot. Maybe we could go fishing at a place that has no fish, just to make a point — maybe a place that has no water. Is there anybody in the tribe who knows how to track a bison?”
“A what?” said Alcala, his tone suggesting that the Tongva might have a headlock and a toilet that he’d like to show me.
Before he could hang up on me, I told him I’d seen the tribe’s Web site and knew about “the general membership meeting happening at the Walter Pyramid on the Cal State Long Beach campus the day after tomorrow at 8:30 a.m.”
“It’s a closed meeting,” Alcala said.
“I’m happy to interview people outside the pyramid,” I offered.
“I’ll see you there,” he relented, his parting sentence sounding more like a prediction than an invitation. I hung up and leapt out of my chair, pumping my fist in the air victoriously. I was ecstatic. These were my kind of people. Without European intervention, these men and women might have inspired an entirely different sort of civilization at the foot of the San Gabriels, something much less gaudy and pandering. I imagined a village not unlike the one depicted in The Planet of the Apes, where everything is made out of natural materials, the roads are dirt, the sky is blue and smogless and there is a healthy, nearly unanimous disdain for Charlton Heston. These were enlightened people whose longevity as a tribe was not only miraculous but also something to emulate.
“This is a closed meeting! A closed meeting!” said a large woman, holding up her hands bulldozer style.
I'd arrived at Cal State Long Beach at 7:30 a.m. in a pissing rain and found dozens of children in baggy white outfits scrambling from SUVs and minivans into the Walter Pyramid’s main entrance for a statewide tae kwon do competition. After wandering around the many entrances of the pyramid in search of indifferent Indians, I stumbled into the last possible door, shook the water off my hair like a collie and was happy to find myself unwelcome — I knew I was in the right place. I explained that I’d spoken with Martin Alcala about coming to the Tongva general membership meeting, and after some consultation was informed that I could have an audience with the tribal chair, Victoria Carmelo, at 11:15. With several hours to spare, I asked if there was somebody who knew the history of the Tongva. “Somebody to answer some of the chronological stuff that Victoria might not care to be bothered with,” I said.
I was promptly sent outside to talk with Sam Dunlap, the tribal secretary, who is also an archaeologist and historian for a number of West Coast native populations. More important, he was a smoker looking for an excuse to walk 100 feet from the building, rain or no rain.