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
“I hadn’t heard,” said Dunlap, when I told him about the U.N. declaration, the good news entering his head with the dull merriment of a multivitamin. He shrugged and lit a big brown cigarette. He had that older-brother charm and a mischievous face that, framed cleanly by a graying crew cut and silver goatee, was more sunburned Scotsman than pedigreed Indian. In fact, he later told me, with a gleam in his eye, he’d always dreamed of buying an old Soviet MiG-29 (he’d even priced a few out and found a pilot willing to fly for him) in order to test the limits of what the federal government would tolerate from a sovereign Indian nation.
“We’d be the first tribe with its own air force,” he said, “which would be cool.”
“I only have two questions,” I said after filling him in on the specifics of the U.N. declaration. “Are there any locations in downtown Los Angeles that have some historic relevance or spiritual significance to the Tongva that have been destroyed by urban development? And: Can L.A., as it exists today, in any way serve the cultural or spiritual needs of the tribe?”
“How much time you got?” Dunlap laughed. “In downtown L.A. alone there are numerous burial sites that are special to us; they’re recorded archaeological sites. In the area that is now Olvera Street and Union Station, there was an ancient village called Yong-na. Under the foundation of the Metro building just east of Union Station there was a Chinese burial ground [from the 1880s] and under that there was a native burial ground. Straight up Alameda toward Santa Monica there are numerous burial grounds; when they did all that digging for the Metro Line they found a lot of skeletons. They’re everywhere — you can feel it just walking down the street.”
(Later, when Victoria Carmelo and I sat outside the tribal chambers on plastic chairs, she would tell me, “It is sometimes disconcerting to look across the panorama of Los Angeles and see nothing but buildings and freeways. But our capacity as indigenous people is to look beyond that. We look to the clouds, we look to moving water, we breathe the air. We look to that one hill or one mountain that has nothing on it. We look to the soil.”)
“What is that like, not owning or even occupying the land where the bodies of your ancestors are buried?” I asked Dunlap. “It must be difficult not knowing, whenever there’s construction in the city, if your great-great-great-great-great-grandfather’s skull is going to end up in the bucket of a backhoe.”
“You’re right,” he said, “it is difficult. Our ancestors lived and died on this land. They’re buried here. Their bodies, their bones, their flesh and blood has been absorbed into the soil over thousands of years and it’s our responsibility to maintain that connection to the past and to our native land so that when burial sites are disturbed we’re given the opportunity to rebury our dead in protected earth. Then it can become a place of worship where natives can cry over their dead, seek advice — whatever comes.”
“So is your identity better served by adhering to the values of your ancestors or by reinventing your relationship with the modern world in a way that forgives the loss of an ecosystem so integral to your belief system?” I was screaming above the elongated roar of a passenger jet that had just taken off from Long Beach airport.
“Look at me,” he answered back loudly, “I’m not full-blood Tongva. My last name is Dunlap. My father was Irish and Dutch, little bit of Cherokee. He was from Tennessee. Do I have a ponytail? Absolutely not — I shave my head. I don’t fit the profile of what some people might think of as a Plains Indian. I don’t live in a teepee. I’ve got a microwave and a diesel truck. I take advantage of everything that’s presented to me in this time. Ultimately, what it comes down to is we want a casino, plain and simple. That’s what this is all about.” He looked back at the big blue-metal pyramid, humming like a 192-foot air conditioner behind us. “Why shouldn’t we be allowed to make as much money as other tribes? Of course, first we have to be federally recognized.”
I smiled politely and imagined a MiG-29 sputtering along the shoreline at Venice Beach while pulling a banner advertising new bingo slot machines and a Friday-night casino gig featuring Carrot Top. I then began to realize how much more evolved the Tongva were than me, to be able to look at Carrot Top standing on a stage surrounded by the agonizing telepathy of people losing their life savings, and instead of seeing zany prop comedy expertly executed by a self-aggrandizing imbecile, seeing a perfect sunset, leaves rustling in a sweet-smelling breeze, and a red-tailed hawk yanking the entrails out of a baby rabbit on the naked ground; the rabbit screaming for help; and the devastating beauty of nobody intervening to tamper with the natural order of things.