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Invisible Skins: Aboriginal Americans Get Visible in Griffith Park

Johnny Jackson

Sam SlovickJohnny Jackson

Johnny Jackson is an urban Native American. He is clean-cut, well-spoken and looks young for his 21 years. At the moment, he is sitting in a small tent with his mom and sisters, preparing to don his traditional regalia and sing and dance at a powwow in Griffith Park. Cover band Dog Day is blasting "Sweet Home Alabama" on the main stage.

Jackson wears a black Iron Maiden T-shirt and black baseball cap that says "Quechan." He explains: "I'm from the Quechan from Uma Arizona and Laguna Pueblo from Laguna New Mexico tribes." He also is one of hundreds of L.A. urban Native Americans who have shown up for the United American Indian Involvement/Seven Generations' Indian Day community gathering, which includes food, arts and crafts and a health fair.

"Indians are only 1 percent of the population, we need you," the MC says from the stage as he encourages L.A.'s autochthonous community to visit the bone marrow donor booth.

Jackson will be dancing as the headman in a few hours. "When I was younger I didn't know much about Native American teachings or songs or dances." I'm used to city life and everything. When I was 15 I first encountered the teachings. My uncle taught me."

Jackson says that it's important for Native American youths to recognize who they are and where they came from. "Without the new generation adapting to our old Native ways, a lot of that will be gone," he says. He adds something undoubtedly felt by everyone in the crowd: "We're here. You may not see us, but we're here."

Jackson's friend Sequoia is a gourd dancer and drummer. The thin 17-year-old wears a black beanie and sneakers with purple laces. He's an urban Native with roots in the Apache and Tohono O'odham tribes in Arizona and New Mexico. "My grandmother told my mother not to let me do a lot of things, not to baptize me or take me to church," Sequoia says. "My grandmother went to boarding school."

Sequoia says drumming is in his blood. He loves singing and knowing indigenous American language. "That's meaningful to me because some of the Native language is lost already. Apache, it's lost. It's gone because of the boarding schools. I'm gonna go with the flow. I got born into this."

Jaclyn Bissonette wears long, dangling earrings with a picture of Chief Joseph. She is Oglala Lakota from South Dakota. Her mother is Paiute-Shoshone from California.

"Chief Joseph was a great chief from the Nez Perce Nation from northwestern America," Bissonette says. "We come to powwows and connect because we're not connected on that spiritual level like in the hogan or sweat lodge. Many ceremonies that are sacred are not held in the city -- you have to go back to your reservation to be a part of that -- so we come together here with that same sacredness."

Bissonette is an outreach worker at the United American Indian organization. She's known Andy Jones for a while. He is from the Tohono O'odham tribe from Arizona. Stoic, with long, dark hair, chiseled features and an elder's evolved perspective, he is retired but still volunteers with seniors. He's in charge of the bingo today.

"There are actually about 150,000 Native people here in Los Angeles," he says. "The reason for that is that there was a program back in the 1950s and '60s, called relocation. Many of them were brought to Los Angeles and San Francisco during that time. Now we have second- and third-generation Native people here -- that's how a lot of them came here. They were brought here to be trained for jobs, and many of them stayed."

Jones says Native youth are trying to connect, but most have parents who aren't connected to their culture. Many are still being Americanized in a dual world where they are alienated from their peers when they follow Native traditions.

"There's only 35 to 40 percent who are still following the old traditions and teachings," he says. "They don't want to be harassed so they become American, but there are many who still want to be connected to their roots."

That's the goal of the United American Indian organization. "We're trying to keep the culture. We have powwows, and some of the Christian churches have Native songs in their service, and they're still trying to connect with that. That's how we're trying to survive," Jones says.

Rapper MC Red Cloud's performance was decidedly well received at the Indian Day picnic. "I'm a Mexican Indian," he says. "My mom is from a tribe called the Huichol Nation in Mexico. L.A. is becoming the new Indian country. There are so many skins here. There's a big strong Mexican, Mexica and Mayan movement here. There are so many people from so many tribes from Mexico, Canada and the United States coming to Hollywood and making us the new Indian country."

By way of a lesson in PC Native American protocol, Red Cloud offers: "Native American? That word doesn't make sense. Indian doesn't make sense. Christopher Columbus thought he was in India. Indigenous, Aboriginal, First People, First Nations is cool. We are here and we are deep and we are big and the movement is strong."

Dave Rambeau heads for the circle of folding chairs in front of the stage; nearby, three big men with braids drive a tribal rhythm from a huge drum. Jackson and the other dancers gather in the center.

Rambeau is a Paiute Indian from California and executive director of United American Indian Involvement. He has long, gray hair, pulled back, and knowing eyes.

"Most important is to be able to function in this urban area, this L.A. area, and maintain our identity as Indians and also access services to maintain a healthy life and perspective," Rambeau says. "The future generations are extremely important. My lifelong job is to make sure that our community can compete in a real positive way in the society that we live in. That we are healthy generations."

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