Native Americans in L.A. Almost Saw Their Culture Erased — Now They're Getting It Back

Native American artist Jaque Fragua's guerrilla street art installation in downtown Los Angeles, painted earlier this year.
Native American artist Jaque Fragua's guerrilla street art installation in downtown Los Angeles, painted earlier this year.
Courtesy of Jaque Fragua

While indigenous people have endured a sometimes complicated history in California, the contemporary filmmakers, writers, chefs, and artists featured in L.A. Weekly's Native American Issue recontextualize what it means to be a Native Angeleno today. Read more about them here.

For most of this year, Native Americans and their allies — including Hollywood stars such as Mark Ruffalo, Shailene Woodley and Susan Sarandon — have been fighting the Dakota Access oil pipeline, hoping to protect the water of not just the Standing Rock Sioux tribe but also the 17 million people downstream in North and South Dakota. On Facebook feeds and cable news shows, Native Americans are in the media spotlight again.

But let's talk about what it really means to be Native in California. In my case, I like to say that I'm a real Hollywood Indian.

By that I mean that, as a descendant of the Colville Confederated Tribes of Washington state, I meet cultural and legal definitions of "Native American." And I happen to have been born in Hollywood, at the Kaiser Hospital on Sunset Boulevard, not far from Cahuenga, a street with a Native American name. To give you an idea about when that was, let's just say that when my mother was in the hospital having me, my parents saw actor Edward G. Robinson (not sure if it was junior or senior) wandering the halls of the hospital.

My mother came to Los Angeles from Washington in the 1950s, a time of mass exodus of American Indians from their reservations for jobs, at the behest of the federal government in its effort to bring a "final solution" to its Indian problem. More about that shortly.

But I call myself a Hollywood Indian with tongue in cheek, and a certain reckless ambivalence, because in Indian country, the Hollywood Indian is a joke. Not a joke as in "funny ha-ha" (although it can be), but a joke as in something that is a disgraceful aberration. A good example of this is the "Crying Indian" from those early-1970s anti-littering commercials. That guy, Iron Eyes Cody — aka Espera Oscar de Corti — was a 100 percent Sicilian immigrant who tried to pass himself off as an Indian for his entire life, until the day he died in 1999.

A Hollywood Indian, in other words, is someone who is a complete and utter fake, the worst kind of wannabe.

There have been countless examples of the Hollywood Indian throughout the modern era, going back to the beginning of cinema, when Indians were a popular subject matter on film. Those days roughly coincided with the end of the Indian Wars era, and became entangled with the popular trope of the "vanishing Native." The vanishing Native was, in fact, the most common storyline that those early films enacted, as in the 1925 silent film of the same name, adapted from a story by Western writer Zane Grey. While some of those films featured real, actual Indians (such as the 1920 film Daughter of Dawn, Nanook of the North in 1922 and The Silent Enemy in 1930), Indians were mostly played by non-Indians, as has invariably been true throughout Hollywood's history of Indian portrayals, even today. Think of Burt Lancaster in the 1954 film Apache or Rock Hudson in Winchester '73 in 1950.

More recently, consider Johnny Depp as Tonto in The Lone Ranger, or Rooney Mara as Tiger Lily in Pan. There are many more examples of non-Natives in starring roles as non-Natives who "become" Indians, such as Richard Harris in A Man Called Horse, Dustin Hoffman in Little Big Man or Kevin Costner in Dances With Wolves.

Actor Henry Brandon in The Searchers
Actor Henry Brandon in The Searchers
Courtesy of Warner Bros.

The Hollywood Indian inside joke is, however, in reality a manifestation of a very painful history that Native people everywhere live with. To understand it, we need to fully grasp its relationship to the vanishing Native stereotype, especially as it relates to California. This means unpacking a hell of a lot of very ugly historical baggage.

Most people don't know this, but California has more Native American people than any other state; according to census data, Los Angeles is considered to be the second most indigenous-populated city in the country, with around 54,000 people who self-identify as Native. When displaced Latin American and Pacific Island indigenous peoples are considered, L.A. has the largest population of indigenous peoples in the entire country.

But in a city of 3.8 million, it's damn near impossible for those Native people to be seen, particularly when there is a complex web of stereotypes and common misconceptions that make them even more invisible. This is because, at their core, those stereotypes and misconceptions challenge the very authenticity of those who are Native.

Sherman Indian High School Class of 1938. Many Native Americans of Southern California were enrolled in boarding schools, which separated them from their families.
Sherman Indian High School Class of 1938. Many Native Americans of Southern California were enrolled in boarding schools, which separated them from their families.
Courtesy of Shades of L.A. Collection/Los Angeles Public Library

Vanishing Act

First, let's consider some quick history. The landmass now known as California was, prior to foreign settlement by the Spanish in the mid-1700s, even then the most populated landmass on the continent, with upwards of 1 million indigenous people. Thanks to Spanish germs and the abuses of the mission system, which enslaved the masses, broke up communal living systems and eroded traditional lifeways, massive depopulation occurred in the late 1700s and early 1800s.

After the Spanish occupation gave way to the new republic of Mexico and the mission system was dissolved, despite efforts to return land to the Indians, there were more waves of depopulation, and very little land was actually returned. The Spanish practice of granting land to the aristocracy continued with the Mexican government, and the California landscape was gradually transformed into a vast ranching empire.

In 1848, the U.S. war with Mexico concluded with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, coinciding with the Gold Rush. For indigenous peoples, the Gold Rush meant a new wave of genocidal terror and land grabs, since the establishing of the state of California in 1850 was accompanied by a policy of Indian extermination. Well into at least the 1870s, Indians were legally hunted for bounties by citizen militias, and in some cases endured forced marches from their home territories to remote reservations and rancherias.

Now in American hands, California's new corrupt, discriminatory land laws ensured the passage of the land-grant ranchos (still in Mexican hands) to mostly wealthy, white settlers from the East. But despite ongoing depopulation, the Indians did not vanish. The United States made many treaties with them, but none of the negotiated treaties were ratified by the Senate as required by law. This translated into massive land theft.

By the turn of the 1900s, U.S. federal Indian policy had taken over and California Indians, like Indians in the rest of the country, became subject to the new policy of forced assimilation. Children were removed from their homes and sent to faraway boarding schools, which trained them to be laborers and domestic servants. But in California, they were subjected to a system of indentured servitude — virtual slavery — under an 1850 law, ironically called the Act for the Government and Protection of Indians. The law wasn't formally appealed until 1937.

The Indians' survival against predatory practices under the triple colonization of Spanish, Mexican and American occupation depended on the assuming of new identities. Having been absorbed by the Spanish and Mexican ranchos as laborers, and intermarried, many Natives adopted Spanish surnames, and in many cases referred to themselves as Spanish or Mexican to avoid slaughter.

United American Indian Involvement (UAII) was originally at 118 Winston Street in 1974 and the alley was coined "Indian Alley." UAII was a place where beds, showers, and restrooms were provided for Natives to get off the dangerous Skid Row streets and maintain their sobriety. Today it's a mini Indian Country within the sprawling metropolis, featuring Native-inspired street art.
United American Indian Involvement (UAII) was originally at 118 Winston Street in 1974 and the alley was coined "Indian Alley." UAII was a place where beds, showers, and restrooms were provided for Natives to get off the dangerous Skid Row streets and maintain their sobriety. Today it's a mini Indian Country within the sprawling metropolis, featuring Native-inspired street art.
Pamela J. Peters

A Whitewashed History

But how has this history of genocide and land theft been written? By and large, it has been whitewashed with denial and almost total evasion. Instead, what we have gotten are highly romanticized narratives about benevolent missions and beautiful Spanish architecture, intrepid explorers and hardy pioneers, brilliant land speculators and creative geniuses. Indians are literally written out, in what Native studies scholars call "replacement narratives."

These are not just outdated, 19th-century histories. They were perpetuated throughout the 20th century, and persist today. It wasn't even acceptable in the academic world to use the term "genocide" to describe California history until after the 1970s — when I was still in high school. And the concept of Native American genocide is still highly contested, despite an abundance of primary source evidence.

These replacement narratives — whereby settlers become the new Native population (for example, people born and raised in California are "native Californians") — are not only cemented by written histories but are woven throughout popular culture, and the film industry in particular. Hollywood traffics in invented images and tropes of disappearing Indians (tragic but inevitable), noble savages (existing only in a romanticized past) and savage Indians (whom cowboys and the U.S. cavalry are destined to defeat via the ideology of manifest destiny).

Those representations evolved into the more recent tropes of the Indian fighter (most notably Billy Jack, a mixed-blood Navajo Vietnam veteran who famously fights racist white men with martial arts), the environmental Indian (our friend Iron Eyes Cody, the crying non-Indian), and the "groovy Injun" (the hippiefied beads-and-feathers Indian — think Cher and the infamous "Half Breed," or the 1960s teepee-living counterculture). For an excellent rundown on these Hollywood representations, see Cree filmmaker Neil Diamond's ground-breaking documentary Reel Injun, which is the first feature-length film to examine the way Hollywood has perpetuated the stereotypes and misunderstandings about American Indians.

Iron Eyes Cody — aka Espera Oscar de Corti — was a 100 percent Sicilian immigrant who tried to pass himself off as an Indian for his entire life, until the day he died in 1999
Iron Eyes Cody — aka Espera Oscar de Corti — was a 100 percent Sicilian immigrant who tried to pass himself off as an Indian for his entire life, until the day he died in 1999
Courtesy of the Advertising Council

Note that these images don't in fact represent actual, living Native people, even when real Native people are used to play Indian parts. They are no more than the projections of the dominant society's fantasies about Indians, who are deemed to no longer exist.

Real Native people, in the meantime, are still living unseen on reservations and rancherias, and in other Native communities and border towns, still fighting oppressive U.S. policies and laws and struggling to protect what remains of their lands and cultures.

In the 1950s, however, the federal government imagined a final solution to its "Indian problem." Ominously called "termination," it envisioned an eventual end to the Bureau of Indian Affairs and to America's legal responsibility to enforce treaties and protect Native resources — in legal terms, the trust responsibility.

Termination included a plan called "relocation," a jobs program designed to empty out reservation communities by offering low-wage jobs in big cities, ostensibly to combat intractable poverty in Indian Country. This would effectively terminate tribal nations and make it easier to privatize Indian lands, which could then be transferred into non-Native, non–trust based ownership.

What it in fact did was result in a massive population transfer of reservation Indians to large metropolitan centers. Los Angeles was one of the target destinations. It is why L.A. today has so many Indian people, and why more Native American people live in urban environments than on reservation lands nationwide.

American Indians in the motion picture industry
American Indians in the motion picture industry
Courtesy of Shades of L.A. Collection/Los Angeles Public Library

The Problem of Authenticity

Back to where we left off before we got sidetracked on the subject of history: the idea of Native authenticity. The net effect of centuries of genocide; of writing Indians out of history; of replacement narratives; of pernicious Hollywood tropes and misrepresentations; and ongoing colonial federal policies and laws, is that Native people cannot be seen for who they are as Native people. They are made invisible, effectively erased from national discourse. And even when they are visible, for example, at public events like powwows or in other cultural settings — they are often thought to not be "real Indians," especially if they don't have the right name, the right look or the right address.

A perfect example of this questioning of Native authenticity came (not surprisingly) from President-elect Donald Trump. In an infamous racist rant in front of a 1993 congressional subcommittee hearing, voicing his opposition to Indian gaming laws, he declared, "They don't look like Indians to me."

On the individual level, this challenging of Native authenticity plays out in invasive personal questions such as "How much Indian blood do you have?" Or statements like "I had a great-grandmother who was a Cherokee princess," as though an imagined Cherokee ancestor is a legitimate claim to a shared indigenous identity.

This ongoing process of erasure and disbelief in Native authenticity has serious implications for today's Native people, especially in Southern California. The systematic obliteration of California Indians has led to contentious, humiliating bids to restore political relationships between tribal and federal governments. They are all too often denied due to the inability to prove an ongoing distinct community — even when the dissolution of a community was a survival strategy against the genocidal policies of state or federal governments to begin with.

These are the kinds of challenges faced by the Tongva and Acjachemen people (and others, including the Tatavium, Chumash, Serrano, Kitanemuk and Luiseño) who are the original peoples of Los Angeles and Orange County. Although they are officially recognized by the state of California, neither the Acjachemen nor the Tongva enjoy federal recognition. Without federal recognition or a trust-protected land base, there is almost no protective buffer from the plague of relentless development. This means that sacred sites are routinely destroyed. Anthropological studies, for instance, estimate that about 90 percent of Native sacred sites in coastal Southern California are gone.

Relatively new state laws such as Senate Bill 18 and Assembly Bill 52 do, however, aim to afford greater protection for tribal cultural resources. SB 18 requires local governments to consult with Native nations prior to development projects, while AB 52 adds tribal cultural resources to the categories of cultural resources in the California Environmental Quality Act. But even then, in public debates to protect lands from development, the significance of the laws to protect Native sacred sites often is overlooked in favor of environmentalist rhetoric about protecting endangered species.

This was the case in the recent Banning Ranch victory in Newport Beach. The Coastal Commission's September landslide vote to deny a permit for the Newport Banning Ranch mega-development was heavily weighted not only by the preponderance of endangered plants and animals on the site but also by its concern for the protection of tribal cultural resources. It includes at least eight important archaeological sites, three of which are eligible for the National Register of Historic Places and California Register of Historic Resources.

In its decision, one of the commissioners referred to the Dakota Access pipeline resistance by the Standing Rock Sioux tribe in North Dakota, and at least three of them indicated that it was critical to meaningfully engage with Native nations before approving such a development, which hadn't been done.

It was a stunning and rare victory for Native sacred-site protection in Southern California. But media coverage of the story never included any mention, let alone a meaningful discussion, of the significance of the Native aspect of the controversy. In the coverage, the Native community was again rendered invisible.

Jaque Fragua, of the Jemez Pueblo tribe, sits next to his mural "Decolonize & Stay Calm," which was created in collaboration with Shepard Fairey's image of Oglala Lakota rider Theo White Plume.
Jaque Fragua, of the Jemez Pueblo tribe, sits next to his mural "Decolonize & Stay Calm," which was created in collaboration with Shepard Fairey's image of Oglala Lakota rider Theo White Plume.
Pamela J. Peters

Real Indians in Southern California

Despite the grinding indigenous expunction wrought by capitalist development and state assimilation, Native people work diligently to maintain the memories of their ancient village sites and place names. The Tongva and Acjachemen people know Banning Ranch as Genga. Reconstructed precolonial maps of the Los Angeles and Orange County landscape show dozens of indigenous place names that include Puvungna (Long Beach), Panhe (San Clemente), Yangna (downtown L.A.), Kuruvungna (near Santa Monica), Pimu (Catalina Island), and Ostungna (El Sereno, where I grew up).

At UCLA's American Indian Studies Center, a project called Mapping Indigenous Los Angeles intends to reclaim the city's original names. Utilizing digital media, the project remaps L.A. through the stories and perspectives of all indigenous peoples who call L.A. home.

"Mapping Indigenous L.A. arose out of discussions with communities and out of the co-PI's [principal investigators] commitment to self-representation of indigenous people in Los Angeles," says Mishuana Goeman, professor of Native American literature and gender studies at UCLA. "We wanted to intervene with the mission education that erases California's Indians' thriving presence. We wanted a space for us as indigenous peoples to recognize and learn from each other as well. It is also a place where you can go to collect resources that are in many different areas around the city."

Others work to protect the ancient cultural sites of L.A. and Orange County, as was the case with Banning Ranch. The Sacred Places Institute, based in Santa Monica, is composed of indigenous activists and scholars who were instrumental in raising the awareness of the cultural significance of Genga, leading to the preservation of one of the last remaining open spaces on the Southern California coastline.

"Now more than ever, as threats to our sacred lands, waters and cultures are on the rise, it's critical to support indigenous peoples and Native nations working on the front lines fighting for human rights and environmental and cultural justice," says Angela Mooney D'Arcy, who is a member of the Acjachemen/Juaneño nation and executive director and founder of SPI.

The election of Donald Trump (and his alt-right cronies at the helm of the White House) presents the prospect of an uncertain future that delivers an authoritarian, race-obsessed president and a Republican Congress with the power to eliminate the political existence of indigenous nations, and a conservative Supreme Court that could not be counted on to stop it. These are dangerous times to be indigenous.

But Native Americans refuse to vanish.

During the relocation era, Indian Alley was a place many Indians crash-landed in L.A., and it still is. A mini Indian Country within the sprawling metropolis' Skid Row, the Row's Native presence was cemented in 1974 by the formation of United American Indian Involvement at the legendary 118 Winston St.; it has become a place of healing for the Native downtrodden. And recently, it is increasingly known as a place of art, where contemporary Native culture becomes visible again, as in the recent works of Santa Fe street artist Jaque Fragua, who scrawled spray-painted screeds including "Decolonize and keep calm."

Carrie Sage Curley of the Apache/Diné tribes working on her mural in Indian Alley, "Strength of Native Women."
Carrie Sage Curley of the Apache/Diné tribes working on her mural in Indian Alley, "Strength of Native Women."
Pamela J. Peters

Native culture is infiltrating all aspects of mainstream California life, even in the whitest, most unlikely of spaces, such as surf culture. An organization called Native Like Water (formerly InterTribal Youth), while based in San Diego, encourages Native youth to engage their indigeneity through surfing. With its Hawaiian roots, surfing is likely the most popular indigenous sport. L.A. even boasts one of the unsung heroes of early surf culture, Johnny Rice. A Prairie Band Potawatomi, Rice, who died in 2015, was part of the original Malibu crowd that inspired the Gidget books and movies and was an apprentice to the famous Manhattan Beach surfboard shaper Dale Velzy. He eventually became recognized as one of the grandfathers of the Santa Cruz surf scene.

Against all odds, Native culture is visible nearly everywhere you look in Los Angeles, even if the Hollywood Indian is, in other words, a dying breed (to use a really bad pun). As Native people assert their indigeneity against the assimilative forces of the dominant society, they unerase themselves from a tragic history and insert themselves into L.A.'s vibrant present. Like it or not, Indians are here to stay. As for me, I will always be a real Hollywood Indian ... and I have the birth certificate to prove it.

Dina Gilio-Whitaker is an award-winning journalist who holds the position of policy director and senior research associate at the Center for World Indigenous Studies. She is the co-author (along with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz) of the new book "All the Real Indians" Died Off and 20 Other Myths About Native Americans. She lives in San Clemente.


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