“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.
“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.