“Our Responsibility and Commitment to Truth, Reconciliation and Healing”: The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors’ Formal Land Acknowledgment Concerning the Indigenous People of the Region

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

On Tuesday, the first day of November, which is Native American Heritage Month, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors passed a resolution, authored by supervisors Janice Hahn and Hilda L. Solis, that adopted a formal land acknowledgment about the indigenous people of our region. As expressed by the office of Supervisor Solis, whose district includes the Homestead, the statement, “recognizes an area’s original inhabitants who have been forcibly dispossessed of their homelands and is a step toward recognizing the negative impacts these communities have endured and continue to endure, as a result.”

It was added that land acknowledgements have been common with Native communities and in such countries as Australia and Canada along with higher educational institutions and cultural groups, but not with city, county and state government. As Supervisor Solis observed, “Los Angeles County is home to multiple tribes who have never been federally recognized, and who continue to face land access issues despite their histories and cultural contributions. This inequitable recognition and access to County-owned lands for Native peoples negatively impact their physical, mental, spiritual, emotional, and cultural health.” 

The board’s vote to adopt the acknowledgment was, the supervisor continued, a first step at addressing the inequities and she cited the collaboration with the county’s Department of Arts and Culture and the Los Angeles City/County Native American Indian Commission (LANAIC) in working towards the approval and, in doing so, “prioritizing equity and advancing healing in the process.” That process took several years, beginning five years ago when Supervisor Solis authored a motion giving direction to county counsel to draft an ordinance that would end the recognition of Columbus Day as a county holiday in favor of Indigenous Peoples Day.

On 1 May 2018, the supervisors approved the ordinance and further work was done to address having County-owned and other publicly owned lands available for Native cultural practices. Within about a year, a gathering was held as part of the County’s sustainability plan to talk about these matters and the plan was adopted in August 2019. This included an action item for the County’s chief executive officer to “collaborate with local Tribes to identify and address barriers to the observance of traditional practices such as harvesting and gathering, particularly on County-owned land.”

Am 1842 rendering, from the Museum’s collection, of an indigenous California Indian.

In Los Angeles, city government formed a Civic Memory Working Group through the office of the mayor, with membership including 40 native elders and scholars, architects, artists, curators, designers, historians and other leaders in the cultural and civic realms. From fall 2019 to April 2021, the organization developed recommendations to more honestly and directly address the history of the city and region, particularly where the stories of many people were concealed, glossed over and where there was controversy to address. A report issued to the public on 15 April 2021 had 18 recommendations, with one of those being the approval for the mayor’s office and City with respect to an Indigenous Land Acknowledgment Policy developed in concert with the LANAIC.

Almost six months later, the Board of Supervisors voted to have the Arts and Culture department work with the LANAIC to hire a consultant to work on land acknowledgment and access policies, protocols and toolkits that met the requirements of the county’s cultural policy and to collect material that demonstrated how county government historically “harmed local tribal nations.” Funding was also provided for honoraria to tribal leaders and representatives working on the project, with almost two dozen nations “from generally five ancestral communities that have ties to the Los Angeles County region as identified by the State of California Native American Heritage Commission (NAHC)” asked to assist in the process.

Over a half year in spring and summer of this year, there were a quartet of meetings as leaders from a half-dozen tribes “provided valuable input and feedback on key elements to be included in the land acknowledgment for the County, as well as guidelines for its use.” The LANAIC and Arts and Culture department worked on a phased process based on the results and the former approved the acknowledgment’s language a little more than two weeks ago.

Supervisor Hahn stated that she has been starting each public presentation with a land acknowledgment and wished she’d done so earlier because of its importance and added she looked forward to having the statement read before each board meeting. While noting that there was more to do, the supervisor added that “this statement will serve as a constant reminder of that, and as an expression of honor and gratitude to the Native people who have a long, often painful history of living and working in the region.”

A companion to the above drawing.

As expressed in the announcement for Supervisor Solis’ office, “the motion adopts the following language to be used as a formal land acknowledgment for the County of Los Angeles and, effective on December 1, 2022, open all Board meetings with it verbally and displayed visually”:

The County of Los Angeles recognizes that we occupy land originally and still inhabited and cared for by the Tongva, Tataviam, Serrano, Kizh, and Chumash Peoples. We honor and pay respect to their elders and descendants ─ past, present, and emerging ─ as they continue their stewardship of these lands and waters. We acknowledge that settler colonization resulted in land seizure, disease, subjugation, slavery, relocation, broken promises, genocide, and multigenerational trauma. This acknowledgment demonstrates our responsibility and commitment to truth, healing, and reconciliation and to elevating the stories, culture, and community of the original inhabitants of Los Angeles County. We are grateful to have the opportunity to live and work on these ancestral lands. We are dedicated to growing and sustaining relationships with Native peoples and local tribal governments, including (in no particular order) the:

  • Fernandeño Tataviam Band of Mission Indians
  • Gabrielino Indians of California Tribal Council
  • Gabrieleno/Tongva San Gabriel Band of Mission Indians
  • Gabrieleño Band of Mission Indians – Kizh Nation
  • San Manuel Band of Mission Indians
  • San Fernando Band of Mission Indians

To learn more about the First Peoples of Los Angeles County, please visit the Los Angeles City/County Native American Indian Commission website at lanaic.lacounty.gov.

Among the tribal leaders quoted concerning the adoption of the acknowledgment, Alexandra Valdes (Tlingit/Athabascan), the LANAIC and Self-Governance Board executive director noted that “we heard from local tribal leaders that a land acknowledgment must not stand alone and should be followed up with meaningful and impactful policy change” and hoped that the approval was the beginning of a way for the county to continue ” I hope today’s passage of a countywide land acknowledgment is just the beginning and I look forward to continuing to work with the Board “to address needs uplifted by tribal leaders.”

LANAIC chair Cheri L. Thomas (Quinault Indian Nation and Yurok) added that the commission has, for almost a half-century, been dedicated to its work “to raise awareness and address the needs and concerns of the AIAN community, the largest of any county in the U.S. with more than 200 tribes represented.” She lauded the historic nature of the acknowledgment’s adoption and the supervisors’ commitment “towards truth, healing, and transformation for our local Native people.”

The enumeration of 20 of the 23 Indians in the household of John Rowland at Rancho La Puente in the 1860 federal census. Note the last person on the list was John Englace, a 40 year-old Black man from the “Cherokee nation,” which was in the southeastern United States before the horrific Trail of Tears removal of the 1830s to what became Oklahoma.

For San Gabriel Band of Mission Indians chair Anthony Morales, the hope was that this step “opens up more conversations towards healing our ancestral homelands, creating opportunities to improve the environment, and policies that will heal Mother Earth, and the First People of the Land. This brings awareness to state our presence, E’qua’shem, We are here.” Robert Dorame, chair of the Gabrielino Tongva Indians of California commented that “truth is the first step to the recovery of our stolen land and broken promises…we are still here,” 

“The spirit of our Ancestors lives within us,” remarked Donna Yocum, chair of the San Fernando Band of Mission Indians, who went on to note that “the true descendants of this land have become the tip of the spear and will continue to seek Respect, Honor, and Dignity, all of which were stripped from our Ancestors,” Yocum concluded by pointing out that the tribe’s goal was to collaborate “to create the path forward towards acknowledgment, restoration, and healing.”

Tuesday’s motion also directed the county’s CEP to provide $150,000 towards further work identified in the cultural policy to avoid harmful delays in carrying out the acknowledgment and also ordered the Arts and Culture department to collaborate with LANAIC on resources for a toolkit and training for protocols and standards for county departments and agencies for implementation of the acknowledgment, including “when and how to engage with local tribal governments.” These resources are to be provided to cities, cultural institutions and arts and cultural organizations within the county.

For November and Native American Heritage Month, this is the opportunity to “recognize and celebrate the cultures and vast contributions of the Native American population, the original stewards of this land as well as “an opportunity for us to acknowledge the First Peoples of what is now known as Los Angeles County, the Tongva, Tataviam, Serrano, Kizh, and Chumash as well as the region’s American Indian and Alaska Native (AIAN) population, comprised of members from more than 200 tribes.” For Native peoples, the month is a way “to share their culture and traditions and is an opportunity for all people to dedicate time to learn about and celebrate the contributions that Native Americans have made and continue to make to society.”

A circa 1872 photograph, from the Homestead’s holdings, of a Native dwelling, or “kizh,” possibly on the Rancho Santa Anita in the modern Arcadia area, showing a combination of traditional materials along with wooden door, barrels and other contemporary items.

In spite of a long history of being largely left off the historical record or, when included, in ways that represented discrimination, the loss of land, economic struggles and incredibly adverse impacts on health, Native peoples have been resilient in their resistance and persistence and have kept their cultural practices, language and other traditions alive in the face of overwhelming odds. The County’s formal land acknowledgment is an important milestone, but only an early one in a process.

At the Homestead, we, too, are in a long-evolving process of working with Native peoples as part of our interpretation of greater Los Angeles from 1830 to 1930, including the stories of the Workman and Temple family and the communities and contexts around them. Some three decades ago, we worked with the Mother Earth Clan on presentations and demonstrations to the public and, in more recent years, have collaborated with the Kizh on educational programs, such as “Under the Oak Tree,” which utilized our native garden, planted in the mid-2010s with input from tribal members, and others.

Indigenous artifacts found on the Museum site have been repatriated to the Kizh and we have had a small display in the Homestead Museum Gallery foyer next to stained glass windows, created by the Pasadena studio of John Wallis just after the Homestead’s restoration and opening in the early 1980s, showing the building by the Portolá expedition of 1769 of the bridge (the words la puente were used by Father Juan Crespí in his diaries from the journey) that crossed San José Creek very close to the Museum. Representations of missionaries and natives look benign, but we know the reality was far different than that.

We also know that the village of Awig-na (Ahwiinga) was situated nearby, as well, with one source identifying a location just east of El Campo Santo Cemetery and another specifying a site at or near La Puente City Park and La Puente High School—it may well have been at both and other locales over time depending on flooding of the creek and other conditions. As early as 1792, there are references to the Rancho La Puente as one of many ranches operated by Mission San Gabriel and stock raising and farming were extensively practiced with natives providing the difficult labor over decades. A granary was built directly north of the Museum, on the north side of Valley Boulevard, and adobe ruins were still visible there as late as the mid-1870s.

Josephine M. Workman, granddaughter of Rancho La Puente co-owners William Workman and Nicolasa Urioste, was presented as “daughter of a famous Indian chief” in this photo and caption when she was a major Hollywood film star. She may have had Native ancestry through her grandmothers, but her identity, which purportedly included her living among indigenous people in Montana, Mexico [New Mexico?] and elsewhere, was a studio publicity machine concoction. Long Beach Telegram, 18 September 1914.

In 1842, several years after the missions were secularized, or shut down with the churches in most cases converted to parish use, La Puente was granted to John Rowland, though not without vehement protests from the priests at San Gabriel. The grant specified that Rowland, and William Workman, who was given the right to use the ranch as if an owner and then, in 1845, was officially added as co-owner in an expanded grant by Governor Pío Pico, were to take care of any indigenous people residing on La Puente, though this language was vague and it is not known how the native people were treated. We presume the adobe houses built by Rowland and Workman utilized indigenous labor and it was, of course, no accident that the men built their residences very near the former granary and the village of Awig-na.

In fact, references to Indians on the ranch are sadly very few. Census records show, especially in Rowland’s case, that native people resided near the owners of the rancho. In October 1856, artist Henry Miller, touring California to sketch the missions, stayed at the Workman House and was asked to provider renderings for St. Nicholas’ Chapel in El Campo Santo Cemetery, east of the dwelling, and wrote that the chapel was being built for the benefit of the natives who earned fifty cents a day employed by Workman. For tending cattle, horses and sheep, working in the vineyard and grain fields, it seems clear that natives were a significant part of the work force, but information just isn’t available about this.

The native population was alarmingly reduced in the few decades after the Workmans settled at La Puente and, while specifics locally are lacking, regionally there was violence against natives, the ravages of alcohol introduced from the Spanish period forward, and the stunning mortality from diseases, including smallpox, with epidemics disproportionately affecting natives. After a wave of these in the 1860s, it appears there were few indigenous people left, while others were, because of intermarriage, usually with Latinos, were no longer considered by others to be natives.

Yet, Native peoples, as they remind us today, “were here.” At the Misión Vieja, or Old Mission, community in Whittier Narrows, where the original site of Mission San Gabriel was located, there were many people with mixed ethnicity, again, usually Latino and Native. One example was Venancia Peña Davis, who was married to Joseph Davis, a half-Latino, half-American employee of the Temple family (he’s buried at El Campo Santo) and whose daughter, Julia, lived with the Temples and was an extended family member.

A 1920s tintype from the Museum’s collection of tourists posed with the diminutive “Chief Manito,” second from right, at Mission San Gabriel. The Temple family were avid supporters of the romanticized “Mission Play,” performed near the mission for some two decades before around 2 million people and which glorified the role of Spanish missionaries Christianizing and civilizing the indigenous people. Homestead owner Walter P. Temple was a major financial contributor to the still-standing playhouse.

Venancia was from the area near Mission San Luis Rey and may have been brought to this area by Pío Pico, who was formerly the administrator of that mission. She was said to be very close friends with Nicolasa Urioste de Workman of La Puente, who was a native of Taos, New Mexico and may well have had indigenous blood—she, for example, had her children baptized at the church at Taos Pueblo, not the church for Europeans south of there. A basket, said to have been woven by Nicolasa and given to Venancia, has been in the possession of the latter’s descendent, Tim Miguel.

This tangible tie to the two women is a paramount example of the question of “documented” history. We don’t have any written statements or evidence of the basket’s origin, manufacture or transfer from Nicolasa to Venancia—the attribution is oral. Whether we can “know” the history of the artifact is subject to debate, but what can’t be disputed is the value placed on it by Venancia’s descendants, including her granddaughter Nora Hartnell, who was a storehouse of knowledge, on down to Tim, who has spent years documenting his family and local tribal history.

For Kizh tribal chair Andy Salas, his personal journey has carried him from an upbringing in San Gabriel, very close to the mission, where the native part of his ancestry was submerged until recent decades as his father, the late Ernie Salas, worked diligently to reclaim his indigenous roots and those of other tribal members and to advocate for them in the face of daunting prospects. Andy carries on that tradition and is also a repository for so much of the history of his people.

With the approval of the county’s formal land acknowledgment, the Museum affirms and supports this wholeheartedly and will work to incorporate it in various ways. For November and Native American Heritage Month, this blog’s “carousel” features some of the posts published here regarding indigenous history and we very much look forward to developing a better understanding and appreciation of it. Personally, as the descendent, through my mother, of native Hawaiians, it is important to me, as I know it is for my colleagues, including Beatriz Rivas, who is a Native person, to always be mindful of, as the acknowledgment powerfully states, “our responsibility and commitment for truth, healing and reconciliation.”

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