by Beatriz Rivas
Beatriz Rivas joined the Homestead’s staff as a public programs assistant in November 2021 and as a member of the Yoeme/Yoemem (often known as the Yaqui) tribe of the state of Sonora, México, she shares, on this Native American Heritage Day, her personal insight on this important action by our county government:
In a November 1, 2022 press release, the office of Los Angeles County Supervisor Hilda L. Solis, announced that the County of Los Angeles has been working with the Los Angeles Native American Indian Commission (LANAIC) to develop the following land acknowledgement that will be adopted countywide as of December 1, 2022:
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 Tongva 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
A land acknowledgement is a traditional way to recognize the original caretakers of a particular place and is usually recited at the opening of a public gathering. It is a custom that goes back centuries in many indigenous communities and in several parts of the world including Canada, New Zealand, and Australia. Land acknowledgements are now being implemented outside of indigenous communities as well. Many organizations in the United States including schools, universities, and museums, in collaboration with indigenous communities, have started to develop and adopt their own version of a land acknowledgement and it has increasingly become common practice to open public and private gatherings with its recital.
The topic of indigeneity is complex and the definition of identity alone varies so widely, but what is clear is that the history of indigenous peoples in the United States, including in California, is one that includes displacement, loss of access to (and sustenance from) ancestral lands, Americanization, harmful assimilation tactics such as the forced removal of indigenous children and placement into boarding schools, prejudices perpetrated by stereotypes, exploitation, and outright cultural and physical genocide. It has resulted in tremendous inequity for indigenous communities. And, while these are not a monolith, what we know for sure is that we have not been entirely honest regarding the history of Native Americans. This erasure has only exacerbated the collective trauma.
This is quite personal for me. I was born in an indigenous territory of Sonora, México. Our own name is Yoeme or Yoemem, but we are more commonly known as the Yaqui. My ancestors have lived between what is now Arizona and Sonora for generations. The Pascua Yaqui are a federally recognized tribe in the US, but we exist on both sides of the current US-Mexico border. I was an English learner in elementary school and struggled to find my place as an “American”. I vividly remember encountering people with little patience for my family’s language barrier. It also became very apparent to me that, while I shared one of my languages with some of the other kids in school, these being Mexican and Central American children, the customs and traditions I knew as a Yaqui were quite different.
Additionally, the reenactment of the “pilgrims and Indians” having the Thanksgiving celebration, complete with feather hats, teepees and face paint while we tapped at our mouth and ran around the teepee, was still practiced. I still remember being confused as to why that was referred to as being “Indian,” knowing that was not what was practiced in my pueblo. That was when I also learned that “Indians did not exist anymore” and the effect it had on me was the suggestion that the “Indian” part of me should not exist anymore either. Assimilation can disconnect you from your roots, but it never fully replants you in that new place to which you are meant to assimilate; it is like forever being seen as the “other”. There is a saying in Spanish, “ni de aquí, ni de allá”, that translates to “not from here, nor from there”. In a way, that has been the story of the Yaqui people.
The Yaqui’s history is one of resistance—a constant battle to defend their homelands and their way of life for hundreds of years; first against the Spanish, and they were successful until the 1600s, and then against the Mexican and American governments. They accepted the Jesuit priests on their own terms and this gave way to their uniquely blended religion which is influenced by Catholicism. They also endured a period of enslavement in Southern Mexico. At times, they joined the cause alongside other Mexicans fighting against an oppressive and disorganized government. Other times, they took up arms to help the government—all as leverage to negotiate for the return of their land and their sovereignty. There is conflicting data as to the size and location of the area the Yaqui inhabited in pre-contact times, with some claiming some of the Yaqui were forced up into what is now Arizona and others claiming they inhabited the land from as far south as the northern tip of Sinaloa up to the Grand Canyon. While the Yaqui were successful in reacquiring a settlement in southern Sonora that consists of eight pueblos, it is miniscule in comparison to the size of land to which they once had access, and the struggles continue, most recently over water access and rights.
The first step in reconciliation is acknowledgement. Regardless of one’s views in the current highly polarized political spectrum, or one’s personal views on the landback movement, or the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA), I think we can all agree that taking this step to acknowledge the original caretakers of the land and recognizing the existence of Native peoples is an important first step toward collective healing and can only have positive outcomes. Specifically, the recognition of people, the human aspect, is the most meaningful.
It is nothing less of a miracle that indigenous cultures have survived; that through the passing on of language, song, ceremony, and my personal favorite—food traditions—from generation to generation some important pieces of these cultures are still accessible. One of the biggest problems, among many, that indigenous peoples share is that of erasure. There has been a pervasive belief that “Indians” disappeared, that those that claim indigeneity are not truly so because they have mixed with other dominant groups over time, or because they no longer speak the language, or are no longer on their original ancestral lands—this often due to forced, state-sponsored displacement.
These ideas are hurtful because adapting, assimilating, and/or mixing, were fundamental survival tactics. It is easy to think of resistance as loud and chaotic protest or fighting to the death. I assert, however, that the most powerful act of resistance is survival, regardless of how that looks and whether it came through assimilation, blending of ethnicities, or hiding one’s identity. The ancestors’ choices for survival sometimes meant they had to keep quiet, to do as they were told, and to give up their traditional ways, including their names, their language, their regalia, and their hair styles. In many cases it even meant joining the American military, fighting alongside the oppressor, and for a country that did not even grant citizenship to its original natives until 1924. Their choice to assimilate allowed future generations to have a chance at life. It is why we are still here.
There seems to be an expectation that since Native people do not adhere to a stereotype of what an “Indian” is supposed to be, that they must not exist anymore. But we are still here—we just are not all wearing feather headdresses to work or living in teepees in some beautiful, natural landscape. Instead, sometimes we live next door to you. We do not all live in reservations, although some of us do. We come from all walks of life. Some of us still openly practice many of our traditional ways while others only do so in private. Some of us are enrolled in federally recognized tribes, others are not. Some of us are not from within the current borders of the United States, while others have been here for generations.
Many of us live in your communities. We are your coworkers and your classmates and your fellow PTA moms. We sit next to you at our kids’ baseball games. We are military veterans. We share many of the same everyday concerns with other Americans—the cost of gas, food, the quality of our kids’ education, the increase in gun violence, our health, and our future. We are not all experts in all things indigenous, just as many are not experts in all things American. We have good days and bad days. Some of us are struggling to make ends meet while others are making hit shows like Reservation Dogs or playing the lead role in Aquaman or Khal Drogo on Game of Thrones. Some of us are trying to make a difference. Some of us are fighting to protect the environment. We are serving as the 54th United States Secretary of the Interior (Deb Haaland of the Pueblo of Laguna tribe of New Mexico) or fulfilling our role as a director of your local museum. Some of us are poet laureates, some of us are homeless, and some of us are attending UCLA pursuing higher education. None of this makes us any less indigenous. A land acknowledgement lets us know we are seen and that our existence and our humanity are recognized.
This is not to say that other minorities or oppressed peoples in the country do not deserve acknowledgement as well—they do—but I can only speak to my experience. There are important elements of history that are not taught in K-12 schools. Had I learned of the Indigenous, Mexican, and Spanish origins of California as a child, I would have felt included. Instead, I felt like an intruder, like I didn’t belong, and I was ashamed of my native languages, of our traditions, and of my family. I often felt torn. There was a marked dissonance, because I had very strong familial ties, yet I struggled to reconcile the expectations and tacit rules I was learning at American schools with the ways of my Yaqui and Mexican cultures. When you don’t see yourself represented, you feel excluded, and you end up carrying the weight of all those microaggressions—and that can prevent one from being successful and from contributing positively to society. Likewise, when you see yourself represented in a negative way, it is equally damaging.
Americanization efforts, while some may argue had some benefits, also have some negative and long-lasting residual effects that resulted in people being shamed out of their cultural traditions. This had the effect of robbing people of cultural wealth. In a small but important way, the land acknowledgement helps set us on the right track by recognizing some of the missteps of the past and allowing us to learn from them. The truth is not always pretty or good, but it is essential.
There are many indigenous people (myself included) who are still holding on to hope that this country can be inspired to live up to its purported ideals and that, in the areas where we continue to have shared values, we can learn to work together towards progress, peace, and collective healing.
Land acknowledgements do not solve all our problems. I am confident that at the Homestead we will move forward with a conscious effort to be more inclusive, culturally sensitive, and that we hold a commitment to truth in our storytelling and to giving indigenous people a voice. As we look at ways to incorporate a land acknowledgement into our tours, lectures, exhibits, and events and to have more programming that more fully includes the history of indigenous people, we recognize this is just a first step towards truth, healing, and progress. I personally intend to revisit and dismantle the misperception of the historical monolithic Native American and look forward to working with my colleagues at the Museum on this.
If you would like to learn more about the First Peoples of Los Angeles City and County, please visit lanaic.lacounty.gov .
There are currently 574 federally recognized tribes in the US. 109 of those are in California. See the list here.
For an interactive map of Native territories, languages and treaties, visit Indigenous Land Map.