The replacement of “Columbus Day” with “Indigenous Peoples Day” in an area that has maintained a longstanding history of illegal land dispossessions from the local tribe could be considered monumental. Littered with streets named after cold-hearted settler-colonialists responsible for the dispossessions, evictions, and deaths of ancestors of the Fernandeño Tataviam Band of Mission Indians, the City of San Fernando, California approved the indigenous-centered resolution.
San Fernando, ancestrally located at the Tataviam village of Achoicominga, has officially become the first city in Los Angeles County to recognize a violent history and its effects against the first peoples of the area. “…Recognizing Indigenous Peoples’ Day is a step forward in acknowledging the contributions of indigenous people to our society and our everyday lives. Celebrating indigenous culture, arts, music and history will serve as an educational tool as we move toward telling a more accurate story of our nation’s indigenous history,” said Joel Fajardo, San Fernando mayor. Future plans of an Indigenous Peoples Day festival in San Fernando are currently being organized to commemorate this day of indigenous praise and pride.
The history between Los Angeles County and Tataviam is a familiar one. Like other Mission Indians enslaved at their respected religious prisons, the population slowly decreased as result of the spreading Mission-bred diseases, violent consequences of failed escapes, undocumented murders, and genocide. After the dismantling of the Mission system, the indigenous community aimed to retrieve what was once theirs by using the same violence that was inflicted on them in hopes that it would reclaim their 56,000 acres; their sacred San Fernando Valley.
Unfortunately, settler-colonial conceptions of land as property overruled and took the Indians to court. In this case, a group of 7 San Fernando Mission Indians “wrongfully” ejected George K. Porter and retired California State Senator Charles Maclay from their parcel of land at Rancho Ex-Mission San Fernando. Porter and Maclay sued the San Fernando Indians (Porter et al. vs. Pablo Cota et al. 1876), and persuaded the court to reaffirm their ownership of the 56,000 acres. In addition to dispossession, the Indians were fined $500, plus $50 rent for every month that had passed since the trial. Ironically, Tataviam’s Tribal Administration Office is located adjacent to the street named in honor of Charles Maclay.
Captain Antonio Maria Ortega, who stood among the 7 Indians, became so frustrated with the government that his distrust led to his refusal of identification on future U.S. Indian Census Rolls. His great grandson Rudy Ortega Jr., the contemporary band’s president, blessed the Indigenous Peoples Day debate and City Council with traditional songs. He reminded council members: “The importance of Indigenous Peoples Day is to celebrate all Native cultures, traditions, and histories of Indigenous Peoples of both North and South America. It is a reminder that we are still here: resilient, resisting, and surviving.”
Tataviam is not unfamiliar with persistence; they have recently submitted their petition for federal recognition and are currently under review by the Office of Federal Acknowledgement.
Walk for the Ancestors
A warm October breeze embraced some 100 people from across the country, who stood in solidarity at Mission San Fernando to welcome Tataviam descendant Caroline Ward Holland and those participating in the Walk for the Ancestors 650-mile pilgrimage in honor of those who perished at the Mission. Traditional storytelling, songs, dance, and humble words of praise vibrated the hearts of those in attendance, while the symbolic church bells and repetitions of “hallelujah” signaled the commencement of a wedding in the background.
Ortega said the gathering did not represent a protest against Catholicism by recognizing that many Indigenous Peoples have embraced settler religions. “Today is not a day to look at what the Pope did,” Ortega said. “Today is a celebration that our people are still here. [The Pope] made a mistake. Because what he did is he woke us up.” Smoke from the burning sage danced on bodies of those standing in a circle, giving a message to their ancestors. “We ask the Creator to bless the people who came before us,” Ortega continued. “And I thank Caroline and her family for walking. Because Father Serra walked up north, and now, she’s reversing that walk.”
“To me, the disease brought here [by the Franciscans] was secondary, in comparison to the ways they tortured our people, mentally, and physically. The stories of the atrocities are passed down. Mothers were giving themselves abortions so their children wouldn’t face a life of abuse. And you know, even when they left the Mission [after secularization], they had nothing. They took their land, they took their culture, they took their spiritual practices… so the people didn’t know who they were,” Caroline Ward Holland explained in an interview. She and her son began this walk to follow in the footsteps of their ancestors; to let them know that their descendants understand their suffering. “We’re able to heal as people, but we can’t forgive something that hasn’t been admitted, basically. The truth needs to be told. I can say that, for me, I’m not going to ask for permission to go see, and pray for my ancestors that are buried here. I’m not paying anybody to walk on my own ground. And as far as I’m concerned, this mission is ours. Our people were enslaved, and they suffered and died here. It’s ours.”
Kimia Fatehi is the director of public relations and Tribal Historic and Cultural Outreach for the Fernandeño Tataviam Band of Mission Indians.