The Plight of Native Americans on the ‘Urban Reservation’ : Los Angeles Indians Express Concern Over Growing Discrimination at Bell Gardens Hearing

Times Staff Writer

If we don’t go around wearing braids, beads or turquoise, people mistake us for another race. We are invisible as Native Americans . ... And it is a cultural characteristic of our people to be passive, not to speak out. We will go somewhere else to live, even though it might not be where we wanted to live, to keep harmony within our households, with neighbors and with the universe.

--Morningstar, a Winnebago woman who serves as a housing counselor for the Metro-Harbor Fair Housing Council.

The silent minority of Los Angeles County--Native-American Indians--decided to speak up last weekend about discrimination toward its growing urban community here.

At a first-of-its-kind meeting in Bell Gardens, members of the Native-American Indian community here, the largest urban Indian population in the country, estimated at from 60,000 to 80,000 in Los Angeles County, testified at a two-day hearing co-sponsored by the Los Angeles County Commission on Human Relations and the City-County Native-American Indian Commission.


“Basically, Los Angeles is the biggest reservation, an urban one, in the United States,” said Ute lawyer Sanford Smith, a Harvard-educated attorney in private practice in Los Angeles. “But the federal government treaties generally deal with those on the reservation. The problem here is urban.”

The hearing also dealt with matters of politics, health, education and Indian youth, employment, housing and media coverage. The participants talked, too, of spiritual things, of the prejudice against them concerning their religious practices, of the desecration of Indian burial sites.

Because American Indians are treated as “wards” of the federal government under existing treaties, Smith said, they often fall into a “legal limbo” between federal and state and local governments.

“More and more, the federal government tries to pass on to state and local levels Indian health services, education,” Smith told the commissioners. “In the last century, the federal government said, ‘This (American Indians) is our problem and we are going to try to deal with it.’ But that has passed out of the picture now.”


Smith, who worked on numerous treaty lawsuits in the East in the 1970s, said that there still are about 300 treaties in effect between American Indians and the U.S. government.

“Compare Canada and the United States. Treaty-making in the U.S. ended in 1871. Canada is still making treaties,” Smith explained. “Here the federal government has always assumed the language of the treaty holds. You give two blankets per year to Indians in 1850. The U.S. attitude is, you stick to the rule and that should mean a clothing allowance today. There is no easy answer the way things are to the situation, a situation that’s changing over time.”

It is this change, the urbanization of the Native-American Indian and the mounting socioeconomic problems arising from it, that prompted the commission hearing last week.

“Literally, the urban scene is a complete cultural shock for Native Americans, especially the ones who are still being relocated,” said Human Relations Commissioner Kate Stern. “Those coming from the Navajo reservation are in shock when they get off the bus.” (The federal government is moving 10,000 Navajos from reservation land and many of them are moving to cities.)


A Human Relations commissioner for 27 years, Stern continued: “American Indians come here because they know there’s a large Indian population here. But then, they have no center or place to go. And their values are different. The land has a special meaning for them, and on a reservation, nobody owns anything. There aren’t any sidewalks or fences.”

On Friday and Saturday, an impressive group of Native-American Indians who live and work in the Los Angeles area came to John Anson Ford Park to present their community’s problems before members of the two Los Angeles commissions.

There were Native Americans representing health care organizations, Indian studies programs, several county departments, housing groups, communications, religious groups, college students.

The combined group of commissioners decided on the Bell Gardens-Cudahy-South Gate location, because 3% of the Native-American population in Los Angeles resides in that area, although American Indians are among the smallest ethnic minorities in the county, 1%.


For the most part, though, Native Americans, according to representatives who spoke, tend not to form tight urban communities, a problem that haunts them when they attempt to be a visible, viable community voicing concerns for their own.

Tom Sellars, a Northern Montana Blackfeet who has lived in the Los Angeles area for 25 years and serves full time on the City-County Native-American Indian Commission, told the group: “We are faced with various socioeconomic problems, but the largest and most perplexing problem is our inherent lack of visibility. We are an unseen and unheard voice.

“We are invisible and we have no clout,” he said. “We’re too small in number and too scattered. Indi ans are not found in ghettos. And ghettos and concentrated population areas do have certain advantages. They provide a high degree of visibility; they’re a place where you can document community needs and problems; and a high ethnic concentration provides political recognition and clout.”

100 Different Tribes


Sellars pointed out that organizing American Indians living in Los Angeles into a single community is complicated by the fact that they come from 100 different tribes with different cultures and subcultures and from nearly every reservation and native village in North America.

“Consolidating all American Indians into a singular Indian culture is like trying to say that all Europeans are one European culture,” Sellars said.

Of the 1,423,043 Native Americans living in the United States, California has the largest number of Indian residents in any state, 201,489, including those from both cities and reservations. The overall state population of Indians is expected to increase significantly by the 1990 census. By then, Los Angeles County is estimated to have become home to 100,000 Native Americans.

In her speech, a criticism of federal census policies toward Indians, Lenore Stiffarm, a GrosVentre from UCLA’s American Indian Studies Center, said that there is no listing for tribes under the U.S. Census. “It says, ‘American Indian,’ so we can get no data on tribes. For the upcoming census, there is an ethnic advisory committee, but no American Indian has been appointed to it.”


“We kind of blend in with the rest of the people,” said Phyllis Rose, a Gabrielino who is a staff member of Talking Leaf, the Los Angeles Indian newspaper published by the nonprofit Indian Centers Inc. “We don’t have an Olvera Street, or a Little Tokyo. We don’t even have an Indian Center. We need one, especially in Los Angeles. After all, it was our land to begin with.”

Speaking on health issues, Joan Freeman, director of the American Indian Free Clinic in Compton, called health care for Native-American Indians “a crisis situation” because of proposed federal budget cuts and blamed much of the problem on President Reagan’s veto of the reauthorization of the Indian Health Care Improvement Act in 1984, and his continuing attempts to shift “more and more of the fiscal burden of Indian health care from the federal government to state and local government.”

Freeman, a full-blood Seminole from Oklahoma, has been with the Compton clinic since its planning stages in 1969 and had just returned from an Indian Health Services meeting in Reno.

“Urban Indians are being told that they should not have access to “mainstream” (county and state-funded) medical care and at the same time they are being told that they will also be denied access to their Indian clinics if the President has his way,” Freeman said. “The crisis is getting worse. We may not even have any urban Indian health clinics after this year. Emergency action of Congress is funding them on a 30-day basis now. “The message is an old one,” she added. “And it comes through loud and clear: ‘The only good Indian is a dead Indian.’ ”


Health Issues

Indian health programs already have been reduced substantially by the Gramm-Rudman bill, according to Freeman, and are in further jeopardy, depending on what budget cuts the House and Senate agree to. The federal budget deadline was not met by Congress on Tuesday.

Freeman said that bills in both the House and Senate agree that funding for urban Indian health care should be $9.8 million. “With a national urban Indian population of 740,222, this amounts to only $13.24 per year, or $1.10 per month per urban Indian. A common cold could barely be treated for that.”

Freeman continued: “Indians don’t say anything, it’s not our nature. But now we must . . . Sometimes we wait until it’s too late to do something, but now all American Indian clinics, urban and reservation, are in trouble. We need to speak out and support each other, and ask people who have concern to help us.”


Robert Sundance, a recovered alcoholic Hunkpapa Sioux, also came to talk about health, especially alcoholism, what he told the group he considered “the major destructive force in American Indians.”

Eleven years ago, Sundance was an alcoholic living on the streets of downtown’s Skid Row. He made legal history by suing to get public drunkenness decriminalized, and his case was finally upheld in 1985 by the California Supreme Court.

Sundance has been sober for 10 years, and today he serves as director of the Indian Alcohol Commission of California, lobbying for improvements for alcoholism programs in L.A. County.

“American Indians should be immune from Gramm-Rudman,” Sundance said. “We should be immune from any federal cutbacks . . . If we had the money to do something about alcohol abuse, we could cut health care by 70%. If Indian leaders would stick together and raise hell and mandate the feds and the state to give us our rightful share, we could do something.


‘Racism Everywhere’

“You have racism everywhere you look, but there are drunks everywhere, too--congressmen, councilmen, doctors. But for the American Indian, alcoholism is a severe problem and we need help.”

Other health care providers voiced similar concerns about federal cutbacks.

“Urban Indian health programs have suffered severely because of Reagan budget cuts and Gramm-Rudman,” said Colleen Colson of the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services. “There is only one Indian Clinic and a sub-center downtown and they get federal and county funds. But there are the ones who fall through the cracks. The jobs they have don’t furnish them with health benefits or they can’t afford private care . . . so they have only the county to turn to. There are only five of us (American Indians) in the whole county system who work with American Indians and only one in the city, with the mayor’s office. That few to serve as many Indian people as we have here. And we network together to strive to get better services.”


Colson, a Cherokee from Oklahoma, has been a member of the City-County Native American Indian Commission, founded in 1976, for eight years. “Last month my department started interviewing (Indians) for training as hospital attendants,” she said. “It took me two years to get that training program off the ground.”

Problems similar to those voiced by health care professionals also were heard from those in education and those from employment and housing groups.

--On education: Tim Faulkner, coordinator of the Title IV Indian Education Program within the Los Angeles city schools, told commissioners he anticipated an estimated 66% decrease in funding for 1986-87, because the U.S. Department of Education is now insisting that to receive federal aid, American Indian students must submit a specific form and documentation that he/she is a member of a recognized Indian tribe, a descendant of a person from a recognized tribe.

Although the document, called a 506 form, has been required since 1979, said Faulker, a Cherokee, the government previously has accepted a child with “good faith effort” documentation, i.e. a letter written by the child’s parents to a tribe seeking documentation.


There are currently 2,106 students in the Los Angeles Unified School District identified for funding.

Testifying before the commission the following day, though, Alyce Murdock of Sylmar, a Navaho-Laguna, acknowledged problems of the 506 document, but insisted “the Indian Education Program here is top heavy. We’re paying it all on top salaries and not enough to the kids.”

Murdock, a member of the Indian Education Central Parent Committee in the San Fernando Valley, said that the parent committee was supposed to be consulted about the upcoming fiscal budget for Indian education, but had not been.

“There are a lot of American Indian kids in the schools,” said Murdock’s fellow committee member, Rudy Ortega of San Fernando, a Fernandino Mission Indian. “But they can’t prove it without an enrollment number from the tribe. But they aren’t even looking for the Indian kids. There are a whole mess of Indians with Spanish surnames. My father took a missionary’s name.”


--On youth problems: “The youth are discriminated against, made fun of or ignored,” said Paula Starr, a great-granddaughter of Chief Black Kettle of the Cheyenne who represented the Los Angeles Indian Free Clinic at the hearing. “The kids have low self-esteem and a low self-image. There is no place for them to go, no youth center for Indian children, a place where people will listen to them and say ‘it’s OK to be Indian.’ There’s a lot of gang involvement. A lot of Indian kids get into the gangs because of their identity problems.”

--On employment: “We refer Indians (for jobs), but they are not being hired,” said Tony Rice, a Lisueano-Shoshone, from Indian Centers Inc., a nonprofit multi-service center. “We’re going backward in a bureaucratic system . . . Employers don’t recognize education on the reservation. Education is education.”

County representatives at the hearing estimated that there are only 80 American Indians in the entire work force of Los Angeles County.

--On housing: “Our people run into all different racial discriminations,” said Morningstar of Indian housing problems. Morningstar’s priority in housing, though, is “some type of housing project for our elders and our handicapped. It’s not right that a 77-year-old mother can’t get into subsidized housing.”


--On media coverage: Mike Burgess, a Comanche who is editor of the local Native-American paper, Talking Leaf, discussed the “insensitivity and the non-involvement of the media with Indian communities,” and asked, “why is it that the Indian point of view must take a back seat to that of the federal or state government?”

Burgess explained to the panel that his paper and others like it in Indian communities in other states are the primary sources of education and communications among the 250 tribes across the country.

“Information is an essential educational link between the Indian community,” he said. “These are the communication lines which the American Indian turns to. If we don’t tell them about the past and the present, they aren’t going to protect our future.”

When it came time to speak of spiritual discriminations, John Funmaker, a Winnebago from Eagle Lodge, an alcohol rehabilitation program, cited denials of authorities to allow American Indians to practice their traditional religion.


“The arrival of a Fire Department truck to extinguish the sacred fire . . . Policemen coming into the church to squelch the ‘racket’ of the sacred songs and the water drum,” Funmaker said. “Both serve as stark reminders of not only our lack of importance, and status as ‘wards,’ but the all-pervasive intolerance which continues to exist in what has been coined ‘the democratic society.’ ”

Rudy Ortega told the commissioners his story about the excavation of an American Indian burial ground for an office building at the corner of Balboa Avenue and Ventura Boulevard in February, 1985.

“By the time construction was completed in December of that year, we had been ignored, lied to and insulted,” Ortega said. “Now, we have, at least, been able to rebury our dead in other consecrated ground. But the artifacts, which should properly have been reburied with their owners, remain in bags and boxes in the residence of the archeologist who was called in.”

Ortega said that although Native-Americans have different religious beliefs than many white people, “One thing we do share is the desire for our deceased relations to ‘rest in peace’ in ground made sacred by the presence of their remains . . . If our ancestors are disturbed, the harmony of the spirit world is disrupted, and we lose our surety that they await us in the spirit world. For us, the term ‘rest in peace’ is followed by a question mark.”


By late Saturday afternoon, all the questions to the all- encompassing problems of Los Angeles’ Native-Americans had been posed to the panel of commissioners.

Recommendations had been made for establishment of advocacy groups for Indian rights, for a volunteer group to assist with health care needs, for assistance with job-training programs, for establishing an American Indian Cultural Center, for more advisers for Indian children in the schools, for housing projects, for community liaison officers between the Indian community and law enforcement agencies.

“Los Angeles has become a mecca for urban Indian people,” Tom Sellars said in closing. “Much of the testimony offered was the symptoms of our community. Now we must address the causes . . . Hopefully, our report will bring about some positive results and some concern for our community.”

A written report of the hearing will be issued in a few months. The committees will meet and make official joint recommendations to the county Board of Supervisors, Mayor Tom Bradley and the City Council. Additional reports will be sent to several state and federal government agencies.


“There’s just such a tremendous need,” Commissioner Stern said to Morris Kight, vice president of the Human Relations Commission, after the hearing. “I can see about four or five specific recommendations that we can hopefully put some teeth into. I think we can make some progress.

“But I don’t want the Indians who participated here to think we can do things we can’t,” Stern added. “The tragedy of the American Indian situation is that so many promises have been made--over a century--and so many broken.”