Behind the counter of a local Taco Bell, a teen-ager with dark hair and brown skin stood ready to take an order from a well-dressed Latina. But when the customer spoke in Spanish, the girl stopped.

“I do not speak Spanish,” she said wearily in English, as if she’d played this scene 100 times. “I am Native American.”

As a bystander translated her words, the customer’s face glowed in wonder. “A real Indian!” the woman exclaimed, leaning across the counter and touching her as if to confirm her authenticity.

This incident, related by John Orendorff, a Cherokee who witnessed the exchange and interpreted in Spanish for the customer, illustrates the Native American experience in Los Angeles County. Time after time, on the street, in school or in workplaces, local Native Americans are victims of mistaken identity, said Orendorff, acting director of the American Indian Education Commission for the Los Angeles Unified School District.


They may be Navajo, Cherokee or Creek, but because they have brown skin in a county of 3.3 million Latinos, they are assumed to be Latino, expected to speak Spanish and celebrate Cinco de Mayo. And, Native Americans say, when they correct the assumption and identify their heritage, they are treated as relics of a forgotten history.

While the 1990 U.S. Census puts the number of Native Americans in Los Angeles County at 45,500, community leaders say it is at least twice that size. Regardless, Los Angeles County has the largest Native American population in the country outside a reservation--but it is still the county’s smallest ethnic group.

Unlike other area ethnic groups, Native Americans have never been concentrated in a geographical center, but are scattered throughout the county. Bell Gardens and Cudahy are the only two cities in the county where Native Americans have ever represented more than 2% of the population, said Joan Weibel-Orlando, an associate professor of anthropology at USC.

To be a Native American in Los Angeles, some say, is to be invisible.


When Laura Dillard, 46, of Bell enrolled her 10-year-old daughter, Ayla, in a Los Angeles elementary school a few years ago, the girl with a braid that hangs down to her waist was automatically placed in a bilingual class. Ayla came home complaining that she couldn’t understand her teacher, who was instructing in Spanish. Dillard discovered that officials assumed Ayla was a Latina and spoke Spanish.

“There’s a real problem of misidentification,” Orendorff said. Native Americans make up less than 1% of the Los Angeles district’s student body, he said, and sometimes teachers and administrators can be insensitive toward them.

“I get complaints about teachers celebrating Columbus Day or calling a kid chief ,” Orendorff said.

Comments from other youngsters can be just as demeaning. One local high school teacher opened a recent class discussion on Native Americans, he said, when one of her students interrupted with a question: “Aren’t all Native Americans dead?”


Charles Narcho, a teacher’s aide at Nimitz Junior High and a Los Angeles City/County Native American Indian commissioner, believes that persistent feelings of invisibility--and a conflict between traditional belief systems and mainstream culture--may partly explain some of the social problems Native Americans face.

Nationwide, Native Americans have higher rates of suicide, homicide and alcohol-related deaths than any other ethnic group, according to the Indian Health Service, a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. They are also among the poorest people in the country. One-third of the Native American population live below the poverty line, according to the 1990 census.

Choctaws, Sioux, Apaches and other members of more than 200 tribes who left reservations where unemployment loomed as high as 80% in search of a better life frequently find themselves isolated in urban Los Angeles. Separated from families back home and from other Native Americans here, they often discover they are the only Native American in their neighborhood, on the job, or in their grade at school.

Dillard was born in a hogan, a traditional Navajo earthen home, on the reservation in Blue Gap, Ariz. Raised in a home without running water or electricity, Dillard’s mother taught her that if there was nothing in the house to eat when a stranger comes to call, offer the stranger water.



Over a traditional lunch of mutton and steamed corn, she recalled how as a 7-year-old, federal officials placed her in a boarding school 30 miles from home. Once there, she was forbidden to speak Navajo and rarely saw her parents, who traveled only by horse.

“I didn’t know why we were there,” she said, looking down into her bowl of stew.

Dillard graduated from high school, sought work in Los Angeles and married a white man, but held onto many of her tribe’s customs. Thirty years after leaving the reservation, she passes what she can on to her three children, partly as a way to pay homage to her ancestors.


“My grandmother and my grandfather, who was a medicine man, taught me and I said, ‘I’ll never forget,’ ” said Dillard, who lives with her husband, Dave, and two daughters in Bell.


A glance around the Dillards’ tiny apartment is proof that here, the Native American culture is far from invisible.

With the stones her grandmother used to grind corn and rugs woven by her mother within arm’s reach, Dillard and her youngest, Ayla, sang excerpts from traditional songs for a visitor.


“My mom started teaching me (Navajo songs) when I was 6 or 7,” Ayla said. “When we were babies we would play beauty songs and powwow songs to put us to sleep.”

Dillard’s two older children have also pursued Navajo arts: Anthony, 22, does traditional Navajo sand painting, and Ursula, 15, who dances at powwows and other events, recently performed in the World Cup closing ceremonies at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena.

Like many urban Native Americans, Dillard keeps close ties with her family on the reservation, visiting often. When Ursula reached puberty, Dillard took her to the reservation for the Kinaalda, a four-day coming-of-age ceremony that requires special regalia, food and prayer.

Tradition is also summoned in times of trouble. After a car accident left Dillard’s brother in a coma, the family accepted modern medical aid but also used ancient healing practices, requesting the remedies and prayers of a medicine man.


Dillard’s daughters take pride in such customs but say they have few Native American friends to share them with.

“Ayla is the only one I talk to about traditional things,” said Ursula, a sophomore at the Francisco Bravo Medical Magnet in Boyle Heights.

One way local Native Americans fight isolation and keep their culture vibrant is by gathering at weekend powwows.

Once gatherings where an individual tribe danced and prayed for the dead, the sick or for a successful hunt, powwows today are largely multi-tribal social events with spiritual overtones, said Weibel-Orlando of USC.



“Powwows are what we have left to identify who we are in the urban setting,” said Colleen Colson, a Cherokee who is the American Indian liaison for the County Department of Health Services. “In our community, people feel lost without other Indian people, so they will drive a number of miles just to share with other Indian people.”

At the fifth annual City of the Angels Kateri Circle Powwow at Loyola Marymount University last month, hundreds of Native Americans gathered to dance, sing, gossip and sample Indian tacos and fry bread.

Observing centuries of tradition, dancers and spectators followed the codes of behavior that guide the event. In the most sacred spot at the center of the gathering, the drums beat like the heart of the community.


In the evening’s opening processional, hundreds of dancers representing dozens of tribes moved slowly in a wide circle around the drum, each wearing their tribe’s ceremonial regalia, symbols of their many nations. In an initiation ceremony, a 5-year-old boy entered the ring of dancing for the first time, performing traditional steps.

Other efforts are under way to keep Native American culture vital and give it greater visibility within the broader Los Angeles community.

The cultural committee of the City/County Native American Indian Commission formed a nonprofit corporation last fall to raise funds for a community cultural and social service center, said Father Paul Objibway, who chairs the committee.

In November, the committee will help organize a series of public events celebrating Native American month, an effort reaching out to other ethnic groups. “We have to open up programs to non-Indians as a way of bringing the culture to life and demonstrating that there are people attached to it still and that it’s not just in books or museums,” Objibway said.


The Los Angeles Unified School District has undertaken a pilot program to teach a high school ethnic studies course that stresses Native American and other minority cultures. The course, “New Majority 2000,” could be implemented districtwide as early as January and be a required course, Orendorff said.

The tribes themselves offer their members opportunities to learn about language and cultural history, arts and traditions.

The California Gabrielino tribe, for example, has hosted a ceremony in which young men carve canoes and symbolically re-enact a historical trading journey from Long Beach to Santa Catalina Island, said Ernie P. Salas, spokesman for the tribe. Native Americans, predominantly Gabrielinos, were the sole occupants of the Los Angeles Basin until the mid-18th Century, according to Weibel-Orlando. California’s Native American population numbered as high as 300,000 at that time, some historians say, but by the early 1900s, after Spanish, Mexican and American colonizations of California, the population waned to about 15,000.

Between 1950 and 1960, California’s Native American population doubled. The Eisenhower Administration launched a program in 1953 to relocate Native Americans from reservations to cities, hoping to cut government support of the tribes, said Weibel-Orlando, author of “Indian Country, L.A.: Maintaining Ethnic Community in Complex Society.” The program bused about 40,000 from Oklahoma, South Dakota and other Western states to Los Angeles, and promised housing assistance, jobs and independence.


Historians say the federal relocation program placed Native Americans in working-class neighborhoods near industrial areas where they could find entry-level jobs.

Others tell a different story.

“The Bureau of Indian Affairs placed people in Southeast Los Angeles first and then began scattering people around by design, including down to Orange County, so (Native Americans) couldn’t organize,” said Glenda Ahhaitty, a Cherokee who is executive director of the City/County Native American Indian Commission.



The county’s Native American population grew 800% between 1955 and 1980, but over the years some have abandoned their tribal tradition and culture.

Some second- or third-generation city dwellers have never visited a reservation. Others, said Kathy Whitaker, chief curator of the Southwest Museum, may “have no need or desire to attend a powwow but are content to be Mr. and Mrs. John Smith who just happen to be Navajo.”

Jack Cluck, 74, a former Cudahy city councilman, was raised in Southeast Los Angeles County by a Choctaw mother and a father of Dutch descent. Cluck recalls how his mother used herbs to help cure family illnesses but did little to educate her 10 children about their American Indian heritage.

“She just said we were Americans and let it go at that,” he said.


Violet Little, 61, an Apache, spent nearly 30 years in Los Angeles and raised five children before moving back to San Carlos, N.M. She said she never taught her children Apache because their father believed they should assimilate and learn English.

“I was Indian all the way but I didn’t pass on Indian ways to the kids,” Little said. “They started hanging out with Mexican gangs and they thought they were Mexican.”

The struggle to keep Native American culture distinct amid other dominant cultures is hardly new, Weibel-Orlando said. “I think Native Americans are aware that their children are going to be exposed to a number of cultures that are quite different than their own and that the culture in school and on the street is overwhelming.

“But most parents would say that our culture is unique and our culture is strong and it has withstood all kinds of pressure in the last 500 years.”


Several years ago when the Dillard family lived in Whittier, neighbors would ask Ursula if she was Mexican. She would reply that she is white, as her father is.

“I just ignored the part of me that was Native American,” she said. “Now I’m more proud of who I am. I know I’m different. . . . I would like to marry someone who is at least half-Navajo. We’ve been here so long I don’t want (the culture) to be lost. I don’t want the hogans to disappear. I want my daughter to have a Kinaalda.”