Descendants of Mission Indians Revisit Heritage


He lived most of his life in the city of San Fernando, in the shadow of the mission that his grandfather had called home. Five generations of his family--hailing from ancient Indian tribes--were born or died behind mission walls.

But Rudy Ortega--like many Native Americans of his era--grew up oblivious to the Indian blood running through his veins. In his family, "We were brought up as Mexicans, we spoke Spanish at home," said Ortega, 70.

"Maybe they were ashamed. . . . Or maybe they were just afraid, after all they went through."

What they went through--those thousands of Indians who lived at San Fernando Mission--gave birth to the San Fernando Valley but left their native culture in tatters, their people adrift, and a legacy of shame and confusion that is only now giving way to pride and a revival of Indian ways.

Today, 200 years after the mission was founded, the celebration of all things Indian is in full bloom, both within the Native American community and beyond. Genealogists report a boom among people searching their family trees for Indian roots, and stores do brisk business peddling accessories--from sage-scented candles to medicine bags--linked to Indian lore.

The local Native American community has shored up its identity as well, and dozens of groups now promote Indian culture through educational, political and social events, including intertribal powwows held almost every weekend during the spring and summer that draw thousands from across the state to participate in traditional dances and stories and share Indian food and crafts. Still, the enduring legacy of the missions for Southern California's Indians is a particularly bitter one. Unlike tribes consigned to reservations, the mission Indians are trying to resurrect a culture buried by years of allegiance to the customs of Catholicism and Spain.

"Other tribes across the country were able to preserve a lot of their beliefs, a lot of their language. But our people were scattered," said Paul Varela, director of Ventura County's Chumash Interpretive Center, built on the site of a former Chumash village in Thousand Oaks.

Varela, 41, used mission records to trace his ancestry back 10 generations--"100 years before California became a state"--to the Chumash villages that once dotted the Southern California coast.

A former Oxnard computer technician, he now lives with his wife and teenage son in a small apartment at the center, running its educational programs and assisting the 430-member Oakbrook Chumash Nation, which considers the center its social and cultural home.

The group--which includes more than 300 descendants of San Fernando Mission Indians--is among several Southern California groups petitioning the federal government for official tribal recognition, a status that conveys educational, medical and financial benefits to Indian tribes that can document their history and demonstrate that their political and cultural institutions have continued to exist through the years.

The burden of proof is so high that fewer than a dozen tribes have been granted federal recognition nationwide in the past 20 years. And it is especially difficult for California's native tribes, whose land was seized and whose tribal governments were wiped out when they were consigned to the missions 200 years ago.

The San Fernando Mission was the 17th of 21 built in the 1700s by Spanish friars seeking to claim California for Spain and convert its 300,000 Indian natives to Catholicism.

To populate the mission, the Chumash were lured from villages in the Santa Monica Mountains, the Simi hills and along the Malibu coast; the Tongva and Tataviam from the San Fernando and Antelope valleys; and the Kitanemuk, Cahuilla and Serrano tribes from their homes ranging from the Tehachapi Mountains to the Mojave Desert.

The mission "became a melting pot for . . Indian communities that were completely unrelated, with different languages, traditions, religious customs and political structures," said Santa Barbara Natural History Museum curator John Johnson, who has studied the history of California's Chumash and Tataviam.

"This was a process that occurred all over California during the mission period," Johnson said. "People who had been separate cultures were amalgamated" as the Spanish friars combined Indian tribes and set about undoing their native ways.

Baptized Catholic and given new Spanish names, they were forbidden to follow their own spiritual laws. They were taught to speak Spanish, but lost their own languages. They learned new skills, but forgot how to live off the land.

Those who fled the mission were hunted down as fugitives, captured and flogged. Of those who stayed, thousands perished from diseases borne by the Europeans--measles, influenza, dysentery, tuberculosis, syphilis--to which they had no immunity. More than twice as many Indians died as were born in captivity, mission records show.

When the mission period ended in the mid-1800s, the Indians were turned out with little left of their native culture or the villages they had left behind.

Expanding settlements had reduced the natural resources available to them, making the Indians vulnerable to famine and drought. Disease and alcoholism took their toll, and harsh laws making drunk Indians work off their sentences condemned many to years of virtual slavery on ranchos, farms and vineyards owned by settlers from Spain and Mexico.

Gradually, over the next hundred years, the Valley's Native Americans were absorbed--largely through intermarriage--into the Mexican community that surrounded them.

Some, like Ortega's father, disavowed their Indian heritage and adopted the lives the Spaniards had bequeathed them.

"It wasn't until I was a young man, with time on my hands, that I started looking into my family background," said Ortega, who discovered a grandfather who was among the last of the San Fernando Mission Indians to speak the native language of his Tataviam ancestors.

Others held fast to their native roots and continued to practice what little they could recall of their ancestors' customs.

Most kept a low profile, aware of the disdain with which Indians were viewed.

"As recently as the late 1800s," said Varela, "in my great-grandfather's time, [settlers] would get off the train at San Fernando and just shoot Indians to take their property."

Beverly Salazar Folkes--a cousin of both Varela and Ortega--remembers the mild taunts of children who would clap their hands over their mouths and yell "whoo-whoo-whoo" when they passed her in the schoolyard. Her family was known as "the Indian family" in its San Fernando neighborhood, but overt prejudice was rare, she said.

Unlike many urban Indians, Folkes grew up steeped in the lore of her Native American ancestors. Today, she works with local museums and schools to share her family's history. Her maternal grandfather was raised at the mission, and her mother passed down to Folkes and her five siblings not just valuable mission records, but also an oral history and the traditions of her Chumash ancestors.

With her smooth brown skin, high cheekbones and thick black hair, Folkes looks the part of an Indian in the fringed leather dresses and abalone shells she dons for museum tours or school visits.

Her Thousand Oaks home is decorated with Native American artifacts and the smell of burning sage often fills the air. On her couch lies a half-finished "dream-catcher," an Indian totem of feathers, wood and rope that she is making.

And her six children--all grown--have all been taught the traditional stories, dances and rituals of their Native American ancestors.

Like many who have lived quietly close to their native roots, Folkes has been surprised by the growing mainstream popularity of Indian culture.

"I remember thinking it's finally good that Native Americans are getting some recognition," she said. "But I never thought there would be a day when it would be the thing to be. . . . It was just a way of life for us, but now it seems there are a lot of wannabes out there."

Because the missions kept detailed records on births, deaths and baptisms inside their walls, many Indian descendants have been able to trace their lineage to specific families and tribes.

But others, whose ancestors do not appear in mission ledgers, have rebelled against the process of proving their ancestry, dismissing reliance on mission records as just another way to subject Native Americans to the white man's control.

That has led to open sniping in the Native American community over the credentials and motives of some who have positioned themselves as leaders.

"It seems like everybody you meet these days is a 'chief' of something or a 'medicine man," Folkes said.

Folkes' and Varela's Oakbrook Chumash clan has been embroiled for years in a feud with another Ventura County Chumash group, the coastal band of the Chumash Nation.

Though the Oakbrook members are tied by genealogical records to the original Chumash tribes, the coastal band says its members--many of whom have adopted traditional Indian names--are more in touch with their native culture.

Both groups have filed for federal tribal recognition and are vying for control of the lucrative business of providing tribal monitors to safeguard Indian artifacts uncovered during construction on former Indian land--jobs that pay up to $200 a day.

Some worry that these kinds of financial and political feuds may mushroom into a more complicated and emotionally charged dispute over the essential question: What makes an Indian in modern times, and who can and should lay claim to a tribe?

California census figures show a jump in the number of people claiming Indian ancestry, which may reflect both a burgeoning interest in genealogical research and a growing "New Age" attraction to Indian culture.

Among the Chumash alone, census figures show a 120% increase in population from 1980 to 1990.

Because census figures rely on self-identification, the 10-year jump from 1,458 to 3,208 in Los Angeles and Ventura counties may result from people claiming Chumash ancestry in the absence of any proof. Others may have just discovered their Chumash heritage. Johnson, of the Santa Barbara museum, said he gets several requests each week from people interested in tracing their Indian roots.

Virtually all the area's native descendants have mixed ancestry because of tribal mixing at the mission, Johnson said.

And as more Indians marry outside their ethnic group, the lines separating Indians from others are becoming more blurred.

Varela's wife is Irish-American; their son Paul has red hair and freckles. Folkes' husband is of Irish heritage as well, and none of her six children has married a Native American.

The grandchildren's pictures that line her shelves reflect the new Native American identity--one defined not by high cheekbones and long braids, but by kinship and shared culture.

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