Victoria Duarte pores over old Spanish records in the San Gabriel Mission rectory, tracking bloodlines into prehistory.
Hidden in the padres' scrawl are the names of some of the last full-blooded Gabrielino Indians, who lived in Southern California long before Spain subjugated them, took their land and shattered their culture. One is Duarte's ancestor, Prospero, who came to the mission as a child in 1804.
He was one of about 5,000 indigenous Californians living in villages reaching from wind-swept San Nicolas Island to the San Gabriel foothills, and from Topanga Canyon to Laguna Beach.
Unlike the Navajo and Apache, theirs was a loose-knit culture with many clans, each having its own chief. But they shared religious practices, language and legends, wove intricate baskets and plied the ocean in swift canoes.
Anthropologists have grouped them under the labels Gabrielino and Fernandeno, derived from the Spanish missions that lent their names to the Indians' homelands some 230 years ago.
In the mission courtyard at San Gabriel, more than 6,000 Gabrielino skeletons are buried beneath grapevines frayed and thick with age.
Inside, Duarte grumbles at the padres' poor penmanship. But the 87-year-old widow knows it is here, in this cramped office, where she can help unearth the story of a people who were once thought extinct. With records of births, baptisms, marriages and deaths, she connects modern Californians to their Native American ancestors.
Now, due in part to Duarte's work, the Gabrielinos are slowly staging a comeback. The tribal council in San Gabriel is pushing for federal recognition, and some members are busy trying to reconstruct a culture that vanished with the vaqueros and ranchlands of last century.
"What depresses me is not so much what was lost," said Mark Acuna, who is reviving the tribe's dances, language and folklore. "What bothers me is the failure of people to recognize that we were, and now are, here."
In an era when more people are embracing their American Indian heritage, the Gabrielinos are fighting to assert pride for an ethnicity many thought was gone or never existed.
At stake is also something more tangible: federal recognition, bringing eligibility for housing and education benefits, small business loans, health care and gaming rights.
Complicating the effort are divisions among Gabrielino descendants, and lack of documentation on a culture destroyed by successive waves of conquerors. By the end of the 19th century, the Gabrielinos melded into the local Mexican barrios, leaving their last customs to crumble with the adobe ruins in the mustard weeds.
"When you get down to it, we have a very small amount of information that is really rock solid about the Gabrielino," said Mark Raab, a Cal State Northridge archeologist who studies the tribe.
The Fernandenos are facing much the same obstacles in the San Fernando Valley. They had shared the Gabrielino culture until the two missions--in San Gabriel and in Mission Hills, near San Fernando--divided the groups into separate communities, as they largely remain today.
In recent years, the Fernandenos have pursued their history and genealogy, as Acuna and Duarte are doing, and lately began working with an anthropologist.
Duarte has been researching for almost two decades. Spry and quick-witted, the former hairdresser with bouffant black hair drives her scraped white Chevy Cavalier around the area, looking for scraps of history. She's fascinated with events that brought together far-flung families from Europe, Mexico and Southern California so long ago.
Sometimes, she lies awake until 3 a.m. at her condo in Duarte--her family's namesake city--going over lineages in her head.
"I didn't even know I was Indian until the government started offering us money," she said with a raspy laugh. "When they started talking about money, of course we got interested."
That was the 1930s, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs was offering small payments to American Indian descendants for the land that was taken from them. Money went to those who could show they were descended from Indian ancestors. A friend and mission historian learned that Duarte's grandmother's grandfather was Native American, given the name Prospero by the Franciscans.
No one knows why Prospero came to the mission. He was 7 years old, and his parents, Menanqunar and Cuclir, had not been baptized. They were listed on the registry as gentiles and lived in a village called Comicrabit, reportedly near the pueblo of Los Angeles.
Nearby, the Los Angeles River ran free. Willows, cottonwoods and tule reeds lined the braided banks, giving Prospero's people ample materials for shelters, sweat-huts and baskets. The tribe hunted small game with bows and arrows and ate almost anything that gave fuel--grasshoppers, shellfish, snails and snakes. In fall, many harvested acorns in the mountains.
Perhaps Prospero was lured by the clothes, food and blankets the padres used to gain converts, called neofitos. Maybe nature wasn't yielding enough food; the herds of cattle and the grass brought by the Spanish were vastly changing the native landscape.
"Not one word of Spanish did they understand," wrote rancher Hugo Reid in 1852, whose wife, Victoria, came from Prospero's village. "Not one word of the Indian tongue did the priest know. They had no more idea they were worshiping God than an unborn child has of astronomy."
No one knows if the Indians, as a whole, had a name for their own culture, but a few who came to the San Gabriel Mission seemed to call themselves Tongva.
The converts were confined to the mission and forced into the daily grind of farm work.
Syphilis and other diseases ravaged the population, and the death rate far outpaced the birth rate. Thousands were buried in mass graves at the mission.
Prospero survived and somewhere took the last name Dominguez. He married a Spanish soldier's daughter, Maria Rafaela Alvarez, from Santa Barbara. They had many children, including Maria Ignacia Dominguez, Duarte's great-grandmother, born in 1838.
Prospero built a home by a creek and a hollow of sycamores just north of the mission near the old grist mill in present-day San Marino, according to Mexican land grant records. He raised livestock, tilled the land and planted a garden, some fruit trees and a vineyard on 23 acres that would later be deeded to him by the Mexican government--one of eight small grants given to the Indians of San Gabriel in the 1840s.
But as the government dismantled the mission system, most of the Gabrielinos were set adrift. Wealthy Spanish landowners got the bulk of the land, and many Native Americans became laborers or domestics or moved north. Of those neofitos who did get land, most were swindled out of it soon after.
The arrival of the Americans in the late 1840s sped up the downward spiral. Many Gabrielino women became prostitutes or concubines for white settlers. The men were sometimes paid in alcohol, then arrested for public drunkenness and auctioned off as indentured servants at a corral in the pueblo of Los Angeles. With increasing urbanization, the villages and language gradually disappeared.
Prospero's family managed to keep the land for more than two decades. His daughter Maria married a Spaniard and, in 1860, bore a baby named Felipa Bermudez--Duarte's grandmother. Five years later, the property was sold to an American.
"Each mission had a few people like Prospero, that were survivors," said John Johnson, curator of anthropology at the Santa Barbara Natural History Museum. "They seemed to make it through everything."
Duarte grew up around World War I on a small ranch in a clapboard house surrounded by a fence of nopal cactus and fragrant orange groves. It was a short carriage ride to the store in Monrovia and a quick hike up the hill to a spring, tangled in blackberries.
Like many young women who grew up there and then, her fondest memories of youth are dancing the Charleston at the old Johnson's hall in San Gabriel, or fiestas over at the Verdugo ranch.
Duarte considered herself Spanish and Portuguese. She knew of some American Indian descendants in the area. But she never thought she was one.
Her parents split up when she was young, and Duarte's mother was estranged from her own mother. Duarte knew little about her grandmother and nothing of Prospero.
Then, around 1930, her half sister Eleanor, who shared the same mother and knew she was part Indian from the other side of the family, came out to the ranch and said the Bureau of Indian Affairs was giving money to people who could prove their ancestry.
Duarte initially applied for the money, thinking that she would get it because she was related to Eleanor. She was rejected.
She visited a friend, Thomas Workman Temple II, who had a ranch near La Puente, and asked him if he could do the research. Temple--member of a famous pioneer family--was a well-regarded mission historian.
Using mission records, he traced Duarte's family back to its Gabrielino roots. She got a Bureau of Indian Affairs number, 13522, and a check she spent so quickly she can't remember what she bought.
Her new knowledge didn't really change her lifestyle. She married a Mexican man named Alfonso Cordova, who drove trucks in the orange groves. "He was a good, good man," she said. Duarte worked various jobs and lived her life with him in Arcadia. She never had children.
Meanwhile, other Gabrielino descendants were seeking their Indian roots.
Duarte's friend Fred "Sparky" Morales, whose mother was full-blooded Gabrielino, gradually emerged as an informal representative for the Indian descendants in the 1940s and '50s. The Morales roots, traced by Temple, went straight through the neighborhood to an Indian village near the mission.
There were no official tribal meetings back then, just socializing between families in San Gabriel, where the descendants had lived since the mission days, they said. They gathered for chuck-steak barbecues, fiestas, drinking and guitar playing in the backyards under the walnut trees. Most say the tribes are essentially big extended families.
In the 1970s, as Indian activism surged, the Gabrielinos began to research their culture and organize. Duarte began her genealogical work. Morales was officially elected chief and remained until he died of a stroke in 1995. His son Anthony, now 50, took the mantle after Sparky's death.
"I always knew I was Gabrielino," said Anthony Morales. "But it wasn't cool to be Indian before. You were an outcast and wanted to hide that identity."
The Fernandenos, meanwhile, some of whom lived in a community around Mission San Fernando, were going through the same struggle to define themselves.
Confusion often arises because both Indian groups were basically indistinguishable in prehistoric times. And sometimes, the mission designation did not indicate from where one's ancestors came. Tribes from all over Southern California were mixed together at the missions.
Today, the Gabrielino-Tongva Tribal Council, the biggest of several tribal splinters, meets regularly near the San Gabriel mission. They protest construction on sacred sites and some members get jobs monitoring the handling of their ancestors' remains at sensitive construction projects, and they are preparing for the 2000 census.
"We need to properly identify ourselves or we'll go unnoticed again," said Anthony Morales. "We are not extinct."
Morales is a quiet, easygoing man who often wears flannels, a baseball hat and faded high-tops. The union pipe-fitter sets up fire sprinkler systems for a living, and said his co-workers were shocked when he first told them he was an Indian chief.
Perhaps, he said, they didn't expect to find the chief of an ancient people working among them.
But the tribe remains working-class and glitz-free, with $9,900 in the bank and only a jug of plain-brand fruit punch at the meetings.
There may be more than 1,000 people who participate in the business of the Gabrielino-Tongva Tribal Council, though only about 350 have formally enrolled, said Sharon Cotrell, a Cal State Long Beach graduate student compiling research in the tribe's push for federal recognition.
Gaining federal recognition is a long, laborious affair, requiring exhaustive research. Many tribes become so discouraged by their prospects that they give up. Morales' group was the first Gabrielino group to file a petition, in 1994.
The Gabrielino effort is hindered by squabbling among different groups. Many compete to appear more legitimate while vying to get the monitoring jobs, and there are always accusations that some are faking their "Indianness."
But the biggest potential obstacle for the Gabrielino could be to prove that they have always been an intact tribe, with a distinct culture, leadership and bylaws, through modern history--a federal requirement.
"The whole idea is that we want to recognize Indian nations," said Steve Austin, a researcher for the Bureau of Indian Affairs. "It means we're recognizing a government-to-government relationship."
Morales concedes that today's Gabrielino culture--the dancing, language and religious rituals--is a re-creation, culled from mission records, anthropologists' studies and accounts from early California settlers.
"To us that's as close as it's going to get," he said. "It's just as authentic."
But some of the few modern anthropologists who have studied Southern California Indians say using such secondary accounts can be tainted by the original sources' bias: from the Franciscan padres, who saw Indian worship as the work of the devil, to 20th century anthropologists swept up in a movement to romanticize the Indians as a perfect, complex society living in harmony with the Earth.
To many members, being Indian doesn't have to do so much with the prehistoric rituals, but with living in a place where one's ancestors existed for hundreds, perhaps thousands of years, long before the incursion of millions.
"What really gets me is when I go down to the beach, and I look out to the ocean and envision my ancestors on the water," Morales said. "I see them going across to trade with the island Gabrielinos on Catalina and San Nicolas. What a vision that is."
Duarte's not as nostalgic, though she is consumed by local history.
Her biggest fear now is that she will die without finding a home for her work--"someone who doesn't bother doing the dishes or making the bed because she's always looking for Indians," she said. Below a goldfish bowl and old photos in her condo are file cabinets full of census records, marriage books, Temple's work and copied mission registries.
"I need to pass this on to someone," she said, or another chapter will be lost.