When it comes to indigenous history, Kat High has a warm greeting, a clear mission and answers for all who visit the Haramokngna American Indian Cultural Center. And sometimes her best answers can be to unasked questions.
"I come from an area in Wisconsin that's near a Native American area," says Kathy Jones, a first-time visitor to the converted fire depot 12 miles deep in the Angeles National Forest.
With a good-natured smile, High responds that historically, "it's all Native American area." The two laugh in agreement.
In a half-hour chat, Jones learns a few things, including that U.S. Chief Justice John Marshall, venerated in many history books, has a grim legacy among Native Americans. An 1831 Supreme Court decision he wrote making Indians "wards" of the federal government helped relegate tribes to reservations.
The Catholic Church's charge to convert local tribes and build missions also was a de facto justification for claiming their lands. And "squaw" is not an indigenous name for women. It's an odious term for female genitalia, coined by white settlers.
"I'm learning more about Indian culture," says a gratified Jones, a San Marino resident.
It's exactly what High was hoping for.
"I feel we offer a unique opportunity to learn about Indian culture and history from Indian people," says program coordinator High, a 56-year-old Hupa Indian from Redondo Beach. She's one of about a dozen volunteers from the group Ne'ayuh who refurbished two of the site's three buildings and in 1999 opened the center under an agreement with the U.S. Forest Service.
Located on a scenic rest stop where Angeles Crest Highway meets Mt. Wilson Road--just north of La Canada Flintridge, the Haramokngna center is open Saturdays and draws about 75 visitors weekly, volunteers say.
The name Haramokngna is a Tongva word for "the place where people gather." It's fitting, High adds, because bands of the Tongva tribe once met seasonally to trade amid this forest's sand-tinted cliffs and jade-dusted ridges.
Now hikers, cyclists and naturalists come and go from the center's main office. Some gaze at hand-woven baskets, roughhewn stone utensils and ornate rattles of gourd and bone. Others peruse purchasable Indian literature and photo displays of local flora and their Tongva names and uses.
As well as pushing conversations about Indians past what High says are often-asked questions on casinos, sports mascots and inappropriate names, volunteers sell parking passes and point out choice sites to visitors as part of their agreement with the Forest Service.
Haramokngna also offers a place for Indians to preserve and practice their cultural traditions. Workshops and performances like traditional flute playing, cultural songs and weaving baskets are hosted regularly.
For Joseph Ontirverosey, 26, and thousands of other local American Indians, Haramokngna offers a cultural key often clouded by urban confines.
"It's a place for us to come and touch the Earth, feel the dirt, smell the trees and whistle back at the birds," says center co-founder and co-director Ontirverosey.
The San Gabriel resident is of the Gabrielino-Tongva tribe, one of the county's three major indigenous groups. None has tribal lands. He says Haramokngna is a way to pass on Earth-based traditions to his two children.
"You just can't put it in a book and pass it on," Ontirverosey says of time-honored ways to understand nature and use local plants. "Our tradition is verbal. You have to see it."
The problem is particularly irksome in Los Angeles County, which has the nation's largest urban Indian population, according to Heather Singleton, a researcher for UCLA's American Indian Studies Center and the Gabrielino-Tongva tribe. Many, she adds, came as a result of federal Indian relocation policies in the 1950s.
Last year's census tallied 25,609 American Indians countywide, and 113,087 of biracial ancestry.
It's common for tribes in large urban areas to be without land. But in California none of the 18 treaties signed by tribal and U.S. officials between 1851 and 1852 (which included only about a third of the state's tribes) were ever ratified by Congress, Singleton says. "There's a lot of inconsistency in Indian policy in California," she adds.
Throughout the mid-20th century, county tribes gained some benefits through lawsuits and shifting government policies. But tribal lands and the federal recognition, which would allow them to preserve cultural resources like historic sites or nearly extinct traditional plants, were never granted.
But despite a lack of federal recognition, the Forest Service in 1997 offered the use of the then abandoned site at one of its twice yearly meetings with local Indians as part of its Tribal Government Program.
"We have a huge urban Indian community," says program manager Michael McIntyre, adding that Indians' cultural charge to care for the land is in line with Forest Service goals.
Officials of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department have recently shown interest in using this and other unused forest sites for a law enforcement and rescue outpost, causing some concern to Haramokngna volunteers.
But Forest Service officials, unable to explain the length and scope of their informal agreement with the center, are processing a permit that could spell out the terms of an official pact. The outcome is uncertain, but McIntyre says the need for Haramokngna is clear.