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Stough Canyon event celebrates Native American heritage

Women from the Gabrielino Tongva tribe perform “circle of life” a traditional dance honoring women d
Women from the Gabrielino Tongva tribe perform “Circle of Life” a traditional dance honoring women, during the Native American Day celebration at Stough Canyon Park in Burbank this past Sunday.
(James Carbone / Burbank Leader)

“Ka’heeya!”

This phrase, meaning celebration and gathering in the native language of the Gabrielino Tongva people, served as the opening of dances performed at the Burbank Parks and Recreation’s Native American Day celebration.

In an annual tradition dating back to 2001, members of the community gathered on Sunday at Stough Canyon Park in Burbank to celebrate, remember and honor the tribe’s ancestors and legacy.

“People think we’re extinct, but we’re not,” Anthony Morales, the tribal chairman who is known as Chief Red Blood, said to an audience of around 80. “We’re very much alive.”

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The Gabrieleno Tongva San Gabriel Band of Mission Indians’ history goes back several thousand years. The tribe is known for its skills at sea and basket weaving.

Today, roughly 400 people are tied to or have roots with the tribe, and many live on traditional tribal land in the city of San Gabriel.

On Sunday, tribe members wore traditional clothing throughout the ceremony, made up of rabbit skins, necklaces adorned with beads and shells, charcoal-black feathers and yellow garments covered by grass skirting.

Members performed 10 dances, including one called “Circle of Life,” as well as a deer dance, traditionally performed before hunts, as well as dances to honor animals, including birds and dolphins. They participated not just to remember the past but to discover more about themselves, according to participants.

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After dancer Josh Andujo heard about the controversy surrounding the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and the Dakota Access Pipeline, which critics said would pollute the Midwestern tribe’s water, his interest in his heritage was piqued. He began to research his roots and educate his family about what he’d learned.

“Growing up in California, we weren’t really taught anything about the Tongva people,” Andujo said. “The only thing we were taught about were the missions. Supposedly, from the missions’ point of view, we volunteered to build those [missions], but in reality, we were enslaved.”

Andujo said he believes his people suffered under Spanish, Mexican and American rule, as the tribe’s village sites and culture were destroyed. Today, much of the tribe’s sacred land has been built up with “concrete” and “skyscrapers,” and much of the untouched land is private property that can’t be accessed, meaning the people have difficulty using traditional medicines and visiting burial grounds and ceremonial sites.

The Tongva are still in the process of fighting for recognition from the federal government.

Anthony Noriega, who is part Native American, came to the celebration for the first time, along with his wife and two daughters. His grandfather was a member of the Papago tribe in Yuma, Ariz., which is in the southeastern part of the state about 17 miles north of Mexico.

“We don’t really get to go up to Yuma, where the missions are,” Noriega said. “Anything like this is fun to connect [with], you know, your heritage.”

Toward the end of the ceremony, children from the audience, along with their parents, were invited to join in an honor dance. About 50 people of all ages, races and nationalities celebrated as one, hand in hand, smiling as they formed a circle while an audience of 30 people watched and clapped from seats in the shade.

Andujo said members “don’t really practice” or rehearse, but instead follow steps and motions given by leaders and go along with them. He’s been dancing with the tribe for about a month and performed the “bird dance” for the first time on Sunday.

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In this way, Andujo isn’t much different from many attendees at the event, who watched, learned and jumped right into the ceremony at the end. To him, it comes naturally. After all, he says it runs in his blood.

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