Saturday, October 12, 2013
For a couple years now, I’ve been researching local history for a couple writing projects I’m
working on, most recently a historical novel set in Orange County. I want to understand the
history of the area where I live, the real unvarnished history, which is so full of struggle and
suffering, especially for minority groups. No group of people understand this struggle and
suffering better than the local Native American tribes, one of which is the Gabrieleno Band of
Mission Indians, Kizh Nation. I’ve read various accounts written about this tribe, but most of these
are written by non-natives and reflect a strong ethnocentric, and sometimes outright racist, bias.
To find the real truth about this tribe’s history, I have really been wanting to meet and talk with
actual living tribe members. Today, I got that chance.
The Cooper Center in Ralph Clark Park (in Fullerton) hosted an event about Orange County’s
“prehistory,” and the Gabrielenos were there, including their chief, Ernie Salas, and tribal
historian, Timothy Poyrena-Miguel. I thought it was strange that these living tribe members were
presented alongside dinosaur and mastodon fossils, as if to suggest that they are extinct. Indeed,
some historians have regarded them as extinct, but they are not. They exist, and continue to fight
for recognition and understanding. They are still not federally recognized, but are in the process
of trying to gain this recognition.
I sat down with the tribal historian, Timothy. I didn’t have any agenda or prepared questions.
“Tell me about your people,” I said and, man, did he have a story to tell.
The history of the Kizh people goes back thousands of years. For millennia, they had developed
a complex and beautiful culture, which included religion, astronomy, rich and varied cuisine,
economy, and social structure. They developed ingenious ways to live sustainably off the land
and its natural resources. The name of the tribe, Kizh, comes from the dome-like dwellings they
lived in. They had tools, technology, clothing, handicrafts, dances. They were one of two
California tribes who mastered boat-building, and traveled along the coast of Southern California.
In the 1700s, Spain began to colonize California, and thus began the long journey of suffering for
the Kizh people. Contrary to what we learn in school and on field trips to California Missions, the
Spanish were not a benevolent presence in California. The missions they established were like
concentration camps, where Indians were forced to live as slaves, and abandon their three
thousand-year tradition of sustainable living. Violence and disease decimated the local native
populations. Many Kizh women were raped by Spanish soldiers and died of syphilis. Timothy
compared Spanish figures like Father Junipero Serra to Nazis, in the way they systematically
destroyed native cultures and lives.
Both Timothy and I expressed our frustration that the California Missions are taught to children in
public schools as benevolent, even quaint examples of California history. The California Missions
were west coast slavery for Native Americans. Why don’t we tell our children the truth?
Things did not improve for Native Americans when Mexico won its independence, nor when the
United States conquered California. Under American rule in the 1800s, Indian scalps would fetch
a nice reward. Timothy told me the story of a whole Kizh village rounded up into a valley near
where the Rose Bowl is today, and blasted with guns and cannons. Some children managed to
escape, and found shelter among Mexican-American families in the San Gabriel area. Children of
slain parents were adopted by Mexican-American families, and this is why Many Kizh people
today have Spanish/Mexican surnames.
Due to widespread racism, these children feared to identify themselves as Indian, stopped
speaking their native language, and learned Spanish or English.
One result of all this suffering and bloodshed was the eradication of the Kizh language. Timothy
told me they have some words and songs that were passed down orally, but no one alive today
speaks their native language.
As I listened to Timothy tell the story of his people, I felt a heaviness in my chest, a complex
mixture of sadness, outrage, and compassion. It is this last bit, compassion, that I hope to evoke
with my writings. If we don’t know their history (and most people don’t know Kizh history), we do
not feel compassion. But, in listening to their stories, harrowing and horrific as they are, we
develop a strong sense of compassion. We pay for the crimes of our ancestors, but we do not
have to repeat those crimes. The act of storytelling can be a powerful, healing force. It is my
hope that, in listening and sharing stories like this, a new chapter in the Kizh story may open, one
of understanding, healing, and reconciliation.