LOS ANGELES - The Los Angeles basin is home to more than 10 million people who have origins in every corner of the earth. In one corner of Los Angeles a group of 250 individuals, microscopic by Los Angeles ethnic enclave standards, is fighting for recognition in this sea of ethnicities.
This isn't just any group though. The Gabrieleno tribe, or Tongva as they call themselves are the native people of the Los Angeles basin.
About 15 miles east of Los Angeles, in the town of San Gabriel, sits a mission that is the namesake of the community, containing the graves of about 6,000 Gabrieleno Indians. Present-day Gabrieleno Chairman Anthony Morales, who lives about a mile from the mission, feels it takes tenacity to survive as a distinct culture in one of the most diverse areas of the American melting pot.
"We just had to keep it going over the last 200 plus years. We did it by a few strong people who kept the culture alive and they just kept passing it down. My ancestors are buried at the mission and this is our home. We never had any reason to leave," Morales said.
In their protracted effort to become federally recognized, the Gabrieleno have finally found an ally. Congresswoman Hilda Solis, D-Calif., introduced legislation on July 24, to federally recognize the Gabrieleno/ Tongva Nation of California. The proposed bill was introduced to circumvent the lengthy BIA recognition process.
The Gabrielenos say that the slow-moving BIA Branch of Acknowledgement and Research (BAR) has frustrated the recognition process. They had unsuccessfully tried to get Congresswoman Solis' predecessor to introduce similar legislation.
"It's long overdue. These people have been trying to get recognition for over two centuries," Solis said, adding she feels the Gabrielenos have one of the strongest cases for recognition she has yet seen. She pointed out that the tribe has been recognized by the state of California since1994.
The tribe has an increased sense of urgency for federal recognition because some key elders may not have long to live, she said.
The BAR recognition process is notoriously slow-going with some tribes waiting 20 years or more for federal recognition. BAR lists seven criteria that applicant tribes must meet in order to gain recognition. The question is, would congressional legislation then circumnavigate the standards of these criteria?
Heather Singleton, the research director of the American Indian Studies Center at the University of California, Los Angeles, has been working with the tribe on the recognition process. She said tribes seeking recognition through congressional means must meet BAR criteria.
However, Singleton also said while the basic points of the criteria still have to be met, the difference is in the volume of evidence that would be required.
"Basically we're meeting the same criteria as the BAR standard, though it is definitely less strict," Singleton said.
Solis, however, indicates that in some ways the rules could be more stringent since Congress can request information on not just these criteria, but could potentially also ask for additional information as well.
All sources say the Gabrieleno have met the standards for the all seven criteria. Tribal sources say it is easy to prove since the group has never left the area of the San Gabriel mission. One of the BAR standards states that the group must have been living in a continuous community, and since the tribe has remained, tribal sources say it is easy to document their historical presence.
Ironically, the federal government may have actually helped their case. In 1949, 46 bands of Mission Indians, including the Gabrielenos, sued the government in a claims case. Treaties and prior recognition are taken into account. Many California tribes, including the Gabrielenos did not enter into treaties with the U.S. government and this has complicated many recognition efforts in the Golden State.
However, under United States law in order for the tribes to sue they must enter into an attorney contract approved by the federal government, which the Gabrielenos did and are using as a basis for proof that they have been recognized by the federal government.
On the potentially thorny issue of gaming, especially for a tribe in a major metropolitan area, both Solis and the tribe say that this is not a priority, though they do not implicitly rule this out as an option. Instead Solis said the tribe does want to acquire land but said this is for open space in a larger project to protect the San Gabriel River.
In the 18th century, the Gabrielenos were rounded up from several smaller villages in the Los Angeles basin and forced by the Spanish to labor at Mission San Gabriel. Even after the Mexican revolution, where many California missions were secularized, San Gabriel remained under ecclesiastical control and the Gabrielenos appealed to the Mexican governor to secularize the mission.
Many tribal members received land grants though they were forbidden to enter the nearby city of Los Angeles without employment there.
After California passed to the Americans, the new government at first attempted to make treaties with the Gabrielenos, though for various reasons they were never signed or ratified. The Gabrielenos had to take their culture underground and most neighbors assumed they were Mexican, which was fortunate for them since so many California Indians were killed on sight in the middle of the 19th century.
For now the Gabrielenos will have to wait a few weeks to see if the bill makes it from committee to the house floor. Morales said that this is all right with him since he said his tribe has already waited for a century and a half.
"What this means to me is that future generations will be able to be proud that we are finally recognized as a sovereign nation."