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Kern Valley, Tubatulabals make strides toward recognition

Little River Band of Ottawa Indians offers financial help

KERNVILLE, Calif. - The Kern Valley Indian Community and the Tubatulabals of Kern Valley are making strides toward obtaining federal recognition.

Kern Valley has received a gift of funding from the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians in Manistee, Mich., to be used in its effort to obtain recognition. The amount of the gift was not disclosed.

The KVIC - which includes Kawaiisu, Paiute-Shoshone and Tubatulabal Indians - is represented by Joseph Kitto, Choctaw, an attorney in Washington, D.C. Mary West, of Quest Management in St. Paul, Minn., is KVIC's consultant. Ethnohistorians James McClerken and Heather Howard are documenting personal and tribal histories; some 25,000 pages of documentation have been compiled, KVIC chairman Harold Williams said.

Little River Band learned of KVIC's recognition effort through West, who is also a Little River Band consultant. ''It took 110 years for them to get recognition,'' Williams said of Little River Band. ''They sympathized with our case.''

Little River Band officials visited Kern Valley during the last weekend in February, Williams said. Little River Band officials saw KVIC's Kawaiisu language school in Tehachapi and visited the Nuui Cunni Cultural Center in Lake Isabella. (A mural in Tehachapi titled ''People of the Mountains,'' by noted artist Colleen Mitchell-Veyna, depicts early Kawaiisu village life.)

Williams didn't know when KVIC would be ready to present its case for recognition, but predicted that ''in short time, we will have our day in court.''

KVIC has 600 members, Williams said. Another 150 potential members who did not fill out all the necessary paperwork could be admitted after recognition, Williams said. ''We want to give everybody a chance.''

Williams said KVIC's priorities upon receiving recognition are the development of housing for elders; investment in education, particularly tutors and scholarships; and the protection of sacred sites.

Williams also wants to continue Little River Band's good work. ''We want to start a new trend. If we get federal recognition, we want to help another tribe do the same,'' he said.

Meanwhile, the Tubatulabals of Kern Valley have opened an office in Mountain Mesa overlooking Lake Isabella, adopted a flag, updated their constitution and are working on election and enrollment ordinances. Anthropologist Dotty Theodoratus is assisting with the Tubatulabals' genealogy study.

Tubatulabal Tribal Council members Dee Dee Scott and Samantha C. Riding-Red-Horse said they expect to turn in necessary paperwork for recognition within two years.

The Tubatulabals have also raised their political and social profile.

Chairman Donna Begay is a technology consultant who ran for state Assembly in 2004. She is a governor-appointed member of a state rehabilitation council.

In December, the 11-member Tubatulabal Tribal Council wrote a letter to President Bush, urging support for H.R. 4766 - the Esther Martinez Native American Languages Act of 2006 - which was approved by the House and Senate.

''H.R. 4766 would help to preserve Native languages by allowing for increased opportunities for students, both young and old and Native and non-Native, to learn a Native language,'' the council wrote. ''The federal government should support the preservation of Native languages. ... Native languages are one of the treasures of this country's heritage and history.''

H.R. 4766 reauthorizes the Native American Programs Act of 1974 through the year 2012 and provides grants to ensure the survival and vitality of Native languages through such programs as language immersion, language schools and language restoration.

The Tubatulabals are working to preserve their language, Pakanapul, and have a language school.

Cinematographer Chuck Barbee (''Frontline'' and ''Night Court'') is interviewing and filming tribal members for ''Wild West Country,'' a documentary about the history of California's southern Sierra Nevada. And in early March, the tribal council began working on a state grant for housing and public works improvements.

The KVIC launched its efforts to obtain recognition in 1979 by filing an Intent to Petition. In the 1990s, Kern Valley Indians testified before a state Senate Subcommittee on Indian Affairs on the condition of recognized and non-recognized tribes, and in 2004 participated in the opening ceremonies for the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.

Begay was formerly vice president of the KVIC, but she and other Tubatulabals living on land allotted to their families in the 1890s pursued their own recognition effort in hopes of expediting water quality and housing improvements on their land. Other concerns included health care and education.

The Kawaiisu, Paiute-Shoshone and Tubatulabals have family ties, but the Tubatulabals have had a unique relationship with the United States since two Tubatulabal leaders signed four of 18 treaties that were made with California Indians in 1852. The treaties were never ratified, but land allotments were set aside for Tubatulabal families in 1893. Those allotments are known as Miranda, Nieto, Weldon and White Blanket.

The Tubatulabals have registered about 200 members, but believe up to 200 more are living elsewhere.

Each side understands the other's effort to obtain federal recognition.

''This funding will assist the KVIC with their federal recognition efforts. I think this is great,'' Begay said. ''I hope that KVIC can continue to exercise their sovereignty and lead the decision-making process.''

The Tubatulabals benefit if KVIC is recognized, Williams said, because they would be welcomed back and recognition would yield improvements to the allotted lands.

''Our relationship is above-board and we respect each other,'' Williams said of Begay. ''There are no hard feelings.''

Richard Walker is a correspondent reporting from San Juan Island, Wash. Contact him at