Saturday, October 12, 2013

Meeting the Kizh

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.

Ernie Salas, Chief of the Kizh

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.

Ernie blows the concha, to gather the tribe together.

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.


1 comment:

  1. This Is Beautiful....Thank You Brother Jesse For Spreading The Truth,We Are Honored...Im A Member Of The Kizh ( For Many Years ) AHO.....Keep On Spreading The Truth My Friend....

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