Sunday, February 9, 2014

The Kizh Re-bury Their Ancestral Bones

For the past few years, I have been researching local history, both to improve my own understanding of the region where I live, and for a couple writing projects I'm working on.  I have a special interest in suppressed or "forgotten" histories, and the most profound example of this is the story of the local tribe--the Kizh (or, the Gabrieleno Band of Mission Indians, Kizh Nation).  When I tell people about the local tribe, the most common reaction is, "There's a local tribe?"  

So thoroughly has their story been suppressed that even among those interested in local history, there are many myths and lies surrounding the first peoples of the L.A. basin and north Orange County.  The most blatant of these lies are the false names the Kizh are often called--Tongva or Gabrielino.  Sadly, many local historians have relied upon ethnocentric/lazy/false research and the internet.  Few have taken the time to actually meet the Kizh and hear their story from their perspective.

A few months ago, I had the privilege of meeting actual members of the Kizh tribe at a special event at Ralph Clark Park in Fullerton.  I met the chief, Ernie Salas, his son Andy and daughter Nadine, Matthew Teutimez (the tribal biologist), Timothy Poyorena-Miguel (the tribal historian), and others.  Since that first meeting, I have been in contact with Tim.  Today, I was invited to a special ceremony in Hawaiian Gardens, in which the tribe re-buried some of their ancestral bones, which had been unearthed during the building of the Fedde Sports Complex in 2011.  

Aside from tribe members, only a few people were invited to this event: archeologist Gary Stickel (who has been working with the tribe), artist Rick Hill (who designed the bronze bust of Kizh heroine Toypurina which will commemorate the site), local superintendent Gary Smuts, a few others, and me.  Tim liked a few things I'd written about the tribe, and asked me to come, witness this event, and write about it.  Because of the sacredness of the ceremony, I was not allowed to take pictures, so I observed and took notes.  Here's what I experienced today…

The ceremony began with Ernie, Andy, and some children lighting sage, to purify the site where the remains would be re-buried.  The children carefully placed abalone shells filled with bits of burning sage around the burial place.  Ceremonial tribal items like flint knives, an animal pelt, seed pods, and rattles were also placed beside the grave.  Ernie held a beautiful item--an abalone shell filled with sage, cradled in a deer antler.  The smoke rose from the this, and the smell of sage filled the air with the rich, earthy aroma, an ancient scent of purity used to expel evil spirits.

After the site was purified, Andy carefully placed the bones in the burial site, and Nadine (dressed in tribal clothing and jewelry) began playing a reed clapper (a traditional Kizh rhythmic instrument) and welcomed everyone.  She called on us to meditate for a while on what was happening here, and what is happening around California, as new developments unearth more ancestral remains.  Just recently, construction crews building the new San Gabriel line of the metro unearthed more remains.  I reflected upon the rapid development of Southern California over the past 50-100 years--thousands of acres of tribal lands had been taken, paved, and developed.  I wondered how many ancestral remains had been simply discarded over the years.  It is only quite recently that this tribe has gained the ability to re-bury their ancestors.  Before the ceremony, I'd spoken with Gary Stickel, the archeologist who has been working with the tribe, and he explained how sites like this are precious because it is so rare that this tribe has been granted this small measure of justice--the right to pay their ancestors proper respect and lay their bones to rest.

"We were here, and we are still here," Nadine said, with passion in her voice.

Standing within the open grave, Ernie (the chief) introduced himself.  "I am an elder, a spiritual leader," he said, with genuine humility.  Based on the few interactions I've had with Ernie, I like him very much.  He seems, to me, to be the best kind of leader--wise, humble, and yet firm in his commitment to his people and their traditions.

Ernie began the ceremony with a prayer, calling on the Creator to bless these ancestors, to grant them rest and forgiveness.  I wanted to write down all of Ernie's prayer, but instead I found myself bowing my head and closing my eyes, as I had done in church every Sunday for most of my life.  I don't attend church anymore.  I grew up going to a large evangelical church in Fullerton, but after college and graduate school and a full-blown crisis of faith in my 20s, I became something of an agnostic.  And yet, in my heart, I still treasure the teaching of Jesus and I try, in my own fumbling way, to follow them--especially the part about doing unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Beginning with Spanish colonization and the California missions, the Kizh people have suffered horribly at the hands of self-professed Christians.  As Ernie prayed, I remembered a conversation I had with Matthew Teutimez, the tribal biologist, about Kizh spirituality, which involves a belief in God.  According to Matt, the problem with the Spanish who sought to "convert" his ancestors was that they brought all their cultural and social baggage to a message that was meant to be good.  I suppose that's exactly why I'd left the evangelical church.  I loved the teachings of Jesus, but I rejected all the cultural baggage that came with an Orange County mega-church.  Amidst all the affluence and intolerance I witnessed in church, the pure message of humble love and forgiveness got squashed.

Ernie's prayer made me emotional in a way I hadn't felt in a long time.  It was an honest prayer, stripped of pretense--a prayer of humility and forgiveness, which was all the more astonishing coming from a man whose people have suffered so terribly for so long.  In the sincerity of Ernie's prayer, I felt hope.

After the prayer, Nadine invited the children to lead the "Welcome Song," a beautiful melody, punctuated by seed pod shakers, reed clappers, and rattles.  The Welcome Song was in their native language and it is one of the few bits of that language that survives.  One of the greatest tragedies the Kizh have faced is the eradication of their language--through the Missions, through American "Indian Schools," and years of violence, oppression, and racism.  Only a few scattered fragments survive, and the Welcome Song is one of them.

Next, Ernie explained some of the history of the area where we were standing.  Though you wouldn't realize it today (the area is totally developed), the place where we stood was once a Kizh hunting ground.  Ernie mentioned a few nearby village sites.  Many of the Kizh lived near the San Gabriel river, and were sustained by its life-giving waters.  They lived in relatively small settlements, and their village sites (though mostly paved over now) dot the landscape of Southern California.  This is an area of research that I intend to pursue further.  I feel that, wherever a village site existed, there ought to be permanent public recognition and some attempt at reconciliation.

Ernie told the story of Toypurina, a Kizh woman who led a revolt against the Spanish oppressors in the 1700s.  Ernie's direct ancestor, Nicholas Jose, helped Toypurina in her effort.  Recently, the Kizh have published a book, in collaboration with Gary Stickel, about Toypurina, which is totally worth reading.

During the ceremony, a tribe member walked around with burning sage, gently blowing it on each person there.  It felt like a kind of communion.  All of us, each with our problems and illnesses and baggage--seeking a kind of purification as we watched the ancestral bones being laid to rest.  Ernie prayed for the bones: "We don't know how long these remains have been here, but we will all be joined together one day."

The theme of reconciliation with the past ran through my mind and heart during this beautiful ceremony.  In a sense, it was like a funeral, but it was unlike any funeral I'd ever been to.  it was about more than one individual who had died.  It was about a whole community, and there were equal parts joy and sadness--sadness at the injustices of the past, but joy in the moment of being together, to meditate, to pray, and to perhaps begin a new journey forward…one based not on conflict and death, but rather on healing and memory and reconciliation.

As the ceremony came to a close, another thought entered my mind…America has a lot of serious reckoning to do with its past.  The genocide of Native Americans like the Kizh remains an unhealed wound.  The United States, in its unbridled lust for economic growth and "progress," ended up doing horrific things to the native peoples who were seen as "in the way," whose ways were seen as "primitive."  Now, as we enter the 21st century and are faced with the consequences of Manifest Destiny--pollution, overdevelopment, global warming, loss of cultures--what if, after everything that has happened, it is native Americans who save us from ourselves?  What if it is tribes like the Kizh who teach us the ancient art of sustainable living, who show us what it means to be not just an individual, but a part of a community, who teach us another path?  What if, after everything, we admit that we were wrong?

It's a grand and lofty dream, but my dream is also local.  I will continue to learn from and build relationships with the Kizh tribe.  In my experience, any change, whether social or political or even spiritual, always begins in local communities.

Here I am with Chief Ernie Salas and his daughter Nadine


  1. I also had the privilege of attending the Kizh Nation ancestral re-burial event yesterday and found your commentary to be very accurate and educational. The white sage smudging ritual performed Chief Ernie Teutimez Salas was indeed very purifying and healing to ones soul. Please continue sharing with us your journeys with the Kizh Nation.

    1. wonderful article Jesse ...yes you are the man and understand everything "WE" are so happy you were able to take the time to join us .... I am so happy to have met you .....what you say in the write up could not have been said better ...your commentary "right on" ......please know we respect people like you who give us the opportunity to educate all about the truth ...about how we lived and how we currently expose the facts ...what you wrote explains our plight and what we "fight" for .....the proud people we are ..the GABRIELENO BAND OF MISSION INDIANS band of mission Indians /KIZH NATION ....AHO!