Despite a history in Southern California dating back more than two millennia, the descendants of the native inhabitants of Los Angeles County continue struggling to achieve federal recognition of their tribe.
Friday marks Native American Day in California, which the Tongva people have called home for over 2,500 years, according to Gabrielino-Tongva Tribal Councilwoman and Secretary Linda Candelaria.
While the state has formally recognized the ancient tribe since 1994, efforts to have the federal government do the same are ongoing, she said.
“Anytime they can give us a day, it’s great because we’ve been forgotten for so long, especially the Tongva people,” she said. “Sometimes I’ve talked to officials through Sacramento, and they didn’t even know there was a tribe down here, so anytime we can get recognized it’s great.”
The traditional homeland of the Tongva ranges from Malibu to Laguna, and inland to San Bernardino, Candelaria said.
“So indeed, Pasadena is our indigenous area,” Candelaria said.
“Gabrielino people liked to live where there was water. So the San Gabriel river is really important to us,” she said. L.A. County’s lakes and mountains also hosted many Tongva communities.
Federal recognition can come with a steep price tag, as it required help from an attorney specializing in Native American law, Candelaria said. “We’ve gotten quotes. It’s something like a million dollars-plus.”
The tribe currently has more than 900 certified members, according to Candelaria. In recent years, members split into four groups over disagreements, such as whether to pursue a tribal casino.
Meetings and activities have slowed down due to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, tribal gatherings still take place at least twice a year at Griffith Park, she said.
Prior to the pandemic, tribe members took part in many speaking engagements at local schools while students are studying Native American history, Candelaria said.
Following a proclamation by former Gov. Ronald Reagan calling for a Native American Day observance in 1968, the California Legislature formally established the state holiday in 1998 through AB 1953.
In a proclamation issued on Native American Day last year, Gov. Gavin Newsom said California’s Native American communities “exemplify the best of who we are – and who we could be – as Californians.”
“Long before colonizing forces imposed themselves on these lands, California Native Americans were thriving in sustainable communities,” Newsom said. “From the redwoods and salmon of the North Coast to the rivers and oaks of the foothills, to the springs and mesquite trees of the desert, California Native Americans stewarded this land, building flourishing communities, speaking distinct languages and fostering vibrant cultures.”
“California tribal nations have carried on these traditions, contributing to the rich fabric of California today and ensuring the success of our shared tomorrow,” he said.
Candelaria said many tribe members wish the federal government would follow suit,
“We’d like people to know we are here. We are a tribe. We are state recognized and we want people to know about us,” she said.
“We want people to know we’re out here, and we would love to get federally recognized,” she said. “We’d love to maybe eventually down the road have a casino in Los Angeles.”
More information on the Gabrielino-Tongva Tribe is available on the tribal website at gabrielinotribe.org.
California Tribal Chairpersons Association is in the midst of a three-day virtual Native American Day celebration.