Decolonize the Holidays: Indigenous Whittier

Los Angeles County sits on the traditional land of the Ventureño, Gabrieleño, and Fernandeño. Whittier’s Gabrieleño (aka Tongva or Kizh Nation) called the local village Ajaarvongna

Whittier promotes its Quaker roots. The first people to inhabit this land, who are still here, go largely unacknowledged. This erasure salts an open wound. Thanksgiving and Christmas serve as reminders of this, and offer opportunities to acknowledge that we live on stolen land.

This may seem difficult, but according to tribal chairman of the Kizh NationAndrew Salas, it’s not impossible. “All we ask is that they recognize the true Indigenous people of this land and give us an apology for what they did to us and for taking so long to recognize us.”

Indigenous Canadian leader George Erasmus has said, “Where common memory is lacking, where people do not share in the same past, there can be no real community. Where community is to be formed, common memory must be created.” 

Until common memory is created, Kizh Nation historians steward Whittier’s memories. Through place names, history lies in plain sight. Salas described how the San Gabriel Mission was originally built (and destroyed) in Whittier:

“Whittier Narrows was the area where the Spanish decided they were going to build the San Gabriel Mission. They found in that location a high population of native construction workers, so they decided that this was the location to build on because they had their labor already there.

“This location was called Sheevaanga. They call the area now Savannah, California. The Spanish called it La Mission Vieja. The first mission was made of willow and tuley–our resources, river resources–there at Whittier Narrows. They wanted to establish it between where two rivers met- what they call today the Rio Hondo and the Alhambra rivers.

“When there’s a mass rain non-stop, it would flood tremendously in that area, which happened in 1771-72. When [the original mission building] was washed away, they moved higher to where the San Gabriel Mission is today and the Spanish changed our name from Kichireño to Gabrieleño.

“The Spanish soldiers who came during that expedition were the Perez Nietos family. They were prominent soldiers and royalty under King Carlos who sent them here during the expedition.

“Those men turned out to be my great-great grandfathers. We are mestizos. They received ranchos and land grants here in California–the largest land grant of 360,000 acres. They owned Huntington Beach, Bolsa Chica, Sunset, Seal Beach, Long Beach, Los Alamitos, Los Coyotes, Fullerton, Santa Fe Springs, Whittier.”

This land was not acquired through fair or just means. Tribe archaeologist for the Kizh Dr. Gary Stickel says,”The Kizh had a succession of devastating attacks. The first was by the Spanish empire. When they invaded here, they set out for their first conquest in Whittier Narrows in 1771.

“All these places with -nga like Topanga, Cahuenga, Tujunga, Cucamonga, those are all ancient Kizh village names and the names of these places and streets honor them. The village of Sheeva or Sheevanga just north of the 60 freeway and near San Gabriel Boulevard is where Andrew Salas and his family and Chief Ernie can trace his lineage.

“The first San Gabriel Mission church wasn’t anything near the size of what it looks like today. It was a rectangular building about 30 feet long by 10 feet wide and it wasn’t even made of mud bricks, it was made of wattle and daub, where you interweave branches between posts and slap on mud to create a plastered wall.

“The Spanish onslaught killed lots of Kizh. The women were raped, the men were whipped every day. This is all documented.

“When the Mexican government took over in 1820, they weren’t any better. There’s evidence that the Mexican government rounded up about 2,000 Kizh and herded them over to what is now the Rose Bowl and massacred them all. History books don’t have that.

“When the Americans took over in 1850, they conquered California from the Mexican government and they weren’t any better. This was disclosed by Governor Brown before he left office.

“The first California governor, Governor Burnett, issued a proclamation in writing calling for the extermination of all California Indians. He got federal money to hire death squads to murder men, women and children of Indians all across California. This is the legacy of Euro-American invasion of Indian land. It’s a tragic story.”

In addition to the names and sites that still bear recognizable impacts from the conquest of these lands, the cultural genocide of the Kizh people is also well-documented.

Salas said, “We were thrown in missions. We were forced to be Catholics. When your ancestors had to go into prayer on a language they only knew and then forced to speak in Latin and pray a Catholic prayer was tough. If you didn’t learn it within a certain amount of time, you were bayoneted and they’d kill you and throw you in a pit. I have found those graves.

“We don’t pray on saints. We don’t believe any of that; we were forced to believe. If it meant survival, we would pray. That’s what our ancestors did. They said, ‘if this is going to save my child from being killed, or me being killed, I’m going to roll with the punches.’ But your heart is not there; your heart is with the divine Creator.”

Even though the Kizh people had their own traditional religion prior to colonization, Christianity has now become a part of their history.

A younger member of the Gabrieleño tribe, high school student Anathea Woirhaye, said, “Christianity and Catholicism in California is definitely part of cultural erasure, but it’s also something that was inherited by those people who survived by conversion. Some parts of this syncretic culture live on because there was this concentrated effort to eradicate indigenous culture during the colonization of California.

“The only way it’s really survived is through participation in the Catholic church. The artifacts that we have remaining are the missions that were built and some historical sites that are now part of university campuses. It’s interesting because there are aspects of it that represent that destruction of your culture, but also those are significant areas and there’s a lot tied into it.”

Esai Cervantes, a Whittier College student with Indigenous lineage but no tribal affiliation, sees cultural blending in local religious practices. He said, “I know people who pray to their own deities and offer corn blessings, but they also practice Christianity by going to church and believing in Christ. It’s a really complicated relationship among natives.”

The imprints of these historical erasures and cultural, religious, and literal genocides become particularly apparent around this time of year. Holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas are steeped in historical myths and beliefs that prevent the emergence of a common memory.

For Salas, “Thanksgiving is a day of mourning. We give thanks every day, but on Thanksgiving, our thanks pertains to our fight for living. We give thanks to our ancestors for what they had to go through to have us here as we our today. We thank the Creator for being with us and providing for us.”

Woirhaye comes from a multicultural family that celebrates Thanksgiving. “It’s an opportunity for us to be together because we don’t often have the time. It’s about resilience and being together despite the fact that there is so much pressure on being an Indigenous person in America today. My family celebrates by meeting to eat and be together and we often discuss the political implications of being an Indigenous person.

“It’s difficult because some parts of my family are less aware of it than others, because my mom’s Indigenous and my dad’s white. It’s interesting celebrating it because we’re aware of it so it feels uncomfortable to celebrate, but at the same time it’s a good opportunity to be with your family and be together and celebrate resilience and existing as an Indigenous person despite it.

“We’re aware of how American society tries to shape perception of Indigenous people and we try to not let it infringe upon the opportunity too much. I have the competing interpretations of culture within my family, so we still have celebrations and try to work as a family within that.”

Christmas time presents its own implications for the Kizh and other Indigenous people.

Salas said, “On Christmas, we celebrate traditionally with Santa Claus and Christmas lights and everything, but we celebrate the day after–Winter Solstice–with a Sunrise Ceremony. It’s the beginning of winter.”

For some, it’s a less joyous time. Cervantes said, “Religion is a really complicated subject, especially Christianity with its dark history that brought its religion upon us, but at the same time the lasting impact is so strong that you can’t really take it back.

“I know people who are starting to reclaim their Indigenous side start to feel uncomfortable practicing Christianity. It’s still sort of difficult when you have family who are celebrating Christmas and believe in Christianity. In some way or form, Christianity has impacted our way of life.”

Cervantes recommends that non-Indigenous folk use this as a time to support the First Nations people around them. “Especially here in L.A. County, where the cost of living is very high, do things that support the community. If you have money, purchase gifts from their organizations, donate, shelter their events; any kind of support you can offer to your local native groups. You’ll know that your money is going to invest in the long term support of native people.”

Woirhaye provides further perspective for those unsure of how to approach these holidays in light of this information. “There’s a very limited amount that gets into mainstream media about what’s going on. The best thing to do is to not try to erase the element of genocide that’s definitely present in the holidays. You can say it’s about being thankful and being with your family, which it should be, but that should not be a way to shut down the conversation about genocide and oppression of indigenous people in America.

“Donate to native organizations, follow Indigenous activists, hear what other people have to say. Be aware of the Sand Creek Massacre, and the National Day of Mourning, and everything that’s going on around this time, but not just at this time. There’s a lot of stuff that goes on around the year, like the legal issues with the Mashpee Wampanoag Reservation, which could have been big media news, because they were the first tribe to have contact with the pilgrims.

“Be more aware and contribute to the conversation about elevating Indigenous people on more days than just during the holiday season. Don’t be afraid to have those conversations about your biases because it’s not inherently your fault. It’s not a personal attack on you, it’s about how our culture breeds ignorance and acceptance of it being in the past so it’s no longer important, but it really is.

“It’s been 50 years since the AIM (American Indian Movement) occupation of Alcatraz island and there are still big issues in Indigenous activism. It doesn’t go away just because we’re not actively fighting a war as a country against Indigenous people. There’s still a lot of violence and conflict. It’s really messy to untangle, but non-Indigenous people should be cognizant of it and be willing to speak about and think.”

Cervantes has found his own way to approach these topics: “Because not many people in my family stay in touch with their Indigenous sides, I try to bring awareness. This past Thanksgiving, I offered to give grace, but I tried to do some decolonizing by offering prayers to those who died, who sacrificed their lives to keep their descendents alive.

“I prayed for the Wampanoag nation, that individuals get recognition, that people’s water can be protected, that people can educate themselves about the establishment of Thanksgiving. I included that in my prayer because unfortunately, especially in younger generations, we do have conflicts in our family. They may not agree with everything we have to say, so when I do have a chance to speak, I use that to bring awareness without getting into an argument about why it’s important.

“When you have a moment to be heard, bring up those issues. Have people acknowledge them, don’t let it just go under the rug.”

Dr. Sickel’s ideas, which include plans to help the Kizh gain federal recognition and regain sacred lands back in their name, focus on the local. He says, “I’d like to see the land that the Southwest Museum, which Charles Lummis founded, and which has been taken over by the Autry Museum of the American West, given back to the Kizh and the county of Los Angeles fund the operation of the museum and reopen it fully as an educational center where people can go to learn about the Kizh and all the Native American people.

“The Whittier Museum could have an exhibit on the Kizh, have a Kizh map with an area showing where Whittier is, have a statue of Toypurina, a brief introduction on the Kizh for the grammar school kids to learn.”

Cervantes says it’s a complex problem that requires complex solutions. “Understanding that all that damage has happened for hundreds of years, nothing can be completely reconciled, but definitely a lot can be done. We can start with our government and who’s in power making these decisions. They should acknowledge that we’re on stolen land and also help the native people themselves. It’s easier said than done, but it’s possible.”

Woirhaye’s ideas about how the country can move forward are nuanced as well. She said, “The United States is really not unique in its story and history of colonialism. Most countries in the world- it’s a fact of human existence that humans aren’t nice to each other. The best way to recognize that is by addressing the disparity. More than just acknowledging that it’s bad, but by actually working to dismantle systemic barriers that would up to prevent Indigenous people and other people of color from participating in society.

“Just saying that now everything’s equal and it’s fine does not erase the poverty and classism that comes with centuries of exploitation. That needs to be rectified before saying anything is equal or free.”

Reconciliation with the past neither begins nor ends with the holidays, Salas says, “If the country could pull the cover of lies off that truth, that would be the best thing to do. Once you learn the history of a person and how their life and past were, you learn to respect that person. Respect starts with the history and culture of a person. What kind of respect is it when you can take over and massacre a culture? How is that respect? When you’re brought up that way, that’s all you’re going to know and all you’re going to teach.”

At the same time, Salas instructs that “when you open up the eyes of these younger generations, don’t teach them to hate the other. Acknowledge that it wasn’t right what happened, but we can work it out.”

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