Meet the Tataviam
Once believed extinct, the ‘people facing the sun’ are very much alive
By Christopher Nyerges 01/08/2009
It was a cool winter night as Rudy Ortega Jr. arrived at the Southwest Museum, located on top of a bluff in the hilly Highland Park section of Los Angeles. Ortega entered the research library to speak to the small gathering that was eager to hear about his people, the Tataviam.
Ortega was neatly dressed in a black T-shirt, jeans, cowboy boots, and a silver bear medallion around his neck. He is the son of the chief of the Tataviam, Rudy Ortega Sr., also known as Standing Bear.
Tataviam — the name means “people facing the sun” — are so called because in the old days their homes were built with the openings facing east to receive the morning light.
Rudy spoke of the history of his people before the Spanish priests established the San Fernando Mission in the heart of their territory. He spoke of his traditional neighbors, the Serrano to the east, the Gabrielino to the southeast (who occupied much of Los Angeles County), the Chumash to the west (who occupied much of Santa Barbara County).
In the course of the evening, Ortega told a story about his father, who was once told that the Tataviam people were extinct. “Then who am I?” boomed Ortega Sr. (who claims to be one of only six pure-blood Tataviam left). Ortega Jr. went on to explain the history: When the Tataviam were driven north to Fort Tejon in 1865, and eventually left in 1870. Years later, when it appeared that there were no more of the Tataviam at the Fort, the land was declared uninhabited, the Tataviam extinct, and the property was sold to the Tejon Corp.
According to anthropologist Chester King, the Tataviam are clearly not extinct. “The only thing extinct about the Tataviam is their language,” says King. Rudy Ortega Sr. points out that young Indian children were punished if they spoke their language. This was just one element of the “forced assimilation” many Indian children were subjected to, which led to not only loss of language, but loss of culture and loss of their own social cohesion. And it’s that loss of social cohesion that makes it very difficult to “prove” one’s tribal identity.
In mid-November, the tribe submitted a petition to the Bureau of Indian Affairs Office of Federal Acknowledgment to regain federal recognition.
Ortega Jr. and I met a few months later in San Fernando to visit one of the Tataviam sites. We drove to a canyon north of San Fernando, just a short distance from the popular Magic Mountain amusement park. It had been a hot and dry day. But as we walked into the narrow side canyon, a cool breeze flowed from the west. It felt good. We could see that the canyon had burned in the previous season’s wildfires. The oaks were all blackened. The streamside willows had burnt to the ground and were now sprouting back up. The stream was dry, and tall grasses swayed in the breeze.
Along the trail we viewed several plants which had re-grown after the fire — plants that had been used in the old days. Acorns from the oaks had been leached and used as meal. Wild buckwheat seeds were gathered and eaten. Yerba santa and mugwort leaves were used for medicine.
Ortega seemed more relaxed now, as if more in his element here among the oak woodland and riparian environment. He shared stories of taking school children into this canyon to learn about the ways his people lived in the pre-Mission days. “But why are you dressed like that?” one child asked Ortega. “Some third-graders still believe that all Indians lived in teepees and still wear traditional clothing. But that idea is changing,” he added.
Ortega adds that all the Tataviam put together probably numbered no more than about 5,000 in the old days. An average village may have contained anywhere from 100 to 300 people. “There are about 1,000 of us today,” he says, “and it’s a good turnout if we get 100 folks for an event.”
We walked deeper into the canyon, eventually coming to a hidden cave up on a rocky hillside, which Ortega said had been used by men to do fasts. Inside the cave were tally markers — some somewhat recent, at least one appearing quite old and made with red ochre. Ortega said that a faster might make four tally marks per day to denote special events, and the large tally marker — which consisted of about 45 slashes — would have indicated a fast of about 11 days.
The Tataviam now celebrate four main ceremonies each year around the solstices and equinoxes. Only the summer solstice is closed to the general public. Today, members still do sweats, typically in private gatherings in backyards. Ortega Jr. works to follow in the footsteps of his father. As the administrative director of the Tataviam tribe, he assists with schooling, mentoring, anti-gang and anti-alcohol programs. (There is a total prohibition against alcoholic beverages among the Tataviam.)
Readers interested in learning more can check out their Web site at tataviam.org.
Contact Christopher Nyerges at Box 41834, Eagle Rock, CA 90041, or ChristopherNyerges.com.