There are no federally-recognized Native American tribes in Los Angeles, Ventura, or Orange County. That’s largely because it can be an incredibly long and difficult process — including collecting historical records, genealogy documentation, and tribal history — and it doesn’t always end in success.
But gaining recognition can mean a lot for a tribe, according to Rudy Ortega, Jr., the tribal president of the Fernandeño Tataviam Band of Mission Indians.
“You can legally and actually open an account for your own tribal government to bring commerce to your tribal government, to create jobs and bring resources, bring programming, and have a path to health programs and even education programs,” he says. “But as a state or non-federally recognized tribe, we don't have those. And so we have to think of alternative and creative ways to sustain ourselves.”
Researchers for his tribe have been collecting documentation for two decades in hopes of one day receiving that recognition. Until then, his tribe has created nonprofit and for-profit businesses to sustain itself and continue to teach younger generations, who he says have a hard time connecting with their heritage while growing up in today’s society.
“In this huge metropolitan area of Los Angeles, you're competing against soccer, baseball, all these other sports,” he says. “When you discover this heritage that you have, you get ridiculed, joked about. If you say you’re Native American, they're like, ‘Well, you don't look like the ones from the TV. You don't have that long hair,’ or ‘You don't dress with feathers.’”
But Ortega acknowledges that society has come a long way. His father, who was born in 1926, couldn't acknowledge publicly that he was Native American, practice openly, or speak in his native language. Today’s young people can learn about their heritage and culture openly, both in person and online.
“[Young people] go on YouTube, social media, and there’s these pages that they can reconnect themselves from miles apart and learn and understand their heritage and culture, and learn these traditional songs and dances and that's what sparks this pride,” he says.
He’s also happy to see businesses and organizations making land acknowledgments, like the Oscars.
“It's a step to acknowledging the first peoples,” says Ortega. “But we got to keep the momentum going and really start from within our own communities to be prideful and connected.”