At the end of this summer, the city of Los Angeles joined cities around the country, in a new tradition. There will be no going back. All future generations will know October 9th as a day to celebrate Indigenous People, rather than a man who brought death to the Caribbean.
For at least the last eight thousand years, the area we call Los Angeles, has been home to the Tongva people. Here they built homes and communities, often near fresh water where fish were abundant, and near the ocean which they saw as sacred.
I lived in and out of Los Angeles for more than a decade, before I first heard their name. I'm not proud of this, but it's true. Their name was never apart of our conversations, and their quest for sovereignty, was never brought up in the day to day bustle of cities and concrete. But I was surrounded by their spirit nonetheless. Many of the names of the streets we drive on, and the neighborhoods we live in, were theirs. And the seal of the city for Los Angeles features a Tongva woman. A small acknowledgement of whose land we are all on.
I've spent much of the last year, on the backroads and byways that weave through this country. After the election, it became clear that we were entering a profoundly dangerous chapter in our history. A time when white supremacy was no longer going to remain the prevailing ideological assumption of our power structure. A time when avowed white supremacists felt so threatened by the rising movements happening across the world, that they were ready to openly seize state power, to destroy all who stood in the way of their conquest. That we were entering a time when our illusions of progress would be shattered, and seen for what they so often are - myths and tokens. Stories to tell us we are no longer the deadly conquerers of the past. And tokens to appease those who would otherwise dedicate their lives to resisting.
My sense was that there would be few answers for our future, absent a deep understanding of our past. And while there are many answers to be found in books, there are many which can only be understood viscerally. Through flesh and blood, site and sound, sense and scent.
As has been my way for many years, when there are questions that need answering, I somehow find my way to the open road. No matter the continent, there seems to be a special spirit which guides the traveler who is willing to journey with open questions, an open mind, and an open heart.
This year, that journey brought me home. Back to California. The land I was born on. The land my mother was born on. The land my father is buried in. The land that raised me as a young boy, and the land I returned to as a man. The land I believed I knew.
There are many stories to share, and most will fade in the dusty background of my memory. But there can be little doubt that the California I thought I knew, and believed I understood, was a myth. A construct, created by settlers, to rationalize genocide. The attempted extermination of a people.
To understand California before the Spanish, consider a place like Kenya. California was one of the most ecologically, culturally and linguistically diverse places on planet Earth.
Old stories speak of the elk herds in the tens of thousands. The antelope, in the hundreds of thousands. The whales and dolphins swimming off the coast, in packs of thousands.
There are more than 200 languages, that are indigenous to California. Two hundred. Some as similar as French to English, but many as different as English to Chinese. London may be the most international city in the world, but there are less languages spoken in that city today, than were originally spoken in this land.
This region still gives life to the tallest trees in the world. For thousands of years, the bear ate salmon from the river, and defecated in the mountains, creating some of the richest, most potent soil in the world. Though the original colonists came as close to killing all the ancient Sequoias, as they did to killing the ancient people.
Around the time California became a state, there were some 150,000 indigenous people living here. In the decades that followed, that number would plunge to some 30,000. This was no accident. It was endorsed by the state. Protected by the state. Funded by the state. Led by the state.
Vigilante militias rounded up men who had come for logging and mining, to commit large scale attacks on indigenous communities. Mounted on white horses, their goal was simple - clear the land for exploitation. If that meant eliminating the people living on that land, so be it.
In town after town, there are stories of extermination. A hundred people rounded up, and the water poisoned. Fifty people imprisoned, and given blankets with disease. But few of these stories will be found in the settler museums that litter the state, detailing the "history of California". Ornate and precise timelines describe the glory of settling a new land, and building communities where there had not been one before. In town after town, that history begins in the early 1800's.
I began to see these timelines the way I often see characterized advertisements from the 40s and 50s. Asking myself - are we really supposed to buy this?
In the summers of childhood, my parents would often try and get up to Yosemite. It was my dads favorite place on Earth. He would spend hours walking with the Sequoias, and basking in their ancient presence. When he passed away, my brother, his brother and I, all went back to Yosemite to say goodbye. Under a tree stuck by lightning, with a trunk that had become two, we buried his ashes, and sang his favorite songs.
This summer I returned. To pay homage, to weep, to laugh, and to share time together again. But on this journey, I was asking new questions.
Who had been here before us? Whose ancestors, were also buried in this land? What was here before roads of concrete paved their way through redwoods.
The Miwok people, who called themselves Ahwaneechee, had lived below the waterfall we know as Yosemite Falls, since time immemorial. There they had their homes. There they had their lives.
A member of the local militia, who were the first Europeans to enter the valley, said of that first invasion. "The whole valley had the appearance of park like grounds. With trees, shrubbery, flowers and lawns."
Today the communities who had maintained that land for thousands of years through burning, foraging and grazing, are displaced. Replaced by campers who vie for tickets to camp below a place we call Half-Dome - tickets that often sell faster than those to a festival or movie premier. Tickets, to a project of mass displacement.
There is a cultural center just below the Yosemite Valley. In it, the Mono people have a museum filled with the animals that once ranged the surrounding lands. The story of of their attempted extermination is matched only by the history of a people who have always been here, and who have found a way to survive.
In that museum is a great Grizzly Bear. The iconic symbol of California, standing in all its glory and ferociousness. And below the bear, a sign that says simply - the last grizzly bear in California was killed just outside Topanga. 1916.
So while the city of Los Angeles features a Tongva woman who has been displaced and hunted by the city of Los Angeles, our state flag features an animal that has been decimated by our state. The symbols of colonialism.
We were grateful to have some time with an elder woman, who was patient with our questions. She said the Water Wars are coming, and all will be forced to decide whether life can be owned.
After some time together, I asked finally - what do you wish for us to do? She looked at me and said with grace - learn your history. Learn the truth of what has happened here.
I remember very little from my early education. Though in elementary school, I distinctly remember the Missions Project. All of us went on field trips to the Missions, and learned a story they called their history. For our project at the end of the year, each of us spent weeks recreating a Mission out of cardboard, glue, sand, sticks and toy figures. My family was proud. I was proud. We showed if off at school, along with all the other models kids created at home.
Yet a Chumash elder recently told me that the Mission arches are to his people, what the Swastika is to the Jews. Welcoming them into a place, built to steal their blood and bodies.
My great-grandmother fled camps that flew flags with the swastika. I wonder how our families would respond, if German students made models of concentration camps for school.
Whether we are comfortable acknowledging it or not, the Nazi project of extermination was deeply inspired by what the American project has done to the indigenous people of these lands. And the wars that built our military might, were wars against those who were already here, to clear the land for those who had arrived.
There is a work ahead for us. It will not be led by people who share the color of my skin. But we must participate. We must contribute. We must listen. We must relearn the history of this land, and begin a long journey toward honesty. The longer we try to control the lie, the longer the lie will control us.
Changing the name of a holiday won't solve much of what's in front of us. But it is a step. As was said by City Council member Mitch O'Farrell, it was a watershed moment. When the dam is released and the water pours forward. There will be no going back. The children of California will never again be asked to celebrate a sailor who raped, pillaged and killed the people of the Caribbean. It may not be the end of teaching about the Missions. But it's a start.
Instead we will be asked to celebrate indigenous people. To celebrate those who have been here for all time. How many years will we celebrate this history, before the people of Los Angeles begin to push with vitality, toward federal recognition for the Tongva people, and land reparations to ensure they have a home here for generations to come.
I was proud to be able to witness the moment. For so many years, indigenous people in Los Angeles, and around the world, have fought for this acknowledgment. To see a colonial institution, led by the first recognized Native American in the history of LA's city council, reverse a century of tradition, and move in a new direction, was a welcomed respite from the persistent violence of our power structure.
That violence continues to focus it’s eye on those who are undocumented - many of whom are indigenous to this continent. The decision to repeal DACA is not one born from economics, or constitutionality. It is one born from white supremacy, and the settlers dream of conquering this land, from sea to shining sea. It is a dream that is only possible with genocide. Only possible with the systematic erasure of entire people groups. It is a dream that will never allow life to flourish on this land. A dream that is sold as life, but carries only death.
Kill the people. Take the water. Change the names of the land. Create private property. Force, by threat of violence, all who live on that land to pay, simply for living on land claimed in slaughter. The entitlement of the colonizer, to believe those of us with light skin are righteous citizens, while those with brown skin are the intruders, is a staggering distortion of reality.
It's easy to remain stuck in the colonial story. It has pervaded so much of our lives. But the natural world is unconcerned with our stories and symbols. Unbothered by our flags and borders. The natural world is governed only by it’s own interdependece. At the core of this vast and infinite web, is what united so many last year - water is life. Water is sacred. Without water, life begins to die.
I thought of the the Mono woman's warning, as wildfires ripped through this region. When we drain the water from below the earth, the soil grows dry. As it does when we damn the rivers, and direct water through concrete aqueducts. The old timers across southern California, speak of springs that flowed year round. Today, those springs are dry. When we steal water from places that are lush and brimming with life, and bring it to places we all love, but have little capacity to sustain life - we continue genocide.
On Oct 12 - 15, there will be a Gathering of Elders in Long Beach. The event is being organized by local indigenous communities, and will be open to the public. For all of you looking to learn more about the land so many of us have called home, this will be a place to spend some time. Whether for an hour or for four days, I hope you’ll make it out. The chance to sit in ceremony, and learn from those who know what no book can teach, is a rare one. It is worth doing.
I was recently with a Kumeyaay woman, who said their lands originally stretched along the coast, from northern San Diego, down past the border. That's the land my brother lives on, so I asked her what she thinks of surfers. Those who linger just beyond the borders edge. She responded with words I won't soon forget. "It is good that they love the ocean. Water is sacred. But they're just like all the others. They don't know where they are."
Surrounded by the the Chumash to the north, the Tatavium to the northeast, and the Yuhaviatam from the mountains to our east, I am beginning to understand - for the very first time - where I am. And though my fathers ashes are buried in this land and I was born on this land, we will always be settlers. Those who came from elsewhere, and created a life on land that was taken.
I believe there is a future where my children will be able to learn the culture of this land, and honor the long and proud history of those who have always lived here. To do so, we must begin to acknowledge the truth of what has taken place here. The blood that is still in the soil. In 1851, the U.S. Government signed a Treaty with the Tongva, guaranteeing millions of acres in the Los Angeles region. The document was the locked in a drawer in D.C. for the next fifty years, and like hundreds of other sacred agreements made across this land, the Treaty with the Tongva people, was broken. If our generation wants to begin to make things right, after so many centuries of death and wrongdoing, there may be no better place to begin, than the Treaties. Forged in battle and signed in prayer, these agreements are meant to be the foundation of law on this land. Neither decades nor centuries will wipe clean this deception. If we want to live within a society rooted in the values we so often espouse - we must begin with the original agreements that created the foundation upon which our power structure stands.
Happy indigenous peoples day y'all. May we honor them in protecting life. Whether the trees or the animals, the land or the water, all life is sacred. Perhaps we will begin the real work of protection, when we begin being honest about where we truly are. A'ho