Good Shepherd cemetery, Lancaster, CA

By Rudy Ortega Jr., Tribal President 

Members of the Fernandeño Tataviam Band of Mission Indians have organized protests and marches decrying the treatment by the Catholic Church towards their ancestors.

The Tataviam, which ranged from the far western San Gabriel Mountains into Tejon Pass, suffered greatly under the Spanish missionaries with physical abuse and forced labor in the construction of Mission San Fernando. The mission replaced their village of (italics) Achoicominga (italics end). Under the mission system, the Tataviam culture and population was nearly wiped out.

It’s a painful history. Recently, the Los Angeles Archdiocese and representatives from area tribes signed what is called 17 Protocols that include “indigenous traditional perspectives.”

The protocols are meant to encourage Native American participation in the planning of liturgies as well as indigenous-themed cultural and educational functions hosted by the archdiocese. The agreement also allows local Native Americans access to traditional ceremonial sites, especially burial areas on the grounds of local missions — which themselves will be required to accommodate tribal members.

Not all tribal members agree with this new found agreement or “trust” the Church, not only because of the past atrocities against indigenous people, but also news about the church covering up its crimes against children.

Two Permanent Reburial Sites

Still, the relationship took a step toward reconciliation on Saturday, Nov. 17, as Church and Tataviam members gathered at the Good Shepherd Cemetery in Lancaster for the dedication of a Tataviam native cemetery, blessing, and reburial of native American bones found at various locations in the tribe’s territory, approximately 150 years ago.

Another ceremony will be held this Saturday, Nov. 24, at the Queen of Heaven Cemetery & Mortuary in Rowland Heights for the Tongva Nation known as the Gabrieleño/Tongva San Gabriel Band of Mission Indians.

“Once California was their land, but today many California tribes have no place to rebury tribal members who have been unearthed due to new construction or returned to the tribes from museums and universities in response to new federal regulations,” said Auxiliary Bishop Edward Clark, who presided over the ceremony.

“Archbishop [Jose] Gomez and the Archdiocese of Los Angeles are honored to respond to the requests of two such Nations on whose traditional lands the Archdiocese was established. Both the Tataviam and Tongva Nations now will have permanent reburial sites in two of our Catholic cemeteries located on their own traditional lands. Having been dislodged from their original burial sites, many of these ancestors now rest securely in peace,” he added.

The ceremony included drumming and singing of Indian Native hymns for the deceased.

 Making Amends

“This dedication is important because it’s a repatriation of our ancestral lands. It gives our ancestors, many of whom have been displaced, shelved in Museums, or hoarded in the garages of settling communities, a safe space in the earth to rest,” said Rudy J. Ortega, Jr., Tribal President of the Fernandeño Tataviam Band of Mission Indians in San Fernando.

 He noted that the remains were found at multiple locations throughout the San Fernando and Antelope valleys, and belong to 12-14 individuals. Archeologists and anthropologists have confirmed they belong to people who lived in the area occupied by the Tataviam.

“When their [remains were] uncovered near where a village was, and those have been historically mapped and predated before European settlement,” Ortega said.

He added the tribe is checking museums for additional remains that could be buried at the Native cemetery in Lancaster.

While that cemetery is owned by the Archdiocese — and under the Church burial protocols all those interred there were to be blessed — the tribe has jurisdiction over that plot.

“The tribe has its own ceremonies and ritual and they gave back that partial lot entirely for our ancestors,” Ortega said.

In addition, the area surrounding that Native cemetery has been given to the tribe so its members can buy plots there to be buried next to their ancestors.

Ortega said this is the first such instance and it’s a “humongous” step from the Church toward the tribe.

“It’s more [than] amends. They recognize the atrocities that the Church historically has done and now they want to work toward a better relationship with the tribes,” he said.

“It’s of humongous significance to get the Church to waive protocols and procedures, and return partial ancestors’ land to the tribe. It also provides to the tribe, today, a place to rest together in our ancestral lands, in the company of our ancestors, and without the possibility of impending development.”