Before the freeways, the sushi restaurants, the car dealerships. Before the taco trucks, the movie studios, the swimming pools. Before the streets, the CSUN orange grove or the university’s campus. Long before the ranches and farms, the First Peoples lived in villages along the river and creeks of the vast valley and the foothills that surround it.
Today, San Fernando Valley cities and neighborhoods bear their names, some in their own language: Tujunga, San Fernando (Fernandeño — the Spanish name given to the natives brought to mission San Fernando), Cahuenga, Topanga. But these memorials are not for a lost people, a lost culture. The First Peoples were enslaved, persecuted, nearly wiped out, yes. But they’re not gone. Their descendants work, learn and grow here. Their name in this Valley is the Fernandeño Tataviam Band of Mission Indians, based in the City of San Fernando, the historic tribe of northern Los Angeles County.
“We want to be acknowledged, that there were and are people here, and these are our traditional homelands,” said CSUN alum Mark J. Villaseñor ’16 (Global Supply Chain Management), vice president of the Tataviam Band, which numbers about 1,000 members today. “That’s the best thing you can do for people, to acknowledge that they exist. The biggest issue with cultural genocide is the erasure of history. The more you acknowledge the history, the more you are visible and the more you are seen.”
“Most of the time, we’re spoken about in the past [tense]: You know, ‘They were great, the Plains Indians,’ for example. Well, we’re not dead! We’re also not all Plains Indians. We’re still here, thriving,” Villaseñor said. Land acknowledgement promotes a conversation that tribes are still here striving to maintain their culture and beliefs, and develop economically in order to overcome the generations of trauma they have endured, he said.
Dark History of Oppression
Like countless regions across the United States and Canada, Los Angeles and the Valley are built on a dark history of oppression and genocide of Native Americans. It’s a painful truth that many leaders, educators and other residents only recently have begun to face, explore and teach with honesty. In fledgling efforts to reverse some of that cultural “erasure” in the 21st century, one of the very first steps is land acknowledgement.
This year, CSUN President Dianne F. Harrison, in consultation with tribal President Rudy Ortega Jr. and professor Scott Andrews (Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma), took a giant leap forward for the university in making this land acknowledgement public for the first time. In her annual Fall Welcome Address (this year broadcast virtually), Harrison opened her speech with what she called “a new tradition, a land acknowledgment that honors and respects the indigenous peoples of our region”:
“CSUN recognizes and acknowledges the Sesevitam, the first people of this ancestral and unceded territory of Sesevenga — which is now occupied by our institution,” Harrison said. “It honors their elders, past and present, and the Sesevitam descendants, who are citizens of the Fernandeño Tataviam Band of Mission Indians. We recognize that the Sesevitam are still here, and we are committed to lifting up their stories, culture and community.”
The land acknowledgement builds on CSUN’s long history of promoting a better understanding of American Indian history, cultures and tribal sovereignty. CSUN continues to be a place where Native Americans can share their cultures with the community through speakers and events sponsored by the American Indian Studies (AIS) program and the American Indian Student Assocation (AISA), including the annual pow wow, which CSUN has hosted since the 1970s.
“I was pleased to work with faculty, student and alumni leaders on this important acknowledgement of the first people of the San Fernando Valley,” Harrison said. “It is one of many initiatives that we are exploring to honor and recognize the Sesevitam and Fernandeño Tataviam Band of Mission Indians that also will serve to expand and deepen the educational opportunities for our students, in support of the current programming.”
A Relationship, ‘More than a Statement’
The public acknowledgement was years in the making, principally through the efforts and advocacy of Ortega Jr. — who met with Harrison on Zoom in the weeks before her Aug. 20 address — as well as years of partnership with CSUN faculty and students and the calm, steady advocacy of Andrews, head of CSUN’s AIS program in the College of Humanities. Villaseñor and his sister and fellow Matador, Pamela Villaseñor ’06 (Psychology), helped Ortega Jr. foster the partnership between CSUN and the tribe since their student days. They praised Andrews and others who have served as AIS director since 2000: Karren Baird-Olson (Wyandot, now retired) and Brian Burkhart (Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, now at the University of Oklahoma).
“I want to thank professor Scott Andrews for making the bridge between his studies and courses and the activities of our tribe,” said Ortega Jr., who has followed in his father’s footsteps as president of the tribe. The Ortega lineage traces its roots to many villages, including the village called Suitcanga, (the place of the oaks), from which Encino received its name. This ancestry precedes Mexican rule and is traced to an 1840s land grant from the Alta California governor to their ancestor, Francisco Papabubaba. “[Andrews’] advocacy has been crucial. He’s even jumped in as a volunteer. Scott has showed tremendous heart and dedication.
“Many of us look to CSUN as the higher education center and path for career building in our community,” Ortega Jr. said. “This relationship is more than a statement — the land acknowledgement is going to be bridging and strengthening the relationship overall. [The timing] may have been everything that has happened in the surrounding community in 2020. But it also could be the dedication of professor Andrews. It was all in the timing. And this is the time.”
Villaseñor said that few Angelenos know of the tribe or have awareness of the large Native American population in the Los Angeles area — which numbers 200,000, according to the 2010 Census count, the largest urban population of Native Americans in the US.
Part Two of this story will appear next week in the San Fernando Sun/El Sol.