As a small tribe without federal recognition or large economic resources like some of its neighboring tribes, the Fernandeño Tataviam Band of Mission Indians, based in the City of San Fernando, face a particularly steep struggle.
“Most people don’t know that we exist, in a general sense, and that’s because the history isn’t really taught,” said Mark Villaseñor, who started participating in CSUN’s AISA in 2003, and later joined the club as a student. (After years in the workforce and motivated to help his tribe, he returned to CSUN in 2014 to complete a bachelor’s degree in the David Nazarian College of Business and Economics.) Along with AIS, the AISA club has been instrumental in community education, student empowerment and outreach, he said.
The North Valley was largely agricultural by the early 1950s, swathed in rows and rows of squash plants, and avocado and orange groves. With the post-World War II baby boom in full swing, LA exploded in population as families flocked to the Valley. Los Angeles State College (now Cal State Los Angeles) established a satellite campus in Northridge — and then in July 1958, the Valley campus officially separated and was renamed San Fernando Valley State College, what we know today as CSUN.
“Back before all this was here (in the pre-mission period), the San Fernando Valley was mostly a grassland,” Villaseñor said. “At Northridge, there was no village site, [because] there were no rivers running through it. The Los Angeles River ran through Encino, and a tributary would feed into it down through Sylmar and Tujunga.
“If you look at our map, all of the villages were around the foothills, because of the rivers, streams and, more importantly, where the oaks were,” he said. “Oaks were the primary source of sustenance in our diet, the acorns. That made up the staple of our diet.”
The closest neighboring village to what is now Northridge was Sesevenga (the place of the sycamore-woods) — near present-day Porter Ranch — inhabited by the Sesevitam. The independent family lineages that lived in Sesevenga and other villages in the foothill areas used Northridge and the midsection of the valley as a highway, Villaseñor said.
“The area of Northridge was like a highway for [the Native Americans],” he said. “If you were coming from the area of what’s now Porter Ranch and wanted to go to the village of Cahuenga, the modern site of Universal City, you’d use that trail. The interesting thing is that most of the highways and freeways in this area were built over old Indian trails. The I-5 and I-210 follow, almost exactly, the Indian trails.”
Opening the Door to Conversations — and Action
Their number of citizens may be small compared to larger neighboring, federally recognized bands such as Pechanga, but the Tataviam Band are committed to education and building community partnerships. In this, they are perfectly aligned with CSUN.
One of the ways Andrews helped pave the way for this year’s public land acknowledgement was by empowering student leaders and young alumni like Pamela Villaseñor to organize “teach-ins” at CSUN, starting in 2019, she said.
“The title of that first teach-in was ‘Whose Land Are You On?’” she said. “We showed a brief video about the tribe, and our tribal president was there. We had the students, primarily freshmen and sophomores, come up with ideas on how they could actualize some meaning behind those words of a land acknowledgement. How do we take action?
“[Now], President Harrison’s land acknowledgement is important for setting the stage for what comes next,” she continued. “As we see all of the civil unrest around the country and people finding their voices, it’s important that we think about what the next steps in our shared destiny will be. … This opens the door to conversations about native sovereignty, settler colonization and the continued impact on indigenous peoples.
“What does it mean to be inclusive, to say we want to uplift and support all communities? That’s where CSUN has really been a leader, not just an activist campus — but really a thought leader campus,” Pamela Villaseñor added. “Digging deep into critical issues and coming together as our diverse communities who are willing to think through these very complex issues, and come up with solid solutions for the future. I have confidence that the CSUN community will continue these efforts.”
Those next steps and future actions could include scholarships and other forms of reciprocity for Native American students; work with the Michael D. Eisner College of Education on proposed K-12 curriculum reform in the way California history is taught, especially about the missions; a mural in partnership with the CSUN Library, where part of the Tataviam archives are held; and indigenous plant zones on campus in partnership with CSUN Sustainability — among other proposals.
“Today we’re fighting off this vicious virus,” Ortega Jr. said. “My ancestors went through that as well [with smallpox and other diseases]. We are the last remaining fragments of those survivors. Not all of my ancestors weathered those times. We have to address the quality of life for people of color, to uplift the community overall. Our tribe really believes that. We find that we’re only as strong as those who need even more support from us. Our tribe is here — we’d like for people to get to know who we are, and support us in any fashion.”
To learn more about the tribe, its community partnerships and history, visit https://www.tataviam-nsn.us. To learn more about land acknowledgement and the tribe’s CSUN alumni, visit https://vimeo.com/466710006/c0815a7748. For more on CSUN’s American Indian Studies program, visit https://www.csun.edu/humanities/american-indian-studies/.