(From Left to Right) Dennis Garcia, Elders Councilmember, Fernandeño Tataviam Band of Mission Indians, Mark Villaseñor, Tribal Vice President, Fernandeño Tataviam Band of Mission Indians, Rudy Ortega Jr., Tribal President, Fernandeño Tataviam Band of Mission Indians , Martin L. Adams, General Manager & Chief Engineer of LADWP, City of Los Angeles Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell (13th District), California State Senator Henry Stern – Senate District 27, Susana Reyes, Vice President of the Board of Water and Power Commissioners, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, City of Los Angeles Councilmember John Lee (12th District), Cynthia McClain-Hill, President of the Board of Water and Power Commissioners, Alan Salazar, Elders Councilmember, Fernandeño Tataviam Band of Mission Indians

With Mayor Eric Garcetti, other local officials, and tribal members, a sunrise ceremony and community wellness gathering was held at the Chatsworth Nature Preserve on Tuesday, Dec.21, to mark the winter solstice — the first day of winter — and to honor victims of COVID-19.

In partnership with the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (DWP), a prayer circle and ceremony led by the Fernandeño Tataviam Band of Mission Indians offered a blessing for those who have passed. Members of the Gabrielino and Ventura Chumash tribes also participated.

“As First Peoples, my tribe is not unfamiliar with pandemic outbreaks in our homelands,” said Fernandeño Tataviam Band of Mission Indians’ Tribal President Rudy Ortega Jr.

“Two-hundred years ago, my great-great-grandmother Maria, and hundreds of tribal members lost their lives in a pandemic, and today we’ve lost more of our loved ones to COVID-19. In their honor, we gather together on our ancestral village of Jucjauyanga to celebrate our winter solstice and pray for the good health, wellness, and spirit of our communities.”

Alan Salazar, FTBMI Elders Councilmember, leading the community in prayer during the Winter Solstice Event Co-Hosted by LADWP and the Fernandeño Tataviam Band of Mission Indians.

Ortega Jr. told the San Fernando Valley Sun/El Sol that it was because of the smallpox pandemic in the 1850s that his great great grandmother, Mariarita Alipas, died when smallpox jumped from adobe to adobe, wiping out half of its indigenous residents. Alipas, he said, was the tribe’s last Encino landholder, which had a lasting impact on their ability to claim rights to their land.

“Now, we’ve had 30 of our tribal members who have contracted COVID-19 and three who have passed away including my nephew,” Ortega Jr. said.

The land on the Chatsworth Nature Preserve property is also considered the original land of the Tataviam and Chumash people. Now closed to the public to preserve habitat on the site, the winter solstice ceremony provided those who attended an early morning view of the unique wildlife, plants, and trees.

The property is owned by the DWP and originally served as the site of a reservoir fed by the San Fernando Reservoir. It was removed from service in 1972 after being deemed seismically vulnerable, and in 1997 was established as the city’s first nature preserve.

DWP Board President Cynthia McClain-Hill said the event celebrated the change of seasons and recognized “our collective responsibility for the wellbeing of our community and the environment.”

“I want to thank our partners, the Fernandeño Tataviam tribe, who led the community in prayer, for honoring those we’ve lost to COVID-19 and helping us find peace and solace,” McClain-Hill said.

“I am grateful to the Fernandeño Tataviam and Chumash Tribal leaders for bringing us together today to honor those we’ve lost and reaffirm our ties to this place and to each other,” Garcetti said. “All of us share in the trauma of the last nearly two years, but as we mark the shortest day of the year, we know that spring is up ahead, and we will emerge stronger than before.”

The City of San Fernando-based tribe has been working with Mission Community Hospital and El Proyecto del Barrio to provide public outreach and has set up mobile vaccination clinics in San Fernando Valley communities.

While the majority of his own tribal members are vaccinated, Ortega Jr. said there is a small percentage who are “anti-vaxxers.”

“With our native history with the federal government, there are those who are mistrustful. It’s everywhere. But, we don’t treat them any different, we love and encourage them,” Ortega Jr. said. “They are our family members and every chance we get we have a healthy conversation and encourage them to get vaccinated.”

Ortega Jr. said he feels hopeful for the future of his tribal members and the community at large. He’d like the general public to learn more about native people and go to their website https://www.tataviam-nsn.us/to find out about the work they do and how they can get involved.

“Traditionally, winter solstice was a time for all the families to gather and come together to divide food and provisions. Now in contemporary times we offer blessings for one another, offer ceremonial tobacco and prayer for the winter, and look toward spring when we resume our songs and dancing again,” Ortega Jr. said.