The federal government’s American Rescue Plan infused $1.75 billion into American Indian and Alaska Native programs in a historic win for the nation’s tribes.
However, more than 100 tribes throughout California, including the 2,000 or so members of the local Tongva tribe, saw none of that funding because they are not federally recognized.
The Long Beach-area tribe has worked for years to attain this formal recognition, but it is tedious—and sometimes impossible due to lack of records. What this means is that these tribes lose out on many benefits and forms of assistance, including financial support included in the massive post-pandemic stimulus bill.
Beyond any tangible resources, tribe members are also left with the feeling that they are not recognized as people.
“You’re saying they don’t exist,” said Cheryl McKnight, director of the American Indian Institute at Cal State University Dominguez Hills.
The Tongvas have lived in the Long Beach area and throughout Southern California for over 2,500 years. In the mid-19th Century they were subjected to violence and enslavement under American occupation, and many died from diseases introduced by new settlers.
Yet tribe members today still consider themselves caretakers of the land, plants, water and air, said Jimi Castillo, 78, a spiritual leader who is a member of the Tongva tribe with Acjachemen ancestry.
“We never once gave up this land,” he said. “It was taken from us.”
Years of frustration
The federal government initially forced Native Americans to assimilate into White, Christian culture, and divided their land up into plots that went to some Native Americans, while much of it was sold. Over the next half-century their land shrank from about 154 million acres to 48 million.
In 1934, however, tribes gained some level of autonomy and the government banned the sale of Indian land.
The government later began a system to determine whether tribes were legitimate according to their history and records, and therefore eligible to receive federal resources. To date there are 574 tribes with this certification.
Four out of five Tongva factions in Southern California have applied for federal recognition, but the process has remained stalled over the decades.
In 1990, one faction, the Gabrielino/Tongva of San Gabriel unsuccessfully filed. In 1997, the Gabrielino/Tongva of California Tribal Council and the Coastal Gabrielino-Diegueno Band of Mission Indians both filed, and their applications remain pending.
Castillo said he thinks the “Tongvas have been at the top of the list,” but there is no guarantee that they will be granted federal recognition any time soon.
The barriers preventing tribes such as the Tongvas from getting federally recognized are vast, expensive and time-consuming, involving years of paperwork and bureaucracy.
Yet, for many Tongvas and other unrecognized Indigenous people, the process is worth the massive undertaking.
Federal recognition would allow enrolled members to have a reservation, providing a place to meet and celebrate their culture. Along with the ability to obtain land, federal recognition also permits a tribe to establish its own tribal government and enter into agreements with the U.S. federal government, just as other countries do.
Native tribes experience disparities across the board, ranging from education to health care, compared to the general American population and other races, in addition to being denied recognition of their identity and existence.
Recognition, while not a solution to these issues, would be a step forward for many Tongvas, according to Castillo and other tribe members.
Around 2,000 Tongva people still live in the Los Angeles area, and they are considered to be one of the two most prominent California tribes without recognition, with 2,800 archaeological sites, such as the sacred site of Puvungna, located on what is now Cal State Long Beach.
Due to years of government relocation, Los Angeles County has the highest number of Natives out of any U.S. county, although no reservations exist in the area, which are only designated to federally recognized tribes.
While the Tongvas were granted state recognition in 1994, state recognition in California is more symbolic than helpful, as there is no formal process nor funding attached. It simply acknowledges historical and cultural contributions, and the tribe’s presence.
In 2004, Assemblyman Mervyn Dymally, D-Compton, introduced legislation that would have allowed a tribe to establish a reservation in California, but the hearing was canceled.
Gaining federal recognition is a prolonged, expensive and often unachievable feat that can take decades for tribes that lack the proper documentation and resources. Some tribes’ records were destroyed, or a written record never even existed.
For the Tongvas, their request was initially denied, and the tribe filed a series of appeals, a process made even more difficult by a split among the Tongva people due to disputes over plans for a casino, said Castillo.
According to Castillo, the factions have made the process extraordinarily difficult, and if the Tongvas were to receive recognition, it would only go to one faction, although he is not particularly optimistic.
“That’s the only way that we can recognize ourselves as a people. I think it’s important more so for my children and grandchildren than it is for me. I don’t think I can see it in my lifetime,” said Castillo.
While the requirements for obtaining federal recognition are many pages long full of different caveats, specifications of what can be used as evidence, and legalities, in a nutshell, there are seven central requirements that tribes must meet before beginning a multistep review process that can also take years.
Written evidence must demonstrate a distinct and continuous identity, government and dealings with outside governments since at least 1900. Rules for membership must be specified, and the tribe can have no history of “termination” in which the tribe has been declared extinct, which has disqualified many tribes.
The tribe must also prove that it has lived together in a community continuously, which is a challenge due to genocide and forced assimilation, said Anthony Mojarro, who is part of tribes in New Mexico.
Without a designated community space or reservation, the Tongvas have also struggled with proving a distinct government, which has been further complicated due to weakened leadership due to their splits, said McKnight of Cal State Dominguez Hills. This also inhibits the ability to raise the necessary funds for the process, and reduces the tribe’s strength in numbers.
To further aggravate the process, a tribe’s petition to become recognized can become void if there is any opposition, which can come from state or city-level governments, or sometimes, even other tribes—another factor that has derailed the Tongvas’ path to recognition.
According to Castillo, the government has implied that there would only be the possibility of one faction receiving recognition, so they were encouraged to join together, but this has been to no avail.
At different points, Castillo was attached to a couple different factions, resulting in “bad-mouthing,” from the other factions.
“I ended up saying, you know what, I’m not gonna attach myself to any of that. I’m Tongva, and that’s it,” he said.
Mojarro, the tribe member from New Mexico, said: “You would think that tribes would help other tribes, they know the struggle, but the process kind of starts turning even related tribes against each other.”
Given that recognized tribes are underfunded, there’s a “perceived belief between the tribes that adding one more tribe to the mix means your funding is going to get cut even more,” said Mojarro.
While data indicates that the pandemic has been detrimental to Indigenous communities, limited information exists as to the impact on unrecognized Natives such as Tongvas.
“No one is keeping data, and no one is keeping records,” McKnight said. “(Tongvas) are all over the place. That’s the problem; no one cares.”
Natives have a life expectancy of 5.5 years less than the U.S. population as a whole, and they experience higher rates of death in many categories such as diabetes, assault, homicide and suicide.
For tribal members who are not federally recognized, the disparities are similar, often due to generational trauma, said McKnight, and for the Tongvas, rather than receiving minimal funding, they receive nothing at all.
According to the CDC, among 23 states with adequate race and ethnicity data, the rate of COVID-19 among Indigenous people was 3.5 times higher than among non-Hispanic White people as of August 2020.
As of December 2020, based on data from 14 participating states, COVID-19-related mortality was 1.8 times higher among Natives than among non-Hispanic whites.
McKnight said she is glad that some people are being helped by the American Rescue Plan, although it is not nearly enough.
“I just wish that this were the country that was by the people for the people, it was a matter of looking at the people who would fall through the cracks. Most of the federally funded Indians, except for the very few that have casinos that are doing well, are in desperate shape,” she said.
‘I’ll always be Indian’
Castillo, who spent years in the throws of the fight for recognition, philosophically opposes the process.
“We’re the only people in the nation and probably globally that have to prove who we are, and prove our blood quantum,” he said.
Castillo recounted an incident from years ago when he applied for a spiritual leader position at a prison and was met with application questions varying from what his blood quantum is to what “breed” he is.
Another time, he had to declare himself “extinct” to receive money from a company that had built property on Tongva land.
After years of having his ancestry invalidated, he no longer wants to prove anything.
Castillo recalled his childhood days, getting bullied for being Native, often arriving home in tears.
With the last name Castillo, he found it easy to fit in with the Mexican community, claiming for a while to have Mexican heritage.
“It finally came to me in my lifetime that I’m Indian, I’ll always be Indian,” he said.
“There’s nothing Mexican about me, there’s nothing Spanish about me, besides my last name, and I’m going to be a Native American and I’m going to be as strong a Native American as I can possibly be, whether the federal government recognizes me or not,” Castillo said. “I’ll never deny being Native American again.”