On Native Lands: Indigenous Histories, Environmental Justice, and Contemporary Challenges

Reflection by Madison Martin ‘20, History Major and Secondary Education

On Wednesday, September 17, 2019, LMU’s Bellarmine College of Liberal Arts, with the co-sponsorship of the Departments of History, Women’s and Gender Studies, and Urban and Environmental Studies, the Center for Urban Resilience, and the University Honors Program,  presented “On Native Lands: Indigenous Histories, Environmental Justice, and Contemporary Challenges.” The event was part of the Bellarmine Forum on “Los Angeles: A Place for the Future” and discussed the indigenous and environmental histories of Playa Vista, as well the greater Los Angeles area, and how they shape its future. The panel was comprised of Professors Nicolas Rosenthal (HIST) and Traci Voyles (WGST), as well as guests Professor Dina Gilio-Whitaker from California State University, San Marcos, and Edgar Perez, member of the Gabrielino/Tongva Nation.

The panel highlighted the past histories of indigenous people in the Los Angeles area, particularly the Gabrielino/Tongva people in the Playa Vista region. The speakers provided context for the discussion going back to the late 1700s and the effects of Spanish colonization on the indigenous people of the Ballona Wetlands area in Playa Vista, who evidence shows have been present in the region for thousands of years. The taking of land and subjugation of native peoples created a pattern that was to continue under Mexican and American rule. The speakers noted that although indigenous groups were no longer forced into servitude following the passage of the Emancipation Proclamation, they continued to be treated as inferior and their lands were taken. Even into the modern day, the Gabrielino/Tongva people are not recognized by the U.S. government, thus leaving them vulnerable to the increasing urbanization of the Playa Vista region on their sacred burial grounds. The panelists explained how this has caused feelings of displacement and confused identity amongst many Gabrielino/Tongva people today.

The faculty and guest speakers pointed out that the taking of native lands in California is an environmental justice issue, suggesting that indigenous groups have been specifically targeted in certain projects that impose disproportionate health safety issues compared to others. Projects such as the building of toll roads or housing projects in Southern California have continued to affect native lands, both disrupting both environmental systems as well as the special connection between the Gabrielino/Tongva people and the land itself. Finally, the panel considered how we as an LMU community are taking responsibility for how we do or do not engage with the indigenous whose land we are on. Faculty stressed that we can and should work on how we memorialize a group of people who are still present in today’s world both on and off the bluff. Concrete steps of offering classes focused on the Gabrielino-Tongva, hiring more faculty that are Native American, and recognizing them as not just a thing of the past are all ways we as a campus community can make strides in connecting with the indigenous.

The Q&A section allowed faculty to answer questions from the audience regarding the discussion points made. Students and panelists made many points and asked how we can make larger change for indigenous people. Ultimately, the focus was to bring it back to the Playa Vista area and start making change from there. The faculty wanted students to not forget the history and present peoples of the Gabrielino/Tongva when thinking about where Los Angeles is going next, ultimately bringing them out of the past and into the present and future of Playa Vista.