Interview by Genevieve Arnold
The conversation around native plants and ecological health cannot happen with depth unless it is informed by regional indigenous perspectives. As we engage in thoughtful discussion about the ways that we relate within and to the natural world around us, we consider how we arrived in the present moment — and how we want to grow into the future. We strive to become more aware, grounded in place, and connected in community experience. Indigenous voices are vital to envisioning and creating a future that integrates and sustains our well-being and the life around us.
We spoke with Pamela Villaseñor, Executive Advisor to the Fernandeño Tataviam Band of Mission Indians, and Alan Salazar, Fernandeño Tataviam Band of Mission Indian Council of Elders, who generously shared their deeply insightful perspectives on questions arising from Theodore Payne Foundation’s 2022 Garden Tour theme, “Metropolis in Metamorphosis.”
How can we rebuild our unique ecology and preserve our precious natural habitats while the City of Los Angeles continues to grow?
A relational world view
The future of Los Angeles needs to include a relational worldview, thereby allowing communities to move beyond transactional relationships to those transformational relationships that support healthy communities and environment.
By building environmental work on relationships, the many communities throughout Los Angeles can be innovative in ecological solutions to a growing Los Angeles, solutions that were not used during the colonization of Fernandeño Tataviam Band of Mission Indians’ homelands. Extractive industries, the commodification of water, pollution, and the destruction of landscapes have been the colonizers’ story of land management.
Yet, this new millennium affords our communities the opportunity to embrace a cultural humility that allows us to humble ourselves as learners: learning from one another and learning from Mother Earth.
One plant at a time
We are losing plant and animal species at a tremendous rate. As residents of Southern California, we need to look to the native plants that are drought resistant and look at the plants that we have come close to making extinct and, one plant at a time, revitalize our native plant culture in Southern California.
In early accounts of what California was like 400 years ago, the Spanish, English, and Russian fur trappers and traders who came down the coast, described how beautiful and plentiful the natural resources were. In many places they were unable to see the land from the boat because the oak trees were so thick that there was a consistent overarching canopy of massive oak woodlands.
I encourage everyone: pick a native plant and make that your plant! Mine is big oak trees. I want my tribe to start a revitalization program of native plants, with native oak trees being the center. Plant an oak tree; you’ll feel better, Mother Earth will feel better.
How can we inspire Angelenos to embrace a future that nourishes and sustains human and non-human life alike?
Sustainability is not just taking, but giving
A key feature to sustainability is not just taking, but giving. However, sustainability may be defi ned differently amongst Indigenous Peoples. The Fernandeño Tataviam Band of Mission Indians need to get to this metaphysical understanding of what sustainability is from an indigenous point of view. Many tribal communities have a concept of ancestral instructions going back to our creation, that ground our role as the original caretakers in this space that we know as Los Angeles today. Those ancestral instructions move beyond caring for our own community, they include being caretakers of the land and the people, the water, and those beings living on the land. In a more contemporary sense, they could, by extension, include caring for the settlers who now occupy our homelands today.
Despite the successful and effective practice of Traditional Ecological Knowledge throughout our homelands for the millennia before settlers arrived, our Indigenous Knowledge was not valued. Colonizers created laws and practices that removed or prohibited our tribe’s ability to continue enacting our ancestral instructions, that deep spiritual connection and obligation that we had to the land. While there may be a slate of recommendations listing how we can support our environment, at the heart of the issue is a deeply rooted understanding that we, as humans, have an obligation to Mother Earth.
Plant the seed with our young people
We have to plant the seed with our young people, one young person at a time: how beneficial it is for them, physically, emotionally, and spiritually, to be out in nature. I encourage all parents to become naturalists and learn.
You know where we make our mistake? We go out in nature with the same attitude we have when we go to work. And I’m guilty of this; I want to go on a hike today, and I’m just not out for a walk, I’m almost marching to make those fi ve miles. But not only do we need to go for bike rides and walks and hikes, we need to get off the bike and just sit and enjoy. We need to stop at a nice spot on the trail where the views are incredible, or there’s a little lizard scurrying by, or a hawk fl ying above, and take more than just a few seconds. Take a few minutes, and breathe it in.
I think as a culture, we’re losing that ability of observation. Who’s around us, what animals, what plants? What’s their story? Why and how are these animals and plants connected? My indigenous ancestors, and my mom’s English and Portuguese ancestors survived for thousands of years because they were very observant of their natural environments.
How can communities best come together in the effort to support the natural world in Los Angeles?
Different ways of knowing
People living in our homelands can make an effort to support the Fernandeño Tataviam Band of Mission Indians’ inclusion of Indigenous Knowledge when interacting with the natural world. When I was a young girl, our unrecognized tribe didn’t have the resources for youth programs. However, for more than a decade, the Tribe has established a youth-focused department that provides many teachings, including Indigenous Knowledge.
Young ones learn about native plants: how to gather, when to gather, and why to gather with a purpose. Communities ought to support tribal traditional land management techniques that best support native plants, especially in relation to the needs of Indigenous Peoples. Plants of special interest to us are those plants used in ceremony, regalia-making, food, and medicine.
Environmentalism needs to be more than strict conservation; it must afford us the opportunity to come together as a community to discuss different ways of knowing. Gathering and processing allows us an opportunity to share teachings, patience, responsibility, and ability.
We are all tribal people
My mom and dad’s generation lived through the depression. We lived on the edge of town in the country, and about twice a year I’d get up early on a Saturday morning and there’d be a person—who by today’s standards would be an unhoused guy—at our kitchen table having breakfast with us, that my mom made. My dad knew who was down on their luck and would offer them some work on the property.
To survive the depression, everybody helped everyone. It didn’t matter if you were brown or white or black. I was raised with the attitude that there will be times when I’m going to be down on my luck, and hopefully somebody will help me, and if I’m doing well, then I’ll help someone.
I’ve said this for years and I believe this with all my heart: we are all tribal people. We all come from tribal cultures. My ancestors on my father’s side, my indigenous side, lived a tribal lifestyle about two to three hundred years ago. If you have the attitude that we’re all tribal people, it doesn’t matter where your tribal people are from. Tribal cultures believe that they come from the land, that this isn’t my home because there are good jobs here and the housing market is good, it’s because this is where my people were created. We’re all tribal people if we have the attitude that we’ll be better off if we reconnect with tribal roots.
How can we be respectful to the land we inhabit and increase our understanding of it? Are there any actionable items in this context?
Environmental work is intrinsically tied to culture
For tribal communities, ecological restoration is tied to spiritual restoration, as so much of our environmental work is intrinsically tied to our culture. A few years ago, the Tribe approached the city and county of Los Angeles for a permit to gather acorns only to find out that neither had an exclusive permit for tribes to gather on public lands. One hundred percent of ancestral lands were taken from us, but we still need certain plants in order to make our ceremonial regalia. We no longer have access to the land and water growing those plants. How do we continue our cultural practices without access to that land, without being able to make that regalia?
At the very essence of ecological restoration is the restoration of tribal rights to access our lands and access our plants, because by extension, that allows us to make our traditional regalia, medicines, and foods. In the century and half that has passed since the creation of these governments, not one has asked “How are tribal communities surviving?”. This lack of tribal consultation led us on the path of advocating for new ways that allow tribal communities to engage in better policies that support the environment, especially as the environment is tied to our culture and ceremonies.
Teachers all around us
What can Angelenos do to help with climate change, to help revitalize nature? If you’re not a person that’s going to go out and plant a tree, make a donation to the Tataviam Land Conservancy, whose goal is not just to acquire land and keep it as open space, but to revitalize the native plants by removing invasives and replanting. If you donate five or ten dollars, that’s a tree; you’ve planted a tree. My dream is to have space dedicated for a native nursery.
When I sat down to write A Tataviam Creation Story I approached it from the concept that the Tataviam Tribe from the Santa Clarita Valley have been neighbors to the Chumash and the Tongva Gabrielino for thousands of years, so we’re going to share similar stories and similar beliefs. All three of those tribes, and many of the tribes throughout California, are clan-based tribes. We use the animals as teachers. When I tell the story of how we got hands like lizard, the theme is that if we take time to look, we notice and realize that we have a lot in common with the animals: a creature as small as a lizard has a hand very similar to ours, with five fingers.
Animals are teachers. They’re just like us; they have strengths, they have weaknesses. As a culture we send our kids off to school when they’re in first grade, and we think that their teacher is going to teach our child everything they need to learn that year. Whereas 300 years ago, or when your ancestors were tribal people, there were teachers all around. If we went back to the old tribal ways, the animals and plants would be also be teachers.
Where do you see Los Angeles in five or ten years?
Enacting reciprocity in a more meaningful way
Reciprocity will become more commonplace. Both governments and residents will begin enacting reciprocity in a more meaningful way. For governments, we will see greater support for LAND BACK. Over the next decade, local governments will start remediating historic traumas by returning land. At the heart of the Land Back movement is the concept of putting “Indigenous Lands Back into Indigenous Hands.” Here in Los Angeles, the Peoples Indigenous to these lands are the people who are descendants of traditional villages, such as those enrolled in the Fernandeño Tataviam Band of Mission Indians.
For local residents, there will be more support for AcknowledgeRent. The Fernandeño Tataviam Band of Mission Indians AcknowledgeRent is a tangible way for residents of northern Los Angeles County to make a meaningful land acknowledgement through voluntary contributions. Through AcknowledgeRent, people who reside or work on our homelands can help undo the harm caused by the theft of a land base that causes ongoing ramifications for this community. As a result, our tribe can fund initiatives such as housing development, taking care of the environment, and cultural programs for our youth and families that support a thriving tribal community. Learn more at AcknowledgeRent.org.
Connecting open spaces
I see the urban areas finally blending in more naturally with the open space; they have to be better connected. The environmental groups have started working together more to ensure that instead of having patchwork open spaces, they’re connected.
I think one of the most important signs of progress for nature is the wildlife bridge that they’re going to build over the 101 at Liberty Canyon. I’ve been involved with that for the last couple years, and it looks like there will be a groundbreaking this year. But like I said, one tree at a time, one wildlife corridor at a time. We need thousands and thousands of wildlife bridges.
That’s where I’m excited for the next five to ten years; I see better planning for us and for the animals and for nature and native plants. I’m excited about the things that we’re doing and will be doing.
Executive Advisor to the Office of the Tribal President for the Fernandeño Tataviam Band of Mission Indians, works tirelessly for the Tribe’s nation-building efforts. She manages tribal government initiatives including the development of the newly established Health and Social Wellness Department and is a passionate champion for Native families, serving as the Tribe’s Authorized Representative for juvenile dependency cases.
Her particular interest is the empowerment and wellness of her tribal community through initiatives focused on systemic and transformational change, and advocacy for the rights of the Tribe. She resides near her villages in the Tribe’s homelands of northern Los Angeles County, where she raises her daughter to gather and process traditional plants and foods.