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Native American Values, Health, and Green Access in Southern California

Native Americans inhabited most of what is now California for more than 10,000 years before European contact. There are nearly 170,000 Native American residents throughout the nine counties of Southern California, with more than 30 federally-recognized Native American tribes, according to 2000 census data. This is almost certainly an undercount, because many people who have indigenous ancestors are of mixed racial or ethnic backgrounds and may not be categorized as Native American in official counts. Many Native Americans also belong to tribes or groups that have not yet been recognized by the federal government, including the Acjachemen or Juaneno people.

Some members of Native American tribes live on reservations, while others live among the general population. The following map shows Indian reservations in Southern California and access to green space. Native Americans do not enjoy equal access to green space, parks, and recreation.


In many counties, the overweight and obesity rates for Native Americans are among the highest for any racial or ethnic group. Across the region, 44% of Native American fifth, seventh, and ninth graders did not meet minimum physical fitness standards in the 2007-2008 school year, compared to 41% of students in California.

Native Americans are also economically disadvantaged. The median household income for Native Americans in Southern California is $36,462, compared to $42,896 for all people in the California. Twenty one percent of Southern California's Native Americans live in poverty, a level that is 50% higher than the total of 14% of all people living in poverty across the state.

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Native Americans, working with The City Project, helped stop a toll road that would have devastated the ancient village of Panhe and San Onofre State Park. Several other state parks are sites of Native American cultural resources, encompassing historic Native American villages, religious and ceremonial areas, and thousands of Native American burial.

The Native American Heritage Commission (NAHC) is the "trustee agency" for the protection and preservation of California's Native American cultural resources under state law. The NAHC is greatly concerned about maintenance and security in parks, including state parks. Without adequate maintenance and security, Native American cultural resources may be vandalized or destroyed, erasing an important historic link with indigenous California and the natural environment. The NAHC supports "cultural preserves" to provide a higher level of protection for Native American cultural items and burial grounds.

Satwiwa Native American Indian Natural Area and Cultural Center is in the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area | Photo by The City Project

Native American cultural resources are included in other parks and in schools as well. For example, El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historic Monument includes the area originally occupied by the Gabrieleno village of Yaangna. University High School in Los Angeles includes the site of Kuruvungna Springs, a village of the Gabrieleno people. Puvunga, a Sacred Site for the Gabrieleno as well as the Acjachemen or Juaneno people, is located at what is now California State University at Long Beach. Putiidhem is located at what is now Junipero Serra Catholic High School in San Juan Capistrano. Puvunga and Putiidhem are part of the annual Ancestor Walk.

Robert Bracamontes writes,"I am Acjachemen, Nican Tlaca, indigenous to this land. For us the land gives us food, a place to play peon, a place where we are put to rest in peace, a place for ceremony, a place where life and culture are one. Some have viewed the land as something to steal, to make great profit from by taking and selling it for selfish ownership. We need our land back, we need to protect it for future generations. I hope those of you speaking about helping realize this is not a novel or a movie. This is not about a movement. This is about a living breathing tribe thousands of years old. It is about all of my living relatives, my Ancestors, and the new lives entering the world today. We cannot think that History is not a continuous fluid event. I am Acjachemen. Bob Black Crow."

Tribe Circle | Photo by Ricardo Duffy

Top: Kuruvungna Springs. Photo by The City Project

About the Author

I am a civil rights attorney. Fighting for the simple joys of playing in the park and school field for children of color and low income children is the hardest work I have ever done.
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