As an undergraduate student at UCLA, Los Angeles photographer Mercedes Dorame remembers pulling an old book about indigenous people off the shelf. Flipping through the pages, she discovered a shocking claim; the book said that the Gabrielino-Tongva Tribe — historically known as the San Gabriel Band of Mission Indians — had been wiped out by disease.
“To find that in a library... was just one of those moments that takes your breath away,” recalled Dorame, a Tongva tribal member. “It made me think about how much of the tribal history has been erased over the years. ...People don't even know that there were Native people in Los Angeles.”
In fact, the Gabrielino-Tongva Tribe, whose lands once stretched across the Los Angeles basin from Newport to Malibu to San Bernardino and the San Fernando Valley, remains one of more than 200 Native American tribes not recognized by the federal government.
Because of the tribe's uncertain federal status, “There's no reservation,” she said. “There's no place to gather. There's no place to perform ceremonies. There's no place to collectively mourn. I think that [has] had a really negative impact on my group.”
That fact has also fueled the award-winning artist's search for cultural identity.
Dorame, who has a master of fine arts degree from the San Francisco Art Institute, uses her work — which includes sculpture and installation art — as a way to, in her words, “document, challenge and contextualize cultural constructions.” (Her sister, Oakland painter Katie Dorame, puts her own spin on depictions of Native American history.)
“I'll be in Los Angeles or Orange County and there are people hiking through this area that have no idea there's a burial ground next to them or that these are really important cultural objects [near them],” said Dorame, who draws on her experiences serving alongside her father as a cultural resources monitor at sites in Los Angeles and Orange County. (Under California law, such consultants must be on hand at archeological excavations and construction projects where Native American cultural features, such as graves and artifacts, are likely to be affected.)
“It's simultaneously a great honor” and an emotionally taxing task, explained Dorame, whose dad is often called to serve as a monitor because of his “most likely descendent” status. “It's like you're watching your ancestors being dug up.”
While some of the things Dorame sees are too painful and private to photograph, she was moved to capture the image of a tattered, rain-soaked prayer for a re-burial ceremony tied to a chain-link fence in “Tongva Prayer.” “For me, it was about the layers of knowledge and experience and culture,” she explained.
In other photographs, personal and cultural artifacts come together with natural elements of the landscape in meticulously staged scenes of rituals.
“In the Beginning There Was Fox and Cinnamon” features a skinned fox head draped over a boulder ringed with rust-red spice, while two stones and a feather sit as sentinels on a hill overlooking a distant city in “Facing Storms.” In “Smoke to Water,” the red yarn binding a still-smoking sage smudge stick winds its way across mossy rocks to a waterfall.
Dorame aims to engage her viewers’ interest, hoping they’ll be inspired to dig deeper. “That’s the feeling I have when I’m handed some artifact on my site and don’t know what it is,” she said. “Maybe it will spark curiosity about the culture. Somebody will be like, ‘Hey, what did happen? Who were these people?’”
“There's a part of me that wants to connect... my tribe to the rest of the world,” she said.
Top images by Mercedes Dorame from the photo series "Origin Stories." From left to right: "Contemplating Loss," "Facing Storms" and "Nest of Apparitions."