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'Bell Gardens? That's Indian Town!': 1980s Pow Wows and Cultural Persistence

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UCR Pow Wow I Photo By: Joshue Gonzales 

We are still here and we will be here for generations to come. --Natalie Stites, Tribal Attorney, enrolled Cheyenne River Lakota/Crow Creek Dakota, and Miss Commerce 1994

My family has lived in Bell Gardens since 1976, but we never drove past a pow wow at a local park. Gatherings that are sometimes open to the public, sometimes sacred ceremonies; they're hard to miss. Those big and bright gatherings with dozens of pop up tents in green and blue, people of all ages in adornments ready to dance, singers around a drum for hours on end, folks preparing fry bread tacos and others in line to buy them.

But one block from our house is the Indian Revival Church, at the corner of Gage Avenue and Specht Street. I never went inside, though everyone was friendly enough when I passed. I walked next to it a hundred times on my way to the mini market for tortillas and walking to school. Pastor Robert Stewart told me the church was founded in 1956 by Arthur Stoneking and reminded me that many of his parishoners don't participate in pow wows, of course. The building is located on a busy corner with a tricky crosswalk where cars barrel over the 710 overpass.

The lives of people who live along the 710 corridor are as diverse as they come. Los Angeles is Tongva land, and further out east, it's Cahuilla, but all around the county and the state are dozens of tribal nations that have lived here for generations.

Indian Revival Church | Photo: Pastor Robert Stewart
Indian Revival Church | Photo: Pastor Robert Stewart

Our formal educations offer outdated accounts of Native life, not the urban reality of millions. I'm learning about the Native history of Los Angeles through art, research, and stories. The South El Monte Arts Posse's essay on Toypurina is one example, featured in the KCET Departures column "East of East." Pamela J. Peters' recent and gorgeous photography show downtown, "Exiled NDNz..." also reminded people about the nuanced and rich history of urban Indians. And of course "The Exiles," that stunning 1961 black and white film by Kent MacKenzie that pieced together interviews into a neo-realistic narrative of urban Indians on the heels of the Urban Relocation Act of 1956.

I also know what it's like to be unseen, to be from a community that is excluded when people think of Los Angeles. I aim to remind, myself and all of us, about all the communities in this place, to mark the events that shape this land we live on.

Once our poetry workshop concluded in the classroom with a wall of novels, anthologies, and literary journals, Allison Hedge Coke filled me in on some things I didn't know.

"You're from Bell Gardens?" she said. "That's Indian Town. They had pow wows there all the time in the eighties."

I was thrilled to talk with the Native poet and visiting professor at UC Riverside after class that day. In 1985, Allison was working two jobs, one (unpaid) with the Los Angeles County Human Relations Commission, and the other as a lobbyist and advocate for Native artists at the American Indian Registry of Performing Artists. She was a grant writer, Communications Director, and Executive Assistant Director, not to mention fry bread maker at local pow wows.

We talked again at a cafeteria booth late that afternoon. The school's 37th Annual Pow Wow was happening that very night, just down the street. Allison remembered one special gathering in Bell Gardens.

"My son Travis was four years old and he wanted to dance really badly," she said. Her young family didn't have much money, so they couldn't afford to buy Travis the clothes and materials he would need to dance: beads, fabric, leather, and adornments.

"You get out there and do some good dancing," she told her son, "and someone will gift you clothes." Sure enough, her son got out there and danced every chance he got. Finally, one day, Frank Bell, a well-respected man in the community, stood with his family and called up Travis Hedge Coke.

"We see you out there," Frank said. "We want to recognize you for dancing so hard."

The announcement was a community affair. He presented the boy with his first dance stick in front of everyone present.

"The motivation that dance stick gave him, he still has to this day," said Allison.

When people recognize young people for their efforts, or their motivation to know themselves, it lights a love for cultural participation and community. For Allison's son, recognition meant a life as an artist as an actor, writer, and painter.

Legacy of Exiled NDNZ © 2014 | Photo by Pamela J. Peters
Legacy of Exiled NDNZ © 2014 | Photo by Pamela J. Peters

The 1980 Census counted 16,594 American Indians in the City of Los Angeles alone. In 1990, there were 889 American Indian people living in Bell Gardens. The federal government's Urban Relocation Program began in 1948, an era in which policies were created to separate people from their communities and customs, further eliminating Native cultures. The termination policies of the time also eroded financial and programmatic federal responsibilities to Native people. In 1956, the Urban Relocation Program became a federal act. Over twenty years it caused the migration of 700,000 American Indians into seven major cities. The program encouraged cultural assimilation of Native Americans, and when people moved off the land the government moved in to take over more of the natural resources. When Native Americans are not enrolled in government records as members of federally recognized tribes, they also lose access to benefits, essentially resulting in further disenfranchisement. The government and Bureau of Indian Affairs promised housing, jobs, and small stipends to transition to city living, but many families received little to no help when they found themselves in Los Angeles. Despite the efforts to strip people of their cultures, they found one another and and created Pan-Indian activities. It's no surprise that Native people, once in L.A., organized themselves and re-created celebrations.

"There were pow wows in Bell Gardens for every major holiday," Allison told me. "Thanksgiving, Easter, Fourth of July, everything." People filled the inside of an auditorium with all kinds of dancing: fancy shawl, jingle dress, fancy dances.

According to Annette Phoenix, who works for the American Indian Community Council (AICC), there are "Loads of native people [who] do business in Bell Gardens and surrounding areas, and several still live in that area."

Established in 1998, AICC offers numerous services, such as mental wellness circles, youth meetings to promote leadership, and networking events in Los Angeles. Annette compiled a list of twenty-plus nations who live or work in the region, including: "Navajo, Sioux, Muscogee Creek, Tohono O'odham, Pima, Paiute, Cherokee, Chickasaw, Yaqui, Apache, Pueblo, [and] Ojibwe."

Allison couldn't remember where the pow wows were held, whether at a school or park. Being in graduate school and busy with finals, I enlisted my brother's help to find documentation of the celebrations. Librarian Michael McLaughlin at the American Indian Resource Center (AIRC) inside the Huntington Park Library helped my brother find dozens of files. Among them was an eight by eleven inch poster made by Many Trails Indian Club, confirming the location of a pow wow at Ford Park in 1980. Located at the edge of the San Gabriel River and a local golf course, Ford Park was where kids went for the metal slide, two-stories tall, to swim in a crowded pool when the summer got too hot, or to walk around the pond with a sweetheart.

Bell Gardens pow wow flyer | Photo: Jesus Vertiz
Bell Gardens pow wow flyer | Photo: Jesus Vertiz

I wondered if any other locals remembered Bell Gardens pow wows.

Natalie Stites grew up in Bell Gardens and Commerce around the same time I did. We got connected through several coincidences. Allison connected me to Duane Champagne at UCLA, who remembered a former law student who, turns out, was Natalie. We attended the same middle and high school, but did not know each other then.

"As far as I was aware," Natalie wrote to me from South Dakota, "there were no cultural activities for Natives in B.G. or Commerce. [...] My sister and I are both Lakota through our mother, but resided with my father who is white and our stepmother who was Mexican-American."

Like me, her teachers encouraged her to think about higher education, and her school activities in student government and dance, among others, helped her focus her energy and time. One of her favorite memories was of being Miss Commerce in 1994, another coincidence I share with her as a member of the Miss Bell Gardens court in the same year. With encouragement to pursue higher education, these opportunities helped shape what we thought was possible. We carry those lessons with us today.

Natalie added that, "Growing up as an urban Indian often gives us access to opportunity and resources unavailable to our people back home."

While she couldn't tell me about Native activities in our hometown, she did echo something I too believe, that "...We should serve our communities after we gain education, whether back home on the Rez or in the city."

This essay is one offering in service to our community as we remake old maps.

The sun dimmed as Allison and I wrapped up our conversation. The UCR pow wow had already started but Allison had one more story. Years after her son had received his dance stick, "There was a heavy rain fall at a ceremonial dance and my son was the only one who stayed out there," she said.

She continued, "The adult men didn't want to get wet, but Travis stayed out there dancing, and soon the other men came out to join him." He showed them that nothing could stop his prayer or his expression; how could this not inspire others to do the same?

Girls dancing at UCR pow wow | Photo: Joshua Gonzalez
Girls dancing at UCR pow wow | Photo: Joshua Gonzalez

The story inspired us to attend the UCR pow wow that night. Dozens of families gathered on the softball field watching people dance in different categories. Toward the end of the night, a young woman about eleven years-old and her family were called to stand near the drum circle. In the same way Allison's son had been acknowledged years before, this young person stood in a fluorescent green and dark blue shawl to be recognized by her community.

The girl's shawl had butterflies stenciled along the edges, the fringe was blue and green, perfectly matching her dress. Her family walked behind her as she danced. As they walked around the circle, more families joined. Boys in Raiders jerseys and girls in denim shorts came out and danced.

Allison looked over and smiled. We didn't know what it meant to the girl to have her family behind her that day, but we could guess. We knew the power of encouragement to pursue our talents, to dance or to study. It was heartening to see a young person persisting in her culture. And so, some of us keep dancing, some of us keep studying. We learn. We continue.

This essay could not have been possible without the help of the following people: Dr. Dwayne Champagne of UCLA, Michael McLaughlin at the American Indian Resource Center at the Huntington Park County Library, Joshua Gonzalez of the Native American Student Programs office at UCR, Allison Hedge Coke, Natalie Stites, Pamela J. Peters, and Annette Phoenix of the American Indian Community Council.

Data from the American Indian Community Council, the 1980 and 2000 US Census, and the City of Los Angeles Planning Department informed this article.

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