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You Will Not Be Invisible: Tongva Elder Julia Bogany’s Unwavering Commitment to Future Generations

Julia Bogany with Homeboy Art Academy Art Gang
Julia Bogany with participants of the Homeboy Art Academy Art Gang and co-founder, artist Fabian Debora, in 2019. | Courtesy of Fabian Debora
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"We, the Indian people, the traditional caretakers of this landscape, are the direct descendants of the first people who formed our land, our worlds during creation time. We have always been here. Our ancestors prepared and became the landscapes and world for the coming humans with order, knowledge and gifts embedded in the landscape. Our ancestors imbued the responsibility and obligation to our original instructions, guided by protocol and etiquette to be part of, take care of, and ensure the welfare of the extended family and community defined in its most inclusive expression, the NATURE, and to pass those teachings and responsibilities onto our children, grandchildren, and many generations to come. And to all those that live here."
— Julia Bogany's land acknowledgement that she contributed to the upcoming book “We Heart L.A. Parks” (Narrated Objects, May 2021)

The longtime activist and educator Julia Bogany often spoke about how she felt being a Tongva woman: "I feel invisible," she recounts in a 2019 video. When her great-granddaughter Marissa Aranda told her, "That's how I feel," Bogany assured her, "You will not be invisible."

After this conversation, just as she'd done for four decades, Bogany, who served as the cultural affairs officer of the Gabrieleno Tongva San Gabriel Band of Mission Indians, took action to raise awareness of her people, the original inhabitants of what is now the Los Angeles Basin. Bogany proceeded to publish the children's book "Tongva Women Inspiring the Future," proud to have her great-granddaughters grace its cover. She also launched the website To Be Visible, committed to teaching and celebrating her ancestors' history, stories, language, sites and traditions. She used this platform to offer hands-on workshops in basket weaving, soapstone carving and blanket storytelling. These are among the myriad ways that Bogany worked tirelessly to ensure the visibility of Native American communities, especially Tongva women, their language and culture — before passing away on March 28, 2021, at the age of 72, with several projects still in the works.

As news of her death spread, organizations and institutions expressed the profound impact she had across the region, including comments from the California Endowment, the Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs and Los Angeles State Historic Park. The Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County posted: "Julia was a shining presence as a cultural advisor, and her impact in advancing recognition for her tribe through education on the original caretakers of the land in the Los Angeles region cannot be understated."

The Natural History Museums of Los Angeles County featuring Julia Bogany as part of of a series sharing stories from past and present and recognize the thriving Native community of Los Angeles County in November 2020.
Native American Heritage Month | Indigenous L.A.: Cultural Revitalization

Such praise for Bogany came as no surprise to her family, friends and colleagues. In Southern California, especially, she was truly ubiquitous. "From working with preschoolers to college students, she always had one goal: to teach those who wanted to learn," shared Aranda via email. "My great grandmother Julia has always kept her communities dear to her. Through this, I was able to see how many hearts she touched and minds she taught."

Bogany provided land acknowledgments across the Southland, in person and virtually, at such destinations as Grand Park and last October's National Wildlife Federation's P-22 Day. In November, she was a featured speaker on a video series by the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority during National Native American Heritage Month. Bogany also served as an elder-in-residence for Pitzer's Native Youth to College Program for many years, conducted healing circles and advised on curriculum for various educational institutions, and did transformative art workshops with formerly incarcerated young adults of Homeboy Industries Art Academy. She received numerous awards for such work, most recently the 2021 California Missions Foundation "Chairman's Award," the 2020 Los Angeles City/County Native American Commission's "Spirit of Tradition Honoree," and the 2019 National Indian Child Welfare Association's "Champion for Native Children" award.

Viewing Los Angeles through a Tongva Lens

Co-founder of the Homeboy Art Academy, artist Fabian Debora, will never forget the first time he saw "elder Julia" years ago, giving a land acknowledgment at an Art Share L.A. event before working with her. He did not approach her at the time but his friend at Homeboy Industries, who has Tongva lineages, suggested he connect with her. Debora remembers reaching out to Bogany and saying, "I got this program that's called the Art Gang with my homeboys and homegirls, and what I'm trying to do is introduce them to some of the teachings that have helped me," adding, "I think your storytelling ceremony and ritual can get at the spirits of these homeboys and homegirls." He also wanted her to educate them about what life for the Tongva was like before the "concrete jungles" of Los Angeles. Bogany was enthusiastic about working with them, and developed close relationships with the Art Gang participants during workshop sessions, tours and meals she shared with them over the course of a year.

During their first session, introducing the Tongva, she talked about feeling invisible and how this country, by occupying their land and throughout its history, made them invisible. "And she said, 'If there's anything I can do in my lifetime, it is to tell their story, preserve their story, and make sure that the invisibility doesn't happen,'" Debora recalls.

Climate change and urban development have significantly altered ocean conditions and our ability to access the coast, making it more and more difficult for the Tongva tribe to carry on their long-held seafaring traditions. Learn more in this episode of "Tending Nature."
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There was one particular incident during the workshop that "immediately raised the antennas of the homies." One of the homeboys said to Bogany, "When I'm locked up and they throw me in the SHU (Special Housing Units/solitary isolation), I feel invisible." To this, Bogany replied, "Yes, there's a common ground there. What did it feel like being moved away from your environment? Like you don't exist…"

Bogany went on to delve into stories of Los Angeles they had never heard, revealing some of the things that had happened to her culture, her tribe, her people. Julia talked about the Federal Building, because the homeboys were familiar with it due to court proceedings, and how her people were rounded up across the street from there and sent to different reservations. "She was peeling the layers of Los Angeles through their history and her knowledge from elders passing stories down," notes Debora. "And that in itself was engaging, because the homies were now seeing L.A. from a different lens, from a different perspective, and it was coming from elder Julia, someone who is a reliable source, a Tongva, and they can't get no better than that, you can't get closer than that."

Cementing Tongva Representation in Public Spaces

So beloved is Bogany, that in the last year, many large-scale works honoring her have been publicly exhibited in Southern California. In December, a 47-foot-high mural of Bogany by artist iris yirei hu was installed at one of the new residence halls at California State University, Dominguez Hills. And in March, Bogany was featured on one of the 10 city billboards as part of artist Erin Yoshi's "Land of We" public art project.

Letitia Fernandez Ivins, L.A. Metro's senior manager of transportation planning in arts and design, feels fortunate to have worked closely with Bogany for the last five years, alongside Metro-commissioned artists. Ivins also hosted her Metro conversation last November. "We would sit for hours as she shared her lived experience, research, as well as Tongva culture and stories with reverence and generosity," she shared by email. "Through story-sharing, research and cultural advisement, Julia has informed numerous artworks throughout the Southern California region including L.A. Metro." Bogany advised on the design of artist Andrew Leicester's "Gold Line Bridge" in Arcadia, which is flanked by two 25-foot-tall baskets representing Native American artifacts. As the Gabrieleno-Tongva representative on L.A. Metro's Regional Connector Transit Project in downtown Los Angeles, she consulted on artist Audrey Chan's artwork for the Little Tokyo/Arts District Station, which prominently features Bogany and her great-granddaughters.

"Her stories, spirit and imprint will be visible in these works for years to come," notes Ivins, as Bogany also advised on elements of Tongva cultural representation in the recently installed "The Crying Rock and Saint Monica" by Walter Hood at the Downtown Santa Monica Station, and in future L.A. Metro artworks by Mariana Castillo DeBall and Karl Haendel. "I would leave every conversation with Julia awestruck and humbled by her seemingly boundless energy and dedication to working with the broader Southern California community and academia to raise visibility, knowledge and understanding of the Tongva people," adds Ivins. "The day before Julia experienced a major stroke, she shared, 'When people tell me that we must heal the earth, I tell them we must heal ourselves. We are the earth.' She inspires so many to realize our interconnectedness on an elemental level, through art, through the earth, through ourselves."

Connecting Communities through Unique Storytelling

Gina Lamb, visiting associate professor of media studies at Pitzer College, speaks affectionately about her close friend and colleague of 10 years: "She was all about developing and building trust and relationships that grow over time. I think that's why she was so effective at change, because she was there for the long haul and really interested in building friendships and finding commonalities and figuring out ways that we can live together in order to affect change," especially in educational settings. As an example, Lamb mentions, "She was very interested in how talking circles are used as a mental health intervention with college-age students, as an alternative to traditional Western medicine. She had a background in therapeutic and mental-health trainings and also dealing with trauma." Lamb adds, "I know that just her calmness and her sort of loving nature helped kids feel okay about themselves."

Bogany also found so many unique ways to bring Tongva culture to places one wouldn't expect. "At Pilgrim Place, a progressive senior living community in Claremont, she had them redo all the signage on their property," says Lamb. "So all the paths are now Tongva names. She just worked with everybody and anybody that contacted her. She did not say, 'No.'"

Aranda recalls when they were invited to visit the museum at the La Brea Tar Pits, how her great grandmother provided her own narrative: "She had a story for almost everything in sight. From the tar pits to the painted walls, she made sure to share knowledge with me. Not only was I able to learn my culture from her, I was also able to learn with her."

On the tours that Bogany led in Downtown L.A. and the San Gabriel Mission for the Art Gang, Debora remembers how she always took great care in bridging histories and connecting what were supposedly disparate communities' experiences. "Even though she has done many things, besides Homeboy Art Academy, given keynote speeches, been in universities, been in various places, you could see that this is where she wanted to be in a way, because these are the new generations, these are the up-and-coming young men and women," says Debora. "I think it's important and vital that she brought those stories to them, because in the end, this is the community, this is who should retain these stories." expresses the artist. "Their spirits were becoming reignited by elder Julia's stories, a Tongva leader. I think for me, that is how we begin to help homies reconnect, re-identify, and now they can begin to reimagine what that future looks like, back to their ancestral lineages, something that was taken from us, and Julia brings it back to us."

Julia Bogany with Homeboy Art Academy Art Gang
Julia Bogany gives participants of the Homeboy Art Academy a tour of the San Gabriel Mission in 2019. | Courtesy of Fabian Debora

What was clear to Aranda and the thousands of people of all ages, backgrounds and belief systems Bogany touched — with everything from her infectious laughter to the profound insights she shared on nature and her homeland — she is and was an unforgettable force.

"As a mother, grandmother and great grandmother, Julia never came across as invisible in our eyes. She's never presented an ounce of weakness. She has always risen to the challenge with whatever, and whoever, came in her way. The driving factor for Julia to continue her work was to finally break out of that invisibility — not for herself, but for future generations," says Aranda. "That was something I was proud to witness: a strong, loving woman who put everyone before herself. Even when she was down, she made sure others weren't. Even when she was drained, she made sure she gave 101%. Even when she was busy, she made sure to clear an hour of her free time to help someone else. That is the kind of Tongva woman I aspire to be."

The committal service of Julia Bogany will take place at 10 a.m. on April 17 at Mt. View Mortuary & Cemetery, which will stream the service live on Facebook Her family set up a GoFundMe fundraiser to continue her important work in the community.

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