John Valenzuela, Tribal Chairman

Interview by Leon Worden
Signal City Editor

Sunday, July 11, 2004
(Television interview conducted May 27, 2004)

John Valenzuela     "Newsmaker of the Week" is presented by the SCV Press Club and Comcast, and hosted by Signal City Editor Leon Worden. The half-hour program premieres every Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on SCVTV Channel 20, repeating Sundays at 8:30 a.m.
    This week's newsmaker is John Valenzuela, chairman of the San Fernando Band of Mission Indians, which represents native Americans in the Santa Clarita Valley. The following interview was conducted May 27. Questions are paraphrased and answers may be abbreviated for length.

Signal: Your group has the name "San Fernando" in it, but whom do you represent?

Valenzuela: Well, I represent three groups — Fernandeños, which is the San Fernando Valley; I represent Tataviam, which is the Upper Santa Clara River; and the Vanyume, which is the northern desert, clear up to Victorville.

Signal: So your organization has a geographic boundary?

Valenzuela: Yes.

Signal: How does somebody become a member?

Valenzuela: There is a lot of documentation that goes into it. You have to have what they call a BIA number through the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Signal: Individuals do?

Valenzuela: Yes. ... In 1928 there were the rolls through the BIA, and also in 1948 and '68. During those rolls, they gave you a number, and you end up with a BIA number.

Signal: So each individual has a number?

Valenzuela: Yes. (As to) myself, my son has it, because he was in that period there. But anybody below his sons, to show where they're from ... would have to show proof that I am his dad, and that I had the documentation, and it goes from that point on.

Signal: You must be a real expert in genealogy.

Valenzuela: You know, it's a really complicated issue. When we started this recognition process it was mind-boggling — I mean, all the laws that we have to meet through the BIA, through the membership, the genealogy and all the criteria that we have to meet.
    Right now we have a moratorium on the membership. We are still working on the membership. We have hired a certified genealogist; she gets into our rolls to make sure that we have all the necessary documents from (the members).

Signal: Why would there be a moratorium on membership?

Valenzuela: Well, the members, which consist of 600 or more, had a vote in one of our meetings to hold a moratorium until we finish the documentation. We wanted to finish what we had in there now and get it certified. It doesn't mean that later on we can't allow anybody else to go in; we can. It's up to the members to decide.

Signal: When you refer to documentation — you're seeking federal recognition.

Valenzuela: Yes. In 1995 we put in a letter of intent with the Bureau of Indian Affairs that we were going to try to form a tribe. We had some legal advice from the California Indian Legal Services, which helped us to (write) our constitution and other requirements that we needed in order to proceed with this petition.
    We don't have them anymore; we have an attorney now, and he is a native, and he is familiar (with the process). I believe he was the chairman of the Cahuilla tribe for a small period of time. He's familiar as to what we need, working along with Dr. John Johnson, ethnohistorian with the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History. John Johnson has gathered a lot of information about the Mission Indians here in California, and also (about) our families locally. He has put some documents together to show that our ancestors lived a long time ago here in this area.

Signal: So your group is functioning as a nonprofit organization.

Valenzuela: Yes. We go under Seven Feathers (Inc.), which is the nonprofit corporation that we have now. In order to try to put our petition together, we applied for an ANA grant, the Administration for Native Americans, and we were very fortunate to get this grant, a large amount of money. With this grant, we hired John Johnson and our attorney and a CPA to help us with the process. Also, we bought all of our equipment, all the computers, all the desks, all the equipment that we needed to open an office. That really helped us out because normally, we would have to go out and raise the money to do this.

Signal: Is having an office a requirement for recognition?

Valenzuela: Yes.

Signal: What does federal recognition do for you?

Valenzuela: Well, federal recognition gives us federal funds and benefits. It gives us a right to (make) some kind of (property) investment through the government. Of course if we do that, they have to buy the property and it goes into trust and we have to deal with them.
    What we really want is medical (coverage) for our elders; we want benefits to cover some of our children, our grandsons, other family members, too; to get an education. So that's where some of these funds come in. Of course the biggest item is to get medical for the people in the tribe. That's why it comes under the federal recognition process.

Signal: Many people automatically think "casino" when they hear about an Indian tribe in California. Is that on your horizon?

Valenzuela: We're putting this petition together, and that's the first thing that people think: "Well, they're going to put (in) a petition; they're going to get recognized; 'casino.'" But there are other areas that we can invest in, other than a casino.
    I think a casino, right now, is a little bit out of the picture, even though we have been approached by investors. I think that we need to concentrate more (on) trying to put all the documentation together to get federally recognized. We don't want to get (sidetracked) thinking that investors are going to help support us to get set up.
    We've got the work that we have to do with John Johnson. The other stuff can come later. I'm not saying no, maybe, yes; I don't know. We need, I think, to concentrate on what is more important to us right now.

Signal: Although you represent a much wider area, you've talked in the past about wanting to establish a cultural center here in Santa Clarita. Is that still in your plans?

Valenzuela: Definitely. We are looking for property.
    We have a lot of artifacts and material at the Antelope Valley Indian Museum. It's just sitting in there and it's put away in storage. I would just love to put a cultural center here in the valley for the school kids — teach them a little bit about what our culture was, show them the artifacts and the materials (people) used, to live on. I think it's very important that you get it into the school systems, maybe bus them into a cultural center and (teach) them the program.

Signal: Turning back the clock, how many people lived in the Santa Clarita Valley at the time of Spanish conquest, when the missionaries built the outpost at Castaic Junction in 1804?

Valenzuela: I really don't have the count. I believe there were quite a few. One time I heard about 5,000 (or) 6,000. I don't know if that's a true fact or not. A lot of this information was lost as far as our cultural resources and the language and so forth that we had.

Signal: The people here at the time were the Tataviam.

Valenzuela: Yes. Here in the valley we have the Chacanacas; they were here for many years —

Signal: That's a family name?

Valenzuela: Yes, a family name. We had the Wards here, and then we had the Cookes.

Signal: The Cookes in Castaic?

John Valenzuela Valenzuela: Yes. So, a lot of them lived here in this area. Our part of the family, the Valenzuela family, was on the coast, the Ventura and Oxnard area. Some of them were in Piru and the Santa Paula area. ... You had a large amount of people here in the Santa Clarita Valley.

Signal: What's your personal bloodline? You're not full-blooded Tataviam —

Valenzuela: I don't think there is anybody that's really full-blooded...

Signal: During the Spanish period, tribal groups across Southern California were taken to the missions —

Valenzuela: They were driven to the missions to work in the missions, to build the missions, and a lot of them in the San Fernando area lived around the mission. I think at that time, there were probably four or five tribes like the Chumash; the Tongva; Gabrieleño; us, the Fernandeño — there were different groups there at one time. Then later on they kind of split it off, after they were forcing the people to go into the missions.
    We go back as far as Victorville in the high desert. Topipabit is a village there now, and it goes back to about 1750, I believe. We have some ancestors who come out of that village, and that was way prior to the mission period.

Signal: Why do you call your group a "band"? Is there a difference between a band and a tribe?

Valenzuela: Not really. It's just a name. It's a band of people put together. Somebody might just call it a tribe.

Signal: So your organization isn't really about representing people because they're Tataviam or Fernandeño or Vanyume; it's really about representing individual families?

Valenzuela: Representing the people that we have — yes. And of course, there are probably a lot of (other) people out there, but it's a big task to get all these people and get all that documentation together. There probably are other people that would be connected, but they've never registered with us, so we just work with the people that we have now in our membership.

Signal: When you talk about some of your own people coming from Oxnard, they would be Chumash — so where did you have ancestors who link you to your tribe?

Valenzuela: It would be in San Fernando, the Fernandeño. As a matter of fact, growing up as a young man on the coast — my mother and my dad would tell me that, yeah, we're natives, but during that time, things were not allowed to be said about — that we were Indian or whatever. We were led to believe that we were part Chumash.
    But as we went along and worked in the archives with John Johnson and got all of the documentation, we were not. As a matter of fact, we still have people who live in Oxnard, members of ours; it's hard for them to believe that we were not Chumash. The only Chumash that we have in our genealogy comes from Calleguas Creek over in the Santa Rosa Valley. Jimmy Addington came out of a village there. But it was a very small line.

Signal: Some of your members claim local heritage but don't live here?

Valenzuela: Right. A lot of them moved. A lot of them used to work here at the Van Nuys auto plant. A lot of them live in Oregon; we have some in South Carolina; we have some in Idaho. They're pretty much spread out. Up in Portland (and) Washington...

Signal: You dip down into the San Fernando Valley where there's a separate tribe, the Fernandeño-Tataviam.

Valenzuela: Yes. We have met with that group. As you know, there's a lot of things that we have to do before we (can) put that petition in, and we didn't want any red flags raised. One of the things was that this other group has another group of people. They do fall in line within our history, but a very small part of it. We had to meet with these people because we wanted to find out if they had some of our people signed, or we had some of theirs signed. You couldn't participate in one tribe and the other tribe. So we did this with a letter from the chairman and myself — we put a letter to all the members, stating, where are you at? This is how we established that we didn't want anybody to say, "Hey, wait a minute, you didn't enroll me in your records." We didn't want to have any problems with it.

Signal: There's not a problem of geographic overlap?

Valenzuela: No.

Signal: Individuals can decide what tribe they want to join?

Valenzuela: Yes, if they have the genealogy. We have probably about 650 members now. We're still doing some paperwork and we'll probably get up to about 700.

Signal: It's only been a few years since your organization has been going.

Valenzuela: Yes.

Signal: If there was already a group in the San Fernando Valley, what prompted you to start this?

Valenzuela: It was our people. We gathered in Thousand Oaks and we thought about the idea of getting our people together and having meetings and putting a constitution together and working on our membership.

Signal: It's only been the last couple of years that you've been active locally. You've shown up at City Council meetings now; what are you out to accomplish?

Valenzuela: Right now we're trying to get involved in native American monitoring. Since this is our historical area and our genealogy comes from this area, we felt that we should get involved in the government issues, the city issues here, and also in construction jobs, because we find that there is a lot of destruction of cultural resources.
    Also, we want to be involved because we have ancestors who came out of these villages. For example, we have a project in the Leona Valley, the widening of Elizabeth Lake Road. We just got a contract on that, and I have a person doing some monitoring out there. There are some (culturally significant) sites involved, and that's why we want to get involved, because we don't want to see any more destruction of cultural resources or sites.
    A while back, I did another job for the city of Palmdale, which was the same part of Elizabeth Lake Road — they widened the road, and we happened to hit some sites that we didn't think were there. We found a site towards the end of the project, close to Bouquet Canyon. After consulting with (city officials), they actually moved the city property line over so we could miss that site. But a bad thing happened: A couple of years later we drove by there, and apparently somebody had bought the property where we had moved (the cultural materials) to not be destroyed, and the guy took 15 feet of soil off the top of that site.

Signal: What was there?

Valenzuela: We had remains, human remains; we had artifacts; we had two parts of remains. We interred them, right close by the site. It was devastating to me to see that there was something there (that) we didn't want it to be disturbed and for some reason along the line because of the building permits, the county — it was an individual home that the guy was going to build there. Some way or another, there was not an investigation done through the informational center where we gathered all of the (information about) sites that we had. So the guy went ahead and built on it. That was devastating to me.

Signal: What do you do if somebody owns property where you believe there to be remains or artifacts? Do you work with the owner?

Valenzuela: (In the Leona Valley case), it's a very gray area as far as CEQA (the California Environmental Quality Act) is concerned. I worked very hard with the heritage commission in Sacramento, and it was just a gray area. I complained to (Supervisor Michael D.) Antonovich's office in the county, but nothing was done with it.

Signal: In general, do you want to see things preserved on-site and stop people from developing their property, or are you willing to see artifacts be moved?

Valenzuela: There are two different (issues). In some cases, it depends (on) what we really feel. If there are human remains on it, of course we're going to leave it up to our elders to decide if they want to move them out. We have set a policy with this now, and I think that we need to consult with them.
    Under the requirements, with the county or (city), there are some requirements through the environmental impact report that comes out. ... Some of the counties are pretty good about that. But of course there are gray areas like the Leona Valley, a lot of individual homes, and there are probably sites all over the valley there.

Signal: Where have you found that there are artifacts and remains in the SCV? Are they concentrated in one area, or are they all over?

Valenzuela: They're really all over. A while back we did a burial site at Highway 126 with Caltrans. It was a big site with human remains, and there were different time periods because of the way they were buried. We reinterred them in the same place that we had found them, with whatever artifacts they had with them, to make sure that nobody gets into it.

Signal: You've shown up at Planing Commission hearings on Newhall Land's Riverpark project, where about 1,100 homes are planned near the Santa Clara River.

Valenzuela: Right. As a matter of fact, I attended the Planning Commission (meeting) and I raised my concerns over it — that under the report, which I got later, there was a site that was going to be destroyed.

Signal: What is there?

Valenzuela: Well, initially, when they do a Phase 1 (archaeological survey), they go in and they look at the surface. They can usually tell at the surface if there are artifacts of some kind there. It kind of tells you a little bit about the soil. You really have to look at the surface to know if there's anything there. Usually you can see something on top.

Signal: What kind of artifacts are on the Riverpark property?

Valenzuela: That's one thing about it, it's pretty hard to tell. (People lived) all along the Santa Clara River. They were close to water, they were real close to nice places. Probably during that time there were nice places along the Santa Clara River, and they used to pick some sites along the Santa Clara River. So you really don't know if there is anything there or not. We have to do some kind of inspection or do some little excavation to find out if there are any materials there.

Signal: Have they done that?

Valenzuela: No they haven't. All they did is a surface inspection. They have not done that.

Signal: What did they surface inspection indicate?

Valenzuela: That they found material, but not enough to say (whether) we should leave it alone or (not).

Signal: What do you want to see happen?

Valenzuela: I don't want to see anything destroyed. A lot of times, a lot of this material will wash over. You have to use common sense. If there was a village on top and you're working down on the bottom, you usually see what time. It has been years and years since these villages were there, so it's pretty hard to tell. There could even be material that went down the river. In this case over in the Leona Valley, what they are going to do — we are going to do — we're going to have excavations to find what is really (contained) on the sites.

Signal: What's the next step for your organization? Will we see you become more active with development projects?

Valenzuela: Yes, I think so. As a matter of fact, we put a letter in to the Newhall Land Co. that we want to get involved in their project up there. ... We want to preserve as much as we can, especially here in this valley, (which) is very rich in cultural resources. No matter where you dig, if it's a private home or whatever it is, near the river or on top of the hill, we have to treat it very sensitively.

Signal: What is the value in saving the artifacts, and the culture?

Valenzuela: Just like anything else, I think there is a lot of value. I think it's stuff that shouldn't be disturbed. There are human remains that are there for a purpose; we shouldn't disturb them. It's just like, if we go to Eternal Valley (Cemetery) up here and we got a bulldozer and he just went through there, that's the same way we would feel — getting a bulldozer and destroying all that we have there.
    We should preserve our cultural resources as much as possible. It's hard because of all the construction that's going here, but we're going to stay active here. We do have an office at the Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society (Heritage Junction). ... Eventually we're probably going to get an office someplace big enough where we can hold our meetings with our members. We are working on a lot of projects right now.

    See this interview in its entirety today at 8:30 a.m., and watch for another "Newsmaker of the Week" on Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on SCVTV Channel 20, available to Comcast and Time Warner Cable subscribers throughout the Santa Clarita Valley.

©2004 SCVTV.
RETURN TO TOP ]   RETURN TO MAIN INDEX ]   PHOTO CREDITS ]   BIBLIOGRAPHY ]   BOOKS FOR SALE ] is another service of SCVTV, a 501c3 Nonprofit • Site contents ©SCVTV • Additional copyrights apply