Most of Orange County, including the site of UC Irvine, is located on the shared territory of the Acjachemen and Tongva native tribes. While UCI was built on tribal lands in 1965, today, tribe members, along with UCI faculty and staff, are seeking to address the invisibility of Native nations through active community engagement
No Federal Recognition of Acjachemen and Tongva Tribes
Nearly 200 Native nations exist in California today, of which 111 are federally recognized. The Acjachemen and Tongva tribes are among the tribes that have not been federally recognized.
According to the U.S. Department of Indian Affairs, a federally-recognized tribe “is recognized as having a government-to-government relationship with the United States” and “is eligible for funding and services from the Bureau of Indian Affairs.” Federally-recognized tribes also possess “certain inherent rights of self-government.”
“Federal acknowledgement would provide us with resources, such as educational resources and medical resources,” said Acjachemen Tribe Manager Joyce Stanfield Perry. “The federal government would have more of a say on how we run our tribal government, as federally-recognized tribes are wards of the state under the United States of America.”
The Acjachemen tribe had been actively seeking federal recognition for decades, but was continuously denied recognition. According to Perry, a portion of the Acjachemen tribe has recently withdrawn itself altogether from the process of seeking federal recognition, while the tribe’s other portion was again denied recognition.
According to member of the Acjachemen Nation and founder and Executive Director of the Sacred Places Institute for Indigenous Peoples, Angela Mooney D’Arcy, the Acjachemen and Tongva tribes have not received federal recognition due to the geographical location of their lands.
D’Arcy explained that Orange County is the “hotbed of the most racist tweets west of the Mississippi” and is a very “privileged and expensive” area, and thus it is not in the U.S. government’s best interest to give legal jurisdiction of this area to Native Americans.
“The reason we don’t have federal recognition is because that would give us brown people the capacity to assert legal and territorial jurisdiction over land within one of the wealthiest, whitest and most privileged areas in all of the United States,” said D’Arcy. “We see the anti-immigrant and anti-Latino sentiment in Orange County by the fact that the KKK was actively recruiting on Martin Luther King day in Santa Ana this year and last year.”
Perry described that not being federally recognized has its pros and cons. While non-federally-recognized tribes do not receive federal resources, they exert sovereignty through an internal government, which has a more “community-oriented” and “grassroots focus.” Perry added that many tribes with formal recognition may not have this approach, since they have a reservation of their own, and specific criteria to meet in their dealing with the federal government.
Despite not being federally recognized, the Acjachemen tribe has asserted sovereignty outside of its internal nation as well. For instance, the U.S. Marine Corps consults with tribes, including the Acjachemen nation, who have ancestral ties to the area on which Camp Pendleton is built. In 2008, the U.S. Department of Commerce denied a permit for construction that would have affected an Acjachemen sacred site.
Yet, even tribes that are federally-recognized face difficulty when acquiring land trusts and legal jurisdiction. Former Acjachemen Chief Clarence Lobo actively sought more than just federal recognition in the early twentieth century. He started a political movement with a coalition of other tribes to claim tribal lands that were stolen, but the movement was largely ignored.
In order to draw attention to his cause, Lobo famously dressed in Plains Indian attire — the attire most stereotypically associated with Native Americans by the public — and stood at the site of construction of UCI in 1963. He expressed concern that Native American history would be completely erased in future generations.
“Our children shall not know the experience of roaming over these rolling hills and listening to the wild birds as they talk to nature,” said Lobo at the UCI construction site. “Our footprints upon the sands of time shall be history to them.”
Invisibility of Native Nations
As the Acjachemen and Tongva tribes have not been federally recognized, and will perhaps never be given their geographical location in Orange County, the invisibility of these tribes — and Native Nations in general — continues nationally today, as Lobo feared.
“Most people don’t recognize that there are nearly 200 nations in California alone today,” said D’Arcy.
This invisibility of native tribes is also augmented by the lack of media coverage of Native Americans, explained D’Arcy. For instance, according to the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice (CJCJ), an organization that researches police brutality and criminal justice, “the racial group most likely to be killed by law enforcement is Native Americans.”
Perry added that, when talking about under-resourced and underprivileged minorities, Americans think of African Americans, Hispanic Americans or Asian Americans. Native Americans are “among the most impoverished minorities,” but they are still not acknowledged.
“I think the bottom line is that if [the American public] acknowledges that the Native Americans are still here, they have to acknowledge the history of the nation, and that’s very contrary to the image that they want to project today,” said Perry.
Addressing Invisibility at UCI
The invisibility of the Acjachemen and other nations, which Lobo feared standing at UCI in 1963, is being actively addressed at the community level by Acjachemen and Tongva tribe members along with faculty and staff at UCI today.
Last year, UCI’s law school hosted a symposium titled “Cultivating Consciousness of Acjachemen Homelands” to discuss the relationship between Native nations and the university community. Speakers included D’Arcy and Perry.
Abby Reyes, who runs UCI’s Sustainability Initiative, which promotes sustainability on campus through community engagement, described that the initiative has been collaborating with the Acjachemen and Tongva tribal leaders.
“Indigenous communities, both here in Southern California and around the world, are really leading the social movement for environmental balance, economic vitality and social justice,” said Reyes. “We believe these communities have a lot to teach about this topic.”
Reyes added that many of these communities are facing economic disparity and injustice, and do not have access to the land and resources necessary to sustain traditional practices. The Sustainability Initiative has been working on various projects to bring attention to this injustice and to create strategies to address it.
Moreover, D’Arcy encourages students to work to correct the invisibility. The 200 Native nations in California today affect all areas that students research, including land use, health, political representation, law and public policy.
“It is important to have the skills and the capacity to engage with Native nations, and if people have no understanding of the real history of California and no real understanding of federal Indian law, it’s going to be very difficult for them to be adequately prepared to engage with Native nations,” said D’Arcy. “The reality is, particularly in a place like California, there is going to be a greater and greater need for that.”
This October, Indigenous organizations, Native nations, community organizations and universities worldwide will be gathering at UCI’s Beckman Center for the World Indigenous Law Conference.