#TONGVALAND project

A photographic collaboration with Cara Romero, Chemehuevi

INTRODUCTION

Seeded by the NDN Collective’s Radical Imagination Grant, this public exhibition of fine artwork photography, digital composites and paintings is dedicated to the empowerment, recognition and social justice for Tongva Indian peoples. 7 billboards are being installed throughout the month of August in the Los Angeles Metro area and will remain up through September 29th at various locations. They will all be up simultaneously from August 28-September 2.

The images in this collection of work, made in Los Angeles by both Tongva artists and myself, are a living dialogue between California Indians, urban Indian transplants, settlers, and diasporic peoples. Featured artists are L. Frank Manriquez (Tongva/Ajachmem), Mercedes Dorame (Tongva), Weshoyot Alvitre (Tongva), River Garza (Tongva),  Miztla Aguilera (Tongva) and Cara Romero (Chemehuevi). By utilizing public art and/or advertising space as a medium for installation, the imagery is accessible to all people. The imagery evokes the old AIM adage, “We are still here.” But for these images, we must center the Tongva when we say this in Los Angeles.

This body of art is not just about the themes portrayed in the images. It tells a story about the process and protocol that needs to take place on the path to #LandBack. This work will appear in August 2021 on billboards in iconic Los Angeles neighborhoods.

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Artist Statement by Cara Romero

MY APPROACH

As a Chemehuevi Indian woman who was born in LA, I wanted to pay homage to the people of the city I love, the original caretakers of Tovaangar. I set out to explore themes of invisibility, survivance and belonging to a place, from an Indigenous perspective. I wanted to explore the complexity of urban spaces, where the original caretakers of the land are so often a minority among the displaced urban Indian population. I wanted to convey that LA is a Native space; that the Tongva People are here, and that it is our responsibility --whether we ourselves are Native or not-- to educate ourselves about whose land we are on. I wanted to bring critical public awareness to the fact that the First Peoples of the city with the second-largest Native American population in the US do not have Federal Recognition. (This is also true for the city with the highest Native population, New York.)

PROCESS

I knew that this project would not be easy. There are so many complex layers of relationships between Natives and non-Natives, and inter-tribal Natives and each other in the urban ethnoscape. I began to conceive of a project that would spark conversations about why some tribes are “recognized” with certain “rights” within the framework of a sovereign nation-to-nation relationship with the US, and other tribes are not.

I set out to recenter the Tongva Nation, among other urban Indians, neighboring tribes that are “recognized,” and visitors to LA. My aim for this work is to be a testament to the Tongva Peoples’ ongoing care for Los Angeles, its mountains, beaches and sacred sites. With these intentions in place, I knew the process would have to be very thoughtful and self-critical to avoid the backfire that might come with “savior” or “orientalist” interpretations of the work. 

Original Instructions teach us to be “a good relative.” This means following the protocols of a particular place that are stewarded by the people of that particular place. The images on these billboards tell the story of making relations with Tongva people, listening to how they relate to their ancestral homelands, the stories they want to tell -- and, the stories they don’t want to tell.

As I began to consult with Tongva collaborators, I was foremost open to learning about how to be a good ally to another tribe. Ultimately, I transformed my intent of providing a monumental visual platform to a meaningful learning journey about how to be a good ally to another Indian community as an Indigenous person. In this process, the body of work called for me to share the public spaces with Tongva artists -- asking them to speak back and forth in dialogue, for our visions to compliment each other. I could have created more images, but this would have mirrored the lateral oppression that the Tongva already experience from the broader urban Indian community. I cannot tell their story, but my art can be a cipher to support their telling. 

REMAINING THEME

At the end of this creative process, perhaps the biggest theme to emerge is to respect the process that emerges from a consultation. I hope that the relationships made through my conversations, and the resultant dialogue between the art pieces, will be mirrored in the larger society that we all critically explore what it means to live on someone’s ancestral sacred land. -- that these conversations will be sparked beyond a land acknowledgment to #LandBack.

Meet the artists