Garcetti celebrates winter solstice and prays for COVID dead

The earthy smell of burning sage filled the air Tuesday morning as dozens of Native Americans and city officials led by Mayor Eric Garcetti gathered at a nature reserve in the west San Fernando Valley to honor the winter solstice and pray for those who died died in the COVID-19 pandemic.

During a blessing ceremony held in a clearing of century-old oak trees in the Chatsworth Nature Preserve, Garcetti stood at the edge of a prayer circle, hands clasped and eyes closed, while Alan Salazar, an elder of the Fernandeño Tataviam tribe, blew sage smoke over him with a fan eagle feathers.

“This is a day to thank Mother Earth,” Salazar said, “and a day to pay off debts and make amends with people you are angry with.”

Garcetti later said a prayer of his own with those present. “We’ve lost 27,000 souls — more than that now,” he said, referring to the number of people who have died in Los Angeles County due to the ongoing pandemic. “So my prayer is that this town is safe. I don’t want to bury any more Angeleno.”

Fernandeño Tataviam elder Bernice Cooke makes a sacred tobacco offering at Chatsworth Nature Reserve.

Los Angeles officials led by Mayor Eric Garcetti, left, and Native American leaders watch as Bernice Cooke, a Fernandeño Tataviam tribal elder, makes a sacred tobacco offering in honor of the winter solstice at Chatsworth Nature Reserve in Chatsworth.

(Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times)

The unusual, hastily organized event has been dubbed a “community wellness gathering” hosted by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, which owns the 1,325-acre property, as well as the Fernandeño Tataviam Band of Mission Indians and the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash jointly organized was Indians.

During the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, the Earth’s northern hemisphere tilts as far away from the sun as possible over the course of the year. In Los Angeles, it was 7:59 a.m. on Tuesday.

However, the event was not all about sacred celestial phenomena. It came at a time when Los Angeles was officially developing strategies to increase diversity and pay equity at all levels of the city’s workforce and to correct the damage its education systems had done to minority students, including Native Americans.

In October, Garcetti announced the beginning of a process to rename downtown La Plaza Park, informally known as Father Serra Park. An Indigenous cultural facility is also being created in partnership with Council Member Mitch O’Farrell to give local tribal communities priority access to the park for the performance of traditional ceremonies.

The Los Angeles Unified School District Education Board voted unanimously earlier this year to allocate $10 million to support tribal organizations. The money is intended to help meet critical student services needs related to academic performance in the district’s coronavirus recovery efforts and to ensure schools are places that validate their unique linguistic, cultural and historical backgrounds.

Miguel Luna and his daughters attend a Native American winter solstice prayer ceremony.

Miguel Luna with his two daughters Jairo Luna, 8, and Olivia Luna, 10, attend a Native American winter solstice prayer ceremony at Chatsworth Nature Preserve on Tuesday.

(Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times)

Against a backdrop of rocky hills and twisting oak trees, political leaders including Senator Henry Stern, Chair of the Natural Resources and Water Committee; O’Farrell; John Lee, member of the Los Angeles City Council; and DWP Executive Chair Cynthia McClain-Hill took turns at a podium suggesting that the time had come to give back at least some of the land and water taken from Native Americans, whose ancestors have always occupied Los Angeles County.

For Rudy Ortega Jr., president of the Fernandeño Tataviam tribe, which has 860 members, such a conversation was long overdue. His ancestors struggled to maintain their family lines within geographic regions until the lands were overtaken by Anglo-American expansion.

Now, tribal members face the long and costly process of federal recognition of their Native American status — a step necessary to establish a land base, some degree of sovereignty, and seek assistance with health care, education, and sacred protection to qualify sites.

With this goal in mind, the tribe has been actively identifying various parcels of land that they hope to one day call their own again. Among them is the Chatsworth Reservoir.

“The idea of ​​reclaiming land that was once ours isn’t new,” Ortega said, “but it’s new to this administration, and its leadership seems open to it.”

In addition, he said, “My father asked about the Chatsworth Sanctuary on behalf of the tribe in 1970.”

The tribe’s requests for control of the reservation have raised concern among some locals, who fear the acquisition could be a backdoor to building a casino.

Ortega would not rule that out at a later date under certain conditions. “Whatever the tribal leaders decide to improve our economy is up to them.”

But Marty Adams, the DWP’s general manager and chief engineer, said handing over control of the reservation was out of the question.

“There is a general interest on the part of the city in finding open space that we could give back to the tribes,” he said. “However, here at Chatsworth Preserve we are not talking about the transfer of ownership.”

“The discussions were more geared towards maybe giving them some relief,” he added, “to give them better access or to provide space for a fire pit for traditional ceremonies.” Garcetti celebrates winter solstice and prays for COVID dead

Tom Vazquez

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