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Native American Cultural Experiences at National Parks—South

Native American Cultural Experiences at National Parks—South

Native Americans’ dynamic history are omnipresent at multiple sites administered by the National Park Service

Once part of the traditional homelands of Southern California’s indigenous peoples, the region’s national parks, monuments, and recreation areas both preserve native lands and are stark reminders of the impacts of colonization and settlement. While national park service facilities allow visitors to experience a semblance of the natural world that the state’s Native Americans revered, for tribal members the parks can also symbolize the disruption of their ancestors’ traditional way of life.

In recent years, there’s been a growing awareness of the gap between the highest ideals of the national parks and their impacts on Native American tribes. Increasingly, tribal members are working with the park service both on environmental initiatives and on more inclusive presentations of how the stories of individual parks and monuments are conveyed to the public.  And in a major historic change, both Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland and Park Service Director Chuck Sams are members of indigenous tribes—the first Native Americans to serve in these roles.

Listed south to north, here’s a look at national parks and monuments with strong ties to the state’s indigenous peoples in the southern half of California. You can also learn about Native American experiences in national parks in the northern half of the state.

Cabrillo National Monument

Near the tip of San Diego’s Point Loma peninsula, Cabrillo National Monument commemorates a turning point in California’s Native American history: the arrival of the first Europeans on the West Coast of what is now the United States.

By the time Spanish explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo entered San Diego Bay in 1542, the Kumeyaay people had lived in the region for 12,000 years. While Cabrillo’s stay was brief and the Spanish colonization of California wouldn’t begin until 1769, the expedition marked the first contact between Europeans and the state’s coastal indigenous peoples when three Kumeyaay went out to meet Cabrillo. The monument’s visitor center has interpretive displays about the Kumeyaay and tribal members have conducted cultural demonstrations, including traditional dances and basket weaving, during September’s annual Cabrillo Festival.

Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area

Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area stretches across modern-day Los Angeles and encompasses traditional Tongva and Chumash lands. The indigenous presence here goes back at least 10,000 years and both the Tongva and Chumash depended on abundant food sources available both on land and from the ocean. The Santa Monicas’ 1,000 known archaeological sites give the range one of the highest densities of ancient locations of any mountains in the world, according to the National Park Service.

The Chumash village site of Talepop (or Ta’lopop or Tal’lopop) is part of Malibu Creek State Park and the major Chumash settlement of Humaliwo is at Malibu Lagoon State Beach. Many of the range’s placenames, including Topanga (Tongva), Malibu (Chumash), and Mugu (Chumash) are derived from tribal languages. From a turnout on Pacific Coast Highway about two miles west of La Jolla Canyon in Point Mugu State Park, the short but extremely steep Chumash Trail follows an ancient path used by the Chumash to ascend the slopes of Mugu Peak.

To learn more about the area’s Native American history, stop by the Satwiwa Native American Indian Culture Center near Thousand Oaks. The center is along a onetime trade route through Sycamore Canyon to the coast and on weekends, rangers or tribal members are onsite to answer questions.  

Joshua Tree National Park

Four different tribal groups—the Serrano, Cahuilla, Mojave, and Chemehuevi—lived in or ranged through what is now Joshua Tree National Park. From the park ranger station at Twentynine Palms, located about 50 miles northeast of Palm Springs, a short trail explores the Oasis of Mara, a natural oasis originally settled by the Serrano and where the Chemehuevi later lived starting in the 1860s. Today’s Twenty-Nine Palms Band of Mission Indians, whose reservation is nearby, are the descendants of the Chemehuevi.

In the Serrano language, Mara means “the place of little springs and much grass” and according to traditional tribal songs, the oasis is the first place where the Serrano lived on Earth. They used deer grass for basket weaving and the palm fronds as a building material, while also harvesting mesquite beans and cultivating such crops as corns, beans, and squash.

Elsewhere in the park, you’ll find scattered evidence of the early Native American presence, including mortar holes used to grind seeds during food preparation and rock art. The park’s most accessible rock art is found on Barker Dam Trail, an easy 1.1-mile interpretive loop. The trail combines a good look at the park’s iconic monzogranite boulders with access to an impressive group of pictographs and petroglyphs. The rock art is set within a cave with a natural arch, and some accounts suggest that the pictographs are especially vivid because they were enhanced during a film shoot in the early 1960s—an act that would certainly qualify as vandalism by today’s standards.

Channel Islands National Park

Channel Islands National Park off the Ventura and Santa Barbara County coast might seem remote but these islands have a documented human history that dates back a remarkable 13,000 years. More than 20 Chumash village sites have been identified on the four northern islands, while the Tongva were known to have used Santa Barbara Island, as well other islands off Southern California that are not part of the national park. Santa Cruz Island (known as Limuw to the Chumash) has 3,000 prehistoric sites and an interpretive guide offers information about the island’s villages and notable locations. There are also guides for the national park’s other islands.

The Chumash used their plank canoes known as tomols to reach the islands and there was considerable trade between the island and mainland populations. While it only takes about an hour by boat to reach the closest of the islands, a trip to the Channel Islands is like journey to the California of centuries past—a world of rolling hills and long, empty beaches that the ancient Chumash would recognize. For exhibits on the islands’ Native American history, stop into the Robert J. Lagomarsino Visitor Center in Ventura.

Native California National Parks Mojave

Mojave National Preserve

Spreading over 1.6 million acres between Interstates 15 and 40 east of Barstow and 140 miles from Los Angeles, the Mojave National Preserve’s human history dates back at least 10,000 years. The ancestors of today’s Chemehuevi and Mojave tribes were the primary inhabitants of this vast land, which ranges from rugged mountain ranges that top out at 7,929-foot Clark Mountain to lower elevation areas near the Colorado River.

While many preserve highlights, including the Kelso Dunes, are easy to reach from paved roads, its historic Native American sites are intentionally unpublicized and considerably more difficult to find. However, in the preserve’s Mid-Hills area, you can see petroglyphs on the 1.5-mile Rings Loop Trail.

The preserve’s big adventure is the Mojave Road, a four-wheel drive route that runs roughly (and roughly) 150 miles across the desert. The Mojave Road follows an ancient route used by the desert’s indigenous people to trade with coastal tribes. The drive can take three days and is not for travelers who are unacquainted with this kind of challenging trek. And even those with off-road experience and the proper vehicle should always check with the preserve about the latest road conditions before heading out.

Death Valley National Park

Despite its foreboding name, Death Valley National Park is a place where indigenous people have lived for at least 1,000 years. During the valley’s brutal summers, when temperatures frequently top out above 120 degrees, the ancestors of today’s Timbisha Shoshone escaped into the surrounding high country, where they found ample food sources, including pinyon pine nuts and mesquite beans.

When Death Valley was designated a national monument in 1933, the Timbisha Shoshone’s longtime and documented habitation of the area was disregarded, and it wasn’t until 1983 that the U.S. government formally recognized the tribe. Finally in 2000, the Timbisha Shoshone received 7,700 acres, including acreage in Death Valley, and became the first tribe with a reservation inside a national park.

In addition to exhibits on Timbisha Shoshone culture and history at the park visitor center, on the reservation land near Furnace Creek, there’s a casual dining spot serving Indian tacos, fry bread, and shave ice. Check for hours because the restaurant has been closed because of COVID-19.

Pinnacles National Park

Two tribes with ancestral ties to the area now encompassed by Pinnacles National Park are playing a vital collaborative role in habitat management at this park in the Gabilan Mountains 52 miles east of Monterey. As the park website puts it, “the entire landscape is a cultural resource from the indigenous perspective” and members of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band and Chalon Indian Nation, both subgroups of the Ohlone people, are engaged in park eco-cultural restoration projects that integrate traditional practices, such as the burning of deergrass meadows.

The Amah Mutsun participates in interpretive programs to introduce visitors to its traditional culture and works with the park on the reintroduction of California condors; Pinnacles is one of the release locations for these giant birds that nearly went extinct by the 1980s and condors play a sacred role for the Amah Mutsun.

The Pinnacles landscape held a spiritual significance for the Ohlone and the park’s famous talus caves, including Balconies Cave and Bear Gulch Cave, might have been used for ceremonies. The park’s extensive trail network offers multiple options for visiting these caves.

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