Native American Heritage Month – Meet Your Neighbor, Kat High

Kat High holding an acorn during one of her Topanga workshops. Photo by Flavia Potenza

He”yung whi’ma yo

By Kat High (Hupa)

He”yung whi’malyo. I am your neighbor and have lived here in Topanga for 40 years.  

My kids grew up here. Topanga has changed over the years, but the land is still under our feet.  Most of us are not native to this place. I am among the relocated. I am a descendant of the Hupa tribe from northern California, and a French fisherman from Marseilles.  

My mother was told by her mother to “never tell anyone you are Indian.” My mother was born in 1912, but it only became illegal to hunt Indians in California in 1924. It became legal to speak our Native languages and practice our culture in 1979, when Congress passed the Native American Freedom of Religion Act in 1978.

It was difficult finding anything Native American to share with my kids in the urban “Cementland” of L.A. in the ‘70s, but we found the Southern California Indian Center on Sepulveda in the Fox Hills area and we got involved. We have been activists in our community ever since.  

The urban L.A. area has about 200,000 people of Native heritage and, now, there are lots of events for our communities, places for our children and families. We are, however, scattered far and wide. Often there is only one Native family in a L.A. school. There are still plenty of misconceptions about Indians in our city schools: the true story of the missions is not shared, and the whole story of Thanksgiving is rarely part of the holiday celebration.  

Our children have a different way of learning and participating in schools, and many teachers fail to recognize this. There is a wonderful book for kids, “Kiki’s Journey,” by Kristy Orona Ramirez, an award-winning teacher, about our Native kids’ experiences in urban schools. In the past, approximately only 30 percent of Native students graduated from high school.

I work with Title VI Indian Education through the LAUSD, a federally funded program to encourage cultural education. LAUSD has one of the largest programs in the country and I am a board member of the American Indian Scholarship Fund of Southern California. We now have an annual scholarship for a Title VI high school senior moving on to college in SoCal, and have granted more than 200 scholarships to Native students in local colleges over the years.

This year, L.A. changed Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day and the month of November to Native American Heritage Month. There will be an exhibit on Native artists on the Bridge from City Hall to the parking lot, a pow-wow at Grand Park, and other events throughout L.A. County during the month and beyond. L.A. even has a L.A. City County Native American Commission, and the Title VI Native American LAUSD program. We also have a City Commissioner, Mitch O’Farrell, who is a Wyandott descendant. He has been active in bringing more of our community together and bringing more visibility to our people and culture. One big event will be our Native American pow-wow at Grand Park downtown on November 17.  Good changes!

I was taught that Creator made all of the bioregions of the Earth, no two exactly alike. Creator gave each region its People to sing its songs, do its dances, and keep it in balance. We are the first Bio-regionalists. Each bioregion is as valid as the others, and all are dependent on that balance.  

We feel we have our “roots” in those bioregions, and when we are multi-regional, that makes us more diverse and stronger. Most of us are “relocated” to Topanga. We have been made “rootless.”  Those roots are looking for connection and the soil of Topanga is hungry for our roots, so learn the history of Topanga, learn how to re-establish the native plants and how to interact with them, and sink your roots into this land.

I hope to continue to offer workshops at my home, Kidiwische Corner (butterfly in the Hupa language), offer recipes, stories, and nuggets of cultural connection through the Messenger Mountain News.  

It is a joy to live in Topanga.

What are Native American Stories?

By Kat High (Hupa)

Leslie Marmon Silko, in her award-winning novel, “Ceremony,” informs us: “I will tell you something about stories.  They aren’t just entertainment.  Don’t be fooled. They are all we have, you see, all we have to fight off illness and death. You don’t have anything if you don’t have the stories.”

Thomas King, in “The Truth about Stories”, states “The truth about stories, is that’s all we are.  Stories have the power to change who we are and how we understand and interact with our world and each other.”

In the old days, stories were passed down verbally by an elder storyteller, in a place and time conducive to listening and absorbing the story.  There were certain seasons, certain persons who could tell the story and no others. We don’t tell bear stories in the winter and some tribes don’t tell coyote stories in the summer.  They are listening.

What happens when those stories are written down, available for any person to tell them, at any time or season?  Are they still listening?  What happens to the story when it is shortened into sound bites and abbreviated? Does it still have power? Are Indian stories only in the long, long ago? I think if it’s told by an Indian, it’s an Indian story, even if it happened yesterday.

I am a member of the California Indian Storytelling Association. I am careful to only tell stories I have been given permission to tell and am careful to cite my source. I suggest that you honor our stories by continuing this respectful relationship to the stories that shape the Indian world.

How Hummingbird got Fire

By Linda Yamane

A long time ago Eagle, Hummingbird, Crow, Raven, and Hawk lived at the top of the world, and were hungry.  There was food to be found, but they needed fire to cook with.

Eagle sent Hummingbird to get fire from the Badger People who live underground, but the Badger People refused to share their fire and sent Hummingbird away.  When Hummingbird returned, Eagle was very angry, and sent Hummingbird back to the Badger People’s home.

The Badger People saw Hummingbird coming and said “Cover the fire!  Cover the fire!”  They hid their fire under a big deerskin. But the deerskin had a hole where an arrow had gone through, and Hummingbird reached in with his long, narrow beak. He took out a hot ember, and carried it away – but before he could put it safely in his armpit – it flamed, turning his throat a brilliant red.   

That’s why Hummingbird has a red throat, and how the Ohlone got fire.

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