Santa Monica’s Indigenous Now festival honors the enduring vitality of Native stories with a slice of Desert X

By Kelby Vera

Cara Romero’s epic billboard-size images of Native American boys challenge stereotypes about indigenous people

Contrary to narrower views of history, Native American life in Southern California has never been a thing of the past. As home to one of the the largest populations of urban-dwelling Native Americans in the United States, Greater Los Angeles is a pivotal place for indigenous culture to thrive.

The rich histories and contemporary worlds of Native culture will demonstrate their spark during the second annual Indigenous Now festival at Santa Monica’s Tongva Park on Saturday, May 11.

Evoking the Tongva word “Kuuyam” — meaning “guest” — the day of dance, music, spoken word and visual art is intended to honor and uplift indigenous voices often erased or unheard. The festival invites people with and without indigenous heritage to liberate their idea of what being Native American means. The festival honors the Tongva people (for whom Tongva Park is named) as the traditional caretakers of the Tovaangar region, the land spanning through the Los Angeles basin and southern Channel Islands.

The festival opens with a blessing at noon, before going on to feature work and performances from contemporary indigenous dance group Dancing Earth, two-spirit artist Snowflake Towers, Santa Fe choreographer Natalie Benally, Pacific hip-hop artist Dakota Camacho, singer-songwriter Kelly Caballero, and Tongva-Chumash rapper Jessa Calderon. Tongva-Ajachmem artist L. Frank is debuting a new sculptural installation.

A showcase of artist Cara Romero’s work from the recent Desert X biennial in Coachella Valley — four of her five billboard-sized photographs from the series “Jackrabbit, Cottontail & Spirits of the Desert” — will loom large over the park landscape.

Romero, a woman of Chemehuevi heritage who was born in Inglewood and currently resides in New Mexico, honors the vibrancy of native life with her bold, large-scale photography. Aiming to break down stereotypes about indigenous people, Romero utilizes lush colors, crisp commercial lighting and theatrical staging. The spirit of past and present pulses through Romero’s epically scaled photos from Desert X, which span 42 feet long.

The full series of five photographic vignettes depicting a huddle of young Chemehuevi boys in traditional attire challenges people’s notions of the passive, noble native. Full of life, the little boys — whose characters are drawn from traditional folklore and mythologized here as youthful time travelers — venture through the desert landscape, clearly the guardians of the grounds.

One evokes the wisdom of generations of ancestors as he gazes directly into the lens; perfectly placed palm trees frame his figure. Another seamlessly slips into the scenery as he scales a cluster of boulders. In another frame, where the boys run through a wind farm, we’re reminded of the tension between the land and its modern inhabitants, the push and pull of living with an Earth whose essence is gradually being siphoned off with the extraction of its natural resources.

The group of four prove their place in the contemporary world as they hang out in the back of a rusty pickup truck. Romero’s work tilts more political in a frame showing the now sunglass-clad boys in front of a stark white wall with the words “No Wall” emblazoned on it in a defiant scrawl.

For Romero, it was important for the work to respond to the landscape with a fresh Native narrative that addressed the hallowed and harsh nature of the desert.

“I wanted to respond to the sacred places. I wanted to respond to the wind energy development. I wanted to respond to the political landscape,” she said. “So sometimes [the boys] showed up in the city, sometimes they showed up in front of a wind farm. Sometimes they showed up in front of sacred sites on little trucks the way that boys play… There was a way to connect to their humor and their sacredness and their courage and all of these things that appear with the little boys and appear in the landscape.”

The placement of “Jackrabbit, Cottontail & Spirits of the Desert” on billboards alongside the Gene Autry Trail (a busy desert highway) during Desert X set it apart from many of its more secluded, off-the-beaten-path counterparts, allowing the piece to be seen not only by destination art enthusiasts, but also everyday commuters — a thrilling experience for Romero.

“It’s been kind of this apex moment for me to be able to create such incredibly positive visibility for California Natives,” she said.

The idea of literally “advertising” Native vitality was revelatory for Romero, who explained, “It became this mega-powerful, like, epiphany. I want to advertise the beauty of our people and our resilience, our children and their future. … And of course with the wall piece I wanted to show love.”

And Romero sees the works’ visit to Tongva Park as an extension of that journey.

“I think any positive recognition — any visibility to help mainstream Los Angelenos connect with the idea that they’re on Indian land — I think it’s not only helpful to the Indian population … it’s also helpful to non-Native peoples to see how much in this day and age we do all need to be grounded, how much we do all need to get back to the spirit of the landscape that is indigenous.”

Indigenous Now happens from noon to 4 p.m. Saturday (May 11) at Tongva Park, 1615 Ocean Ave., Santa Monica. The event is free and open to all. Find more information at santamonica.gov/arts.

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