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Native American Ceremony to Honor and Celebrate the Original Inhabitants of Claremont

Memorial pole located at ancient Tongva village and ceremonial site, Puvungna

Memorial pole located at ancient Tongva village and ceremonial site, Puvungna, on what is now the CSU Long Beach campus. Photo credit: Juergen Nogai

Petroglyph from the winter solstice ceremonial site in Simi Hills, located in a cave in a boundary area shared by the Tongva and Chumash. Photo credit: Juergen Nogai

Petroglyph from the winter solstice ceremonial site in Simi Hills, located in a cave in a boundary area shared by the Tongva and Chumash. Photo credit: Juergen Nogai

On the traditional opening day of classes at Pomona--when new students are welcomed by President David Oxtoby and faculty at Convocation--the College is hosting a celebratory gathering that looks to the original people who lived in this area.

The Native American Opening Ceremony will begin with a procession from Frank Dining Hall at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 4, leading to an evening of drumming, singing, chanting and ritual dances in Sontag Greek Theatre. Local Native American tribes will gather to mark the beginning of Pomona’s 125th Anniversary, offering an opportunity to connect with individuals whose ancestors inhabited this site long before the College was founded.

Professor of Theatre Betty Bernhard and playwright and performer Susan Suntree, who are co-teaching a new theatre class this fall, Sacred/Sites, conceived the event. “Since this is Pomona’s 125th anniversary and nothing like this ceremony has ever taken place here, we decided it should be an all-campus celebration of the culture and people who were here before Pomona was founded on their lands,” says Bernhard.  “We hope it will become an annual event.”

Bernhard organized with event with Scott Scoggins, Native American program coordinator at Pitzer College, who invited several local artists and groups to participate:

  • Jimmi Castillo, Pipe Keeper for the Tongva and Acjachemen People, and Native American spiritual leader;
  • Bill Neal, master Native American flutist, storyteller, activist, director of the Elk Whistle Ensemble;
  • Josie Montes and the White Rose Singers, the first all-female hand drum club at Sherman Indian High School in Riverside;
  • The Humaya (Hummingbird) Singers and Dancers, a 40-person traditional dance and song group of the Ohlone tribe;
  • and Chief Tony Cerda of the Ohlone, who has been elected chairman of the Ohlone Costanoan Rumsen Carmel tribe every two years since 1992.

“The ceremony that we’re going to do is a healing ceremony—to heal the land and the people, to make us all united and working together, instead of always arguing and having problems with each other,” says Cerda, who says his tribe often does ceremonies and presentations in schools and museums to share their culture. “We educate people that we’re still here. Indian people are here. We live among you; we are one with you. And we want them to know that so they understand they’re not just reading about antique people who don’t exist any more.”

The Ohlone Costanoan Rumsen Carmel tribe originated near San Francisco but migrated to Southern California in 1863 to escape hardship and find employment in local ranches like Lucky Baldwin’s Santa Anita Ranch, and Diamond Bar Ranch. Cerda explains that many of the tribe married local Gabrielino-Tongva Indians, so the tribe’s ancestry lies in both areas. The Gabrielino-Tongva tribe’s historic lands stretched throughout Southern California, including the current locations of Los Angeles County, Orange County and the southwestern portion of San Bernardino County.

For the opening ceremony, Bernhard notes that students are “essential as participants-witnesses. Everyone will ‘call in’ the Bear Dancers with a kind of call-and-response chant. All participants are invited to join in the closing slow spiral dance around the fire with drums and chanting.” Chief Cerda has requested there be no photography of any kind at the event, as the ceremony is a sacred one and respectful behavior and atmosphere are essential.

Bernhard’s new class, Sacred/Sites, will continue this type of educational and performance opportunity for students. The class, says Bernhard, relates to her earlier work with ritual theater practices in India, “where no one ever walks on a performance space in shoes because it is a sacred place,” and was inspired by co-teacher and well-known playwright, activist, poet and performer Susan Suntree’s one-woman performance and prize-winning book Sacred Sites: The Secret History of Southern California (University of Nebraska Press, 2011).

“Where and how performance takes place is always culturally informed,” says Bernhard. “We are going to focus on and respond to local sacred sites, journeying from the Big Bang to the present, by exploring cosmology, paleogeography, sacred sites and a variety of activities connected to them by the indigenous peoples in the Claremont Colleges area. The class cuts across many disciplines, joining arts and science. It is the course I wanted to take in college, but it didn’t exist then.”

The event is sponsored in part by the Mellon Foundation Elemental Arts Initiative, which has the theme of “earth” this academic year.