‘What happens to one of us happens to all of us’

Native American leaders in Los Angeles seek to reduce high rates of violence against indigenous women


Julia Bogany, a Tongva elder from the tribe native to the Los Angeles basin, spent decades healing from violence and trauma.

Abused at a young age, she now uses her story to empower women to overcome pain they’ve experienced in their own lives.

"I am molested first from my grandfather at age two and it was a whole life of moving. When my parents divorced, moving to Baja and getting molested by teachers that didn’t speak the language," Bogany said.

In her work as an elder-in-residence at Pitzer College and a leader of women’s workshops, she likens the scars of her abuse to scarves that can removed.

"I put the scarves on for each time something happened and then I take them off and tell the positive part of that," Bogany said. "It’s really healing for women to hear, so that’s how I teach it."

Bogany’s experience is not uncommon. Studies show higher rates of violence against Native American women than other demographics. Bogany said that she uses her personal story to bring greater visibility to this population.

To be visible

Julia Bogany, Tongva, has been a cultural officer for the tribe and elder in residence at Pitzer College, where she teaches culture and sociology. According to Bogany, she started her website ’To Be Visible’ to demonstrate that Tongva women never left their homeland, they just became invisible to our society.

According to a 2016 study from the National Institute of Justice, 56 percent of American Indian women will be victims of sexual violence in their lifetimes. A Los Angeles County of Public Health study found that American Indian women will experience violence from an intimate partner at the highest rate of any demographic group.

Los Angeles, which has the second-largest American Indian population in the country according to the 2010 census, faces distinct challenges in documenting and addressing violence against indigenous women.

Shannon Speed, a citizen of the Chickasaw nation, is the director of UCLA’s American Indian Studies Center. Part of her research is about hate crimes against Native Americans in Los Angeles. One obstacle she faces is inaccurate public records of victim’s ethnicities.

"LAPD [Los Angeles Police Department] officers, if they have to check a box on somebody’s race or ethnicity, probably don’t even think about American Indian as a category," Speed said.

This has resulted in underrepresentation in statistics, according to Speed. Annita Luchessi, a Southern Cheyenne descendent creating a national database of missing and murdered indigenous women, has also faced difficulty in acquiring data in Los Angeles.

"LAPD doesn’t track the information in any kind of way. They don’t have any coding for Native Americans in their system. So it makes it difficult to access any kind of historical data," Luchessi said.

She’s even received data that used a combined category for people from India and Native Americans.

"That’s not efficient and it’s not very humanizing to the victims either. So I would say across the board here in California and beyond, law enforcement definitely needs to change their protocol for how they keep records," Luchessi said.

According to Luchessi, her database aims to honor the women who have been victims of violence. Limited data makes this difficult, and has implications for funding and services for the Native American community.

Andrea Garcia, who is Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara (also known as the three affiliated tribes from North Dakota), is a physician working with American Indian populations in Los Angeles. She has found that a lack of data has led to a lack of resources for her clients.

"Oftentimes if something is not substantiated in data then it’s not a problem, it doesn’t exist. And so for too long our communities have been invisible in terms of data," Garcia said. "So I think correcting those so that our struggles and needs are known. Because that would eventually translate into resources."

For Garcia, the experiences of Native American women in Los Angeles are also shaped by larger struggles of indigenous people across the country. One of Garcia’s relatives went missing in North Dakota and was later found dead.

"What happens to one of us happens to all of us ... one community struggle is all of our struggle," Garcia said.

For Garcia and other Native American women in Los Angeles, tragedies like this are not a distant reality.

"Back home everybody knows someone who’s missing, everybody knows someone who’s murdered," said Lydia Ponce, who is Mayo, Quechua, and adopted Tongva.

Ponce is an activist and community organizer with Idle No More. She learned about about the prevalance of violence from her elders.

"Indigenous women will be sexually assaulted, that’s the way it was taught to me by some of the aunties and some of the other grandmothers," Ponce said.

A National Institute of Justice study found the 97 percent of Native American female victims experienced violence from a non-Native perpetrator. 35 percent of victims experienced violence by a Native American perpetrator.

'Indigenous women are not white man's commodity'

Lydia Ponce, Mayo, Quechua, and adopted Tongva, is an environmental advocate. She draws a connection between oil refineries and violence against indigenous women in the United States.

The Tatavium tribe, native to Southern California, is seeking to better understand and address the needs of women in their community. The tribe is performing its decennial census this year. As a key part of the 2018 census is a Tatavium women’s empowerment survey.

"One of the things that we wanted to really focus on is women. Essentially, where we need to support as a community," said tribal president Rudy Ortega.

For Ortega and many other Native American community leaders, increased visibility could lead to better access to county services.

"We’re on our ancestral lands and we’re descended from multiple lineages from these villages throughout LA County. People don’t know of that existence," Ortega said. "If they go to county services they may get turned away or questioned more heavily if they check off the box as Indian."

To address this problem, Ortega said he hopes to bring greater awareness to his tribe’s presence in Southern California.

This aim is similar to that of Julia Bogany. "Tongva women never left their territory, they just became invisible," Bogany said.

For a population that has very little data, yet the deepest history in Los Angeles, greater visibility is one step toward bringing justice to victims of violence.

Rebuilding a Tatvium village

Tatavium leaders Rudy Ortega and elder Alan Salazar are building traditional ki'j, or house. According to Salazar, the project honors the Tatavium people in the region and serves as a gathering space for community members.