By Nicolas G. Rosenthal
Tongva artist Mercedes Dorame uses photography and sculptural installations to explore “the construction of culture and ceremony as outcomes of the need to tie one’s existence to the land.” At the center of this work is Dorame’s profound attachment to the Los Angeles basin, a place where the Tongva have lived for thousands of years.
Dorame’s ancestors survived the Spanish mission system, Mexican ranchos, and American takeover of California, which dispossessed them of their lands, inflicted massive demographic losses, coerced their labor, and repressed their culture. The U.S. government’s failure to sign a treaty and thereby formally recognize the Tongva further undercut their ability to maintain a land base and sovereign government.
More recently, Tongva members have responded to centuries of cultural erasure by establishing a place in the public’s understanding of the region’s past through memorials, commemorations, and acknowledgments. These are meaningful changes to California history and help to indigenize the urban landscape, yet tribal members continue to seek an authoritative voice in imagining the future of Los Angeles.
Such themes central to the last 2½ centuries of Tongva history – erasure, dispossession, exclusion, and invisibility, countered by struggle, survival continuity, and resurgence – run throughout Dorame’s work and illustrate the possibilities of art production for Indigenous agency and survivance.
While an M.F.A. student at the San Francisco Art Institute, Dorame began the “Living Proof” series, compositions she created by projecting photographs of her grandparents against the walls and objects in her apartment. Doing so deepened her personal connections to her relatives and reinserted them into broader historical narratives from which they have been erased. The original images, Dorame wrote, were a gift from her father of “unfamiliar photographs that had been resurrected from old boxes and albums” depicting her grandparents, aunts, and uncles, yet she often found herself “looking to the captions to decipher my family’s past. This was an example,” she continued,
“of how much can slip from recognition in such a short period of time. It was exhilarating to see my family as I did not know them: on their wedding day, as young parents, in formal family portraits, and on the beaches of Santa Monica, where I myself have spent so much time. By combining these photographs with the intimate space of my home, I seek to re-assign missing contexts and to reintroduce my family into my contemporary existence.”
Dorame’s interests in “visual archaeology” has also been influenced by her role as a state-mandated observer and consultant on construction projects, putting her in direct contact with her ancestors’ remains and cultural objects. The need “to do the right thing for your people, past and present,” Dorame wrote, has been critical to an “understanding of my heritage and inform[s] my art practice.”
This includes her 2010 “Reburial” series, in which she photographed consultants and their work sites, spaces created inside tents populated by tables, boxes, cultural items, and sage bundles wrapped in distinctive red yarn. In “Steatite Bowl” (2010), for instance, Dorame places the exquisite beauty and craftsmanship of a Tongva vessel on a stark white table and against the harshness of a chain link fence, emphasizing how such a difficult, often brutal process has nonetheless been the means through which to painstakingly tease out invaluable links to the past.
Dorame’s project of reactivating the landscape of Los Angeles as Tongva space, often through the structures created by settler colonialism, continued with “Earth the Same as Heaven – ‘Ooxor ‘Eyaa Tokuupar,” a series of photographs staged in the hills of Malibu, around the home of her maternal, non-Native grandparents. Using materials common in Tongva ceremony such as sage, ochre, cinnamon, feathers, quartz, and the skins of coyotes and foxes, this series suggested the vitality of Tongva practices and their intricate connection to land, despite the complexities involved in practicing them. “Smoke to Water – Chyaar Paar ‘Apuuchen” (2013), for instance, featured a sage bundle nestled inside a bowl, atop a moss-covered rock kept moist by the spray of water, with red yarn wrapping the sage trailing off towards an adjacent creek.
For the Hammer Museum’s “Made in L.A. 2018” exhibition Dorame paired photographs from “Earth the Same as Heaven” and “Reburied” with “Orion’s Belt – Paahe’ Sheshiiyot – A Map for Moving Between Worlds” (2018), her first major installation. Reproductions of cogstones, objects found during excavation projects in her tribal territory, were arranged on a circular form in shades of blue and outlined in cinnamon, to invoke the constellation Orion and surrounding stars. Red yarn funneled to an opening above, creating linear space and connecting terrestrial and extraterrestrial planes.
Intended as literal sites of Tongva place and presence in Los Angeles, “Orion’s Belt” and a series of similar installations act as a bridge, from the richness and expansiveness of Tongva culture developed through thousands of years, over the disruptions of the past centuries, to Tongva people today. “I see these creations as personal ceremonies,” Dorame explained, as “a way to connect with my culture and to respect and represent the presence of my people.”
This was also powerfully demonstrated by Dorame’s “Wee Nehiinkem — All my Relatives” (2020), a temporary installation in downtown Los Angeles’ Grand Park, at a site where a Christopher Columbus statue was removed at the behest of Native activists in 2018. With this work Dorame invited the viewer to both “look up, to observe, find perspective, and reverence” and “to look down, to know that the ground they stand on is Tongva land, and to reawaken this connection to our history to envision a more equitable future.”
From the perspective of a federally unrecognized group, native to one of the largest and most diverse megalopolises in the world and which has undergone centuries of dispossession and cultural erasure – at the very spot where a statue stood commemorating the hero of colonization – this installation and Dorame’s other work both indigenizes Los Angeles and foregrounds Indigenous peoples in rewriting the narratives of North American history.
Nicolas G. Rosenthal is a professor of history at Loyola Marymount University and author of “Reimagining Indian Country: Native American Migration and Identity in Twentieth-Century Los Angeles.”
 Examples include Gabrielino/Tongva Springs at University High School, Tongva Park in Santa Monica, the Tongva Memorial at Loyola Marymount University, Tongva Monument in Rancho Palos Verdes, and a marker in the courtyard of the downtown Metropolitan Water District building
 Kristina Perea Gilmore, “Identity Matters in Contemporary Art by Indigenous Women,” in Frank LaPena and Mark Dean Johnson, eds., When I Remember I See Red: American Indian Art and Activism in California (University of California Press, 2019), 141-44, including Dorame’s Grandmother River Dream – Paxaayt’Tookor (2008) on p. 143.
 Mercedes Dorame, “My Visual Archeology,” News from Native California 23 (Fall 2009), 6-7, quotation on p. 7.
 Hammer Museum, “Mercedes Dorame: Made in LA 2018,” https://hammer.ucla.edu/exhibitions/2018/made-in-la-2018/mercedes-dorame; Gary Brewer, “Studio Visit: Mercedes Dorame,” Art and Cake, 26 August 2020, https://artandcakela.com/2020/08/26/studio-visit-mercedes-dorame/, source of quotation.
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