'Maybe Los Angeles is also a fantasy': Tataviam videographer wants people to know whose land they're on

Tataviam videographer Timothy Ornelas grew up in Los Angeles, visiting theme parks just like tourists do. Now Ornelas wants visitors to consider whose traditional homelands they're standing on while they're waiting in line at The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.
Timothy Ornelas, who is Tataviam from the Los Angeles area, says that knowing much of the land Universal Studios is on was built atop a Tataviam village site makes him see the area a bit differently. (Zoe Tennant/CBC)

Originally published on February 7, 2020.

The Universal Studios theme park in Los Angeles is a place of fantasy, explained Timothy Ornelas. 

"You have Hogwarts, and you have the Jaws ride," he added. "These are places that are surreal."

"But the reality is," he added, "these are traditional homelands of Indigenous folk that are located here, and still located here in Los Angeles County." 

Ornelas, who is a citizen of the Fernandeño Tataviam Band of Mission Indians, grew up in Los Angeles.

When Ornelas was a kid, his parents used to take him to Universal Studios. It wasn't until he got older that he learned the popular theme park, like others throughout LA, was built on a Tataviam village site. 

"These lands used to be ours, if you want to say it straight," said Ornelas. "People just come here and enjoy it. But it had to be taken away first, to be enjoyed."

'We're not just historical figures in your history book'

Growing up, Ornelas felt the impacts of the invisibility of Native American people in Los Angeles. In middle school, kids would often ask where he was from. When he told them he was Native American, he recalled hearing a wide range of hurtful remarks. 

"[I] got all the stereotypes and it was every single time — over and over again," Ornelas said. "Later, I could reflect on it and see that sucked. I couldn't just be."

Today, Ornelas sees how the film industry that established and reinforced many of these stereotypes was built on Indigenous lands, and how the presence of Indigenous tribes on these lands has been erased. 

"We're not just historical figures in your history book," he said.

It's hard for Ornelas to enjoy these sites today, knowing what he knows now. Working as a videographer and a media specialist for his tribe, he's learned a lot about Tataviam history — and he hopes other people who live in, and visit LA, will take the time to learn, too.

Lands Wandered

Ornelas is working on an upcoming web series called Lands Wandered for the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network. In it, he visits iconic tourist sites across the US and Canada, to prompt people to think about the land they're visiting as tourists. 

He hopes it will encourage people to not just think about Indigenous nations as something of the past, but to ask what the local tribes are doing today.