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In August, I visited artist L. Frank (Manriquez) in her home studio on Pomo and Coast Miwok land over which the settler-colonial city of Santa Rosa was built. As I entered, she began singing to me, a song that she later explained was written during the mission times by three children dreaming of escape. I was fortunate to have been introduced to L. Frank through an activist friend who has supported resource mobilization in forming the emergent Tongva Tah-rah’-hat Paxaavxa Conservancy. In conversation, L. Frank, a Tongva/Ajachemen/Rarámuri artist, activist, and scholar, is sardonic, entrancing, and outspoken. Often, she interrupts herself to share anecdotal stories and sing gentle melodies. A few times during the interview, she pointed to the chalkboards surrounding us. They displayed the Tongva songs L. Frank intermittently sang to me. One of her original Tongva songs is featured in City of Ghosts (2021), the Netflix animated series for which she played the role of a singing crow.
For L. Frank, who has dedicated her life to the revitalization and visibility of Indigenous art practices and languages originating from the Los Angeles Basin, art is a mirror that reflects a living culture through which a community can recognize itself. Her unwavering commitment to this ethos has led her to a practice that renews the traditional art practices of the Tongva—stone carving, canoe construction, and song. In the early 1990s, resisting the settler-colonial narrative that Indigenous languages and cultures are relics of the past, L. Frank cofounded Advocates for Indigenous California Language Survival (AICLS), a nonprofit organization dedicated to spreading the knowledge of Native California languages and fostering new speakers. I first encountered L. Frank’s work through her photographic project, First Families: Photographic History of California Indians (2007), for which she traveled across the state to collect personal stories and photographs from California Indigenous communities. She has worked in the backrooms of institutional archives like the Hearst Museum of Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley, and has spent decades cultivating close relationships with the few remaining artworks that were made by her ancestors. What museums and anthropologists consider an artifact of an erased culture, L. Frank perceives as a sentient object that tells the story of her people and carries the possibilities for their future. As she explains it, visiting the storage rooms of museum collections is like reconvening with old family members.
Seated near two enormous canoes, we spoke for over two hours about what it means to resuscitate a culture nearly erased by genocide. At the beginning of our conversation, she explained the process of canoe building, showing me a finished one, and softly sanding the side of another while we spoke.
L. Frank: This is the second Tongva canoe made in 250 years or more. We built the first one in the early 1990s.
Julie Weitz: How did you know the design of it?
LF: Well, the Chumash had built one or two at that point. But we knew about it because there was anthropological information. We had to get out to the island1 somehow! So that information was kind of easy to find—what it looked like—but there are only suppositions on how to build it. Nobody knows how to build it. So, having [now] built three, I now am one of the experts on how to build it, which is really weird.
JW: How did you find the initial community support to build the first canoe?
LF: Oh, I just started it. I did it on my own. Everything I do, I just start. Then people go, “Oh, okay, cool.” You know, they come along, or they don’t.
JW: You’ve described the canoe as a vessel that contains the culture, holding the people together. I know you’ve participated in epic canoe journeys with other Indigenous groups. What are those journeys like?
LF: Pretty spectacular! It’s like a moving village. There can be up to 120 canoes, mostly from the Pacific Northwest. We start out and we drive up to Washington. It mostly takes place in Washington, sometimes in Canada. We drive up to where our canoe family is, and there’s a major destination that all canoes will end up at. Everybody starts getting closer and camping together. Every day, there’s a journey that you take out. You talk about it the night before. There’s singing and dancing and protocol, and sometimes the tribes feed us. There, your life is run by the winds and tides, which is very different. You live in a community unlike modern communities. So, that teaches you a hell of a lot.
This canoe knows way more than we do about the water. We don’t know, and my people had never practiced together. But we still go and join everybody. It’s one of the hardest things, and yet, the most satisfying things I’ve ever done. Because you have to come up with song—that’s why we have song. Because when you’re on other peoples’ lands, you have to sing [or] dance and tell story. My people in L.A. are pretty rubbed out. Our dictionary is maybe like that [gestures small]. You don’t have a lot of vocabulary.
JW: What about the elders?
LF: [Laughs] I’m one of the elders.
JW: How did the language get passed down?
LF: It didn’t. They killed us all. There are only little bits. There’s an artist in L.A. named Weshoyot Alvitre. She participated in the #tongvaland project organized by Cara Romero (Chemehuevi). Her grandfather was one of the people we made the first canoe with, and he did a prayer, and it was the first time I’d ever heard my language. I’d read it before, but it was the first time I ever heard it. I realized I understood what he was saying. People know fragments, but we have no fluent speakers. Actually, my canoe family has three songs in Tongva, and I think it’s three more than the Tongva have. My nephew wrote this one. It’s simply about moving the paddle in the water. [Sings.]
wii’e’aa komar paanga (pull the paddle in the water)
yayaton’aa mopwaar paanga (move your right hand in the water)
wii’e’aa komaar paanga (pull the paddle in the water)
yayaton’aa mokaano’ paanga (move your left hand in the water)
eyoomaaman’e yayatonax mii paanga (our hands move in the water)
JW: That’s beautiful.
LF: It’s what I spent the last 40 years doing—actually all my life—trying to have a tribe I can hang with. So, I created a language program that’s gone around the world to help us get our languages back. And we’ve made these canoes, and I made the stone pieces, and we’ve made the dances.
JW: How did you start making the stone artworks?
LF: Well, I’ve gone to Europe three or four times just to look at things that we’ve made, to see our culture. I’ve gone to where our culture is—in the museum.2 I made the first [Tongva] stone bowl in two hundred years because I went to the [Riverside Metropolitan] Museum and I saw stone bowls and I said, “Well, who’s making these?” And they said, “Nobody.” I just couldn’t let that happen. That’s how I made the first stone bowl, and other things. [Shows me a small whale sculpture carved out of stone.]
JW: When you saw the Tongva stonework in the museum in France, what was your visceral reaction to it?
LF: Well, I was totally immersed in everything I was finding. It was pretty darn emotional. From the very first day I got there, they had no idea why I was there. They didn’t speak English and I didn’t speak French. I said that I was there to photograph things and they said that they’ve already been photographed. But the people who photographed these things, their developer was too hot. So you couldn’t tell what anything was. It was overexposed—the negatives were just black and you couldn’t see anything.
From the start, it was traumatic going into the building, because all the museum staff had never seen an Indian in their midst. So, they followed me up to where I was supposed to go. I walked past a room full of skulls, which freaked me out, so I started running. After that, they would watch me run past that door every day. Everything was traumatic, really. But the director let me in to photograph things and when I went into the collections room, everything on the shelves started crying at me and I started crying. I told the French people, “You just don’t understand!” And, of course, they didn’t. But I spent a lot of time with these things.
JW: There’s a sentience in the objects themselves?
LF: Absolutely. When you’re making the stone, it’s as if that stone has been made before and it’s got memory. When I made that first stone bowl, I didn’t know what I was doing. But I dreamt it and there it was. It’s perfect. Because of something else, not me. The stone is very informative, and it’s very satisfying. You know, just doing something that your people have done, and you recreate or redo it, then that knowledge seems to just fly right into your head. It’s already there.
JW: In an earlier conversation, you mentioned that you went to Immaculate Heart College because Sister Corita Kent taught there.
LF: Sister Corita really caught my eye the more I paid attention, because she was talking differently. She was doing things so non-Catholic, so artistic, so free. That’s why I decided that I had to go—’cause I had never really thought about even going to college. I just went to a JCC [junior community college] to use their equipment. But at Immaculate Heart, it was beyond that. Once I got there, it was like a renaissance for me.
JW: What time period was this?
LF: 1970, I think.
JW: You mentioned that Faith Wilding taught there?
LF: Yes, she introduced me to all kinds of things. She introduced me to feminist art, which I knew absolutely nothing about. In the very first two minutes in her class, she put [a] slideshow on and she was showing us her work, and up on the screen, she was wearing a leotard [with] a very large phallus tied to the front of her. Another woman was wearing a leotard and she had a very large vagina strapped to her. I was so surprised by that because that was not my culture, not my world, and then she said, “The title of my play is Cock and Cunt,” and I said, “Oh, no, it’s time for me to be somewhere else.” But it’s a good thing I stayed because I had never seen feminist art. It had never crossed my path, really.
JW: In another interview, you joked about the idea of a “Hollywood Indian.”
LF: Well, it was not a joke; I am a Hollywood Indian. We were in the first movies—my great-grandfather was in over 200 films. All of us were, because at the beginning of Hollywood, it started in our Homeland. Most of the movies were cowboys and Indians, [and] all of and other things. [Shows me a small whale sculpture carved out of stone.]
JW: Would they be compensated adequately?
LF: I don’t think so… . They populate the films, but their names do not exist, as we don’t exist—again, erased.
JW: Tell me about your tattoos.
LF: The Tongva—we had 11 types of doctors and one was a tattoo doctor. We started tattooing the little girls when they were about five. We, Tongva, had tattoos on our faces and our arms and our chest. But some of the people up north can’t get tattoos until they’ve accomplished certain things. Like the Māori, you don’t get these [points to her chin] unless you can speak your language. So, there are really heavy things tied to tattoos. That’s why me trying to decide to get mine was hard because we’re so wiped out, there was nobody to tell me. And, so, I listened to my closest neighbors who were tattooed, and remembered more of it. And then Wendy Rose—she’s a California Native, and some Pueblo—did her dissertation on tattooing in aboriginal California.
JW: How have the tattoos changed you?
LF: I tell people when we take them to get their tattoos, “Your life will change.”… Before I got the tattoos, I was worried about their correctness. So, I focused on my intention. My intention was strictly to hold hands across time. And I could not believe the connection that I felt. The minute I got the tattoos, my whole life changed. There’s not one person who gets their tattoos who doesn’t say that. For each of us, it’s different as to how, but if you weren’t responsible before—and mostly it’s the responsible ones doing the cultural things who get them—you are nothing but responsible now.
JW: In what way?
LF: Every way. In every way that you can to help your people to make sure the next seven generations work. In every way. That’s why when people say to me, “You need to rest, L. Frank. You should stop,” how can I? I look at the elders who came before me, they didn’t stop. They just got canes.
L. Frank is a Tongva, Ajachmem, and Rarámuri artist, writer, tribal scholar, cartoonist, and Indigenous language activist. She lives and works in Santa Rosa, California.
This interview was originally published in Carla issue 26.