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Gabrielino Heritage May Be Proven With DNA Samples

By Lori Fuller

The Gabrielino (or Tongva) people of Southern California are well known amongst youngsters studying them in their history classes. However, the estimated 600-person tribe may soon be recognized by far more than the local schools.

A recently discovered burial site at the Arco gas refinery may link the tribe to the remains and the land. Scientists from Brigham Young University will test DNA samples from the remains with hair samples from modern-day members of the Gabrielino tribe. The 500-year-old artifacts could provide the necessary proof to get the tribe recognized by the federal government.

The state of California recognizes the tribe, but there are very few benefits given by the state government to the tribe. The Gabrielino/Tongva Nation applied for federal recognition in 1994, followed closely by other groups such as the Coastal Gabrielino Diegueno Band of Orange County, which applied in 1997 and 1998.

Sam Dunlap, a member of the Gabrielino and one of the people who monitored the Arco archaeological dig, said “Maybe I’ll be able to say to the government, ‘Look, we have scientific proof that we were here. We are not just relying on oral histories.’ How can they dispute DNA evidence?”

The tribal chairman of the Gabrielino, Anthony Morales, backs Dunlap’s efforts. Dunlap believes that this is the first time that a tribe has tried to use DNA testing to prove their ties to the land and their heritage. Yet they are not expecting exact results. Scott Woodward, a molecular biology professor at BYU, said that “what we find are matches that are more close than others.” Exact matches of DNA would be nearly impossible.

The remains of the Gabrielino started showing up in September of 1998, with a skull that was unearthed while the construction crews drained water from a trench. By December, at least 50 peoples’ remains were discovered, with archaeologists believing that this may have been a burial ground for important tribal members.

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