Tovaangar, the original tribal territory of the Tongva people, ranges from Orange County to the Channel Island to the San Gabriel Mountains and up to Malibu. Many Tongva still live in Tovaangar and continue to share their astonishing rich culture.
Many Native artists continue to thrive throughout Tovaangar by asserting their cultural knowledge through creative outlets. Kelly Cabellero, a 29-year-old Gaberlieno Tongva singer/songwriter poet is one of many tribal members incorporating her Native culture into her musical and poetic craft.
I first met Kelly at an FNX event at Tongva Park in Santa Monica over a year ago. Her performance was astonishing, her lyrics conveyed the emotions and deep connection to her Tongva people, culture, homeland, and heritage. Her voice conceives an evocating, melancholic aura that mixes well with the acoustic sounds of her ukulele. Moved by her amazing talent I interviewed her briefly, but definitely wanted to learn more about her and her poetic lyrics, especially since her verses convey a deep connection to her tribal history, and culture.
I reached out to Kelly a few times during this pandemic and felt that when the time was right I would ask if I could do a photo shoot and interview as I feel that she is an untapped talent that people should hear about, undeniably a very talented songwriter and poet.
On a beautiful summer day in September, we met in Malibu to take a few images as a homage to her ancestors. During our photoshoot we also took time to do an interview. My first question was asking about learning who she is as an artist and also as a Tongva tribal person on unceded Tovaangar land aka Los Angeles.
Kelly shared that she was born and raised in Orange County, Kelly always knew of her lineage to her Gaberinelo Tongva heritage. Her father instilled the culture into her at a very young age. Her roots are from the original village of Yaangna or what’s known today as downtown Los Angeles.
As a child, Kelly shared that by not really understanding the heritage of the Tongva people she felt re-colonized by the Mission project taught in most California public schools. After learning more about the history of her culture she sees how schools teach Mission history is deeply problematic. Schools treat the genocide and slavery of California Indians as modeling projects and completely miss the point of what the Missions were to tribal people, thus diminishing opportunities for young children to learn about the original people of California, in favor of romanticising Spanish colonialism. Students are only given knowledge of Mission dioramas and learn about Indians as the Spanish saw them, as “gentiles,” a word she learned in school. Knowing what she knows now as an adult she said if she knew what she knows now then she would have destroyed those Mission dioramas.
At a young age, Kelly recalls that she was very comfortable on stage, as she recounts her youth she described herself as a vibrate child, who loved stage performance and dance. At 6 years old, Kelly shared that she was in theater acting in Oliver Twist and was completely immersed in performing to see the audience reaction. Throughout her youthful age, she explored many avenues of the arts, but it wasn’t until she was in her teens that she landed a lead role as Della Barrios, the girlfriend character to the main character Henry Reyna in the theatrical play Zoot Suit, a popular Chicano play that discusses the racially motivated attacks on young Mexican-American youth during the early 1940s. The opportunity generated a boost of confidence and a deep appreciation for performing on stage.
She was immersed with confidence on stage, however, singing was not something that came naturally and she became self-conscious of her singing ability. Not until she was 20 years old did she finally release that “caged bird,” as she enthusiastically described, and started writing her own music that incorporated the cultural history of her Tongva tribal identity. Kelly’s first song “Siren” fit perfectly into her journey as a singer, the song as she describes is about a girl walking on the beach who sings like a siren calling and luring in people to hear and see her as a Tongva person. She felt it was fitting as she also has a strong connection with the ocean and loves expressing her tribal identity. At 22 yrs old it was her first full-length song and launched her focus as a singer. Her music consists of a little folk, with a mix of reggae, Latin fuse, and coastal ambience with poetic justice.
Without any formal training in both singing and playing her Ukulele, Kelly identifies herself as a self-taught indie artist. Kelly spent hours on youtube learning how to play four-string which was difficult, but after many hours only playing and using her online support she grasped the ability to match chords to words and her songwriting started to progress.
Kelly’s first performance was at an open mic at the guitar center where no one knew her. She received a positive response and met a blues guitar player who asked her to join a reggae band. From that experience, she learned about touring, met other musicians, and soon after she branched off and started playing her own music and learned that her audience was not for bars and clubs but for more about cultural understanding.
She started performing at cultural performances, including a DTLA Native American event. During the occupation at Standing Rock — the protest of the Dakota Access Pipeline she felt that her music became a form of activism. She wanted to assert that the Tongva people are here and she was one of the many musical voices of her people. For folks to support their culture, tune to the earth as a form of leaving knowledge for the next generation
“What we create as Tongva should be part of history and shared even more.”
Kelly’s ability to share her cultural identity and assert the importance of protecting her ancestral homelands of Southern California is what drew me to offer her an opportunity to perform at an event I was hosting at The Autry. After I first heard her poetic song, “City Indians” I reached out to her. I asked if she writes poetry because as I told her, your lyrics are poetry to my ears. With a little doubt, and a bit of convincing she agreed to partake in a poetry event I was curating and hosting at the Autry for Native American Heritage Month entitled Waging Words. In her performance, she was able to embrace as she described a “raw strip-down of her music into poetry.” She enjoyed the pure and honest approach on stage and from there I feel she has branched into a new avenue of creativity.
Her poem “City Indians” was something she wrote as a collaboration with a clothing line called Obsidian as part of The Hundreds, a popular streetwear clothing line. She noticed with a few other Tongva people a sign above their shop in Los Angeles entitled “Tongvaland,” a fairly large noticeable billboard over their building. She approached them and told them that they can’t have a Tongva billboard over their establishment without the participation of the Tongva people. From that conversation, a collaboration evolved. She read her poem “City Indians” while two other female Tongva singers: Jessa Calderon and Ann Marie Mendoza performed with their traditional clap sticks. Jessa also sang a traditional Tongva song, during Kelly’s poetry reading. As Kelly shared:
“ it was all done in solidarity, to let people know in this urban environment today known as “Los Angeles” is the homeland of the Tongva people. That they are here. It was more than just a performative Land acknowledgment, it was about participation with actual tribal members and how it’s important to include tribal people in projects so “City Indians” fit into the collaboration well.”
As a Diné woman, I understand I am a visitor here on Tovaangar, as my homeland is the Navajo Nation, where we have a large presence and I wanted to ask Kelly, as a native to this land base aka Los Angeles, how is she is able to navigate as a Tongva tribal member. Kelly shared that it is difficult and that she has encountered ignorance first-hand as well as the mass fixation on Native people. When she shares with others that she is Tongva, most people have no clue of her tribal identity and if they hear “native” they ask for a photo while completely ignoring her heritage. She feels that through her creative outlets she is able to share with people everywhere to know that wherever they go they are on stolen Indigenous land.
“Native people are still here and we are still the original people the caretakers of the traditional environment and traditional knowledge. We hold all these memories of the land and answers to fixing the environment and to stop drilling but nobody seeks our knowledge.”
Thereafter, I asked her if land acknowledgments were a good start. Kelly believes it’s a good start, but it should go beyond and include participation. If the organization can perhaps pay a portion of their event towards a cultural organization or perhaps make a community garden with traditional tribal plans to continue teaching and acknowledging tribal people. As for the activism of taking down the statue, she’s happy about it, but rather than replace it with another statue that is abstracted from metal or bronze from the earth, plant a tree, provide a living beginning as a replacement.
As for work during the pandemic, it has affected her as an artist and killed her inspiration, joy, and income. She is not able to attend concerts and perform which resulted in her not wanting to perform. Then the police brutality was also not a time to work as she shared:
“It was time for BLM to elevate their voices, for us to step back and support black artists, visionaries, and black voices. I believe that Native sovereignty and Black liberation go hand in hand and we should support each other’s efforts for liberation and equality.”
In June, her creativity started to shed light. She was asked by “State of the Earth” to address a land acknowledgment, but she asked the organization to go beyond a land acknowledgment and to give people the ability to see beyond the lens and how Tongva people see the land. She was given creative reign to expand on this with fellow Tongva poetry Megan Dorame. They both wrote an amazing poem about Tongva. Her words about not seeing skyscrapers and offering a different perspective by giving gratitude to the nature of their homeland Tongva was fitting to the language of participation.
You can see the poem here:
As people are becoming more cautious of Indigenous people I asked her how can people learn more about the Tongva peoples homeland, and culture.
Kelly shared that visiting the land is helpful in understanding about the culture. The Kurvungna Springs Site at University High School in Santa Monica is a good start, they have a webpage and a cultural center. There are also village sites and cultural teachers like the website tobevisible.org with tribal member Julia Bogany. There is also a Tongva exhibit in Santa Fe Springs at santafesprings.org. Although there is no dedicated museum of the Tongva people, the Autry Museum does have an outdoor garden with traditional plants that people can learn about and also a cookbook called Cooking the Native Way: Chia Café Collective that gives recipes of Tongva cooking. There is also an annual event at the Long Beach Aquarium of the Pacific called Moompetam (saltwater people) that consist of Tongva dancers, traditional singing, Tule boats, and celebration of local coast Native American nations.
During the pandemic, Kelly took a pacific road trip from San Diego — Monterey to highlight the California nations along the coast for Hear Magazine and Away Travel — Kelly expressed that it was an incredible journey that she not only learned a lot about herself, but she has done to uplift Tongva people and the many different coast native tribal people you can read more about her journey here:
Kelly is an amazing, beautiful, caring young woman. She is currently working on a poetry chapbook, an EP, and has been inspired by Joy Harjo as an instrumentalist singer, songwriter, and poet.
In closing, her lifetime goal is to live on a sailboat, and offer a private charter to the Channel Island, so visitors can learn about maritime people, the Tongva people, and learn about the traditional food, hear traditional stories and visit private areas around the channels.
I believe her Tongva tour is something that would help in tourism to Los Angeles. The United States could expand tourism if they give funding to tribes to provide cultural understanding with participation to visitors and teach the history of tribal people. It could be a new way to understand the richness of America through Native participation in understanding cultures. Get to know more about Los Angeles, especially through the eyes of the Tongva People.