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UCLA student government tries to be inclusive, but ends up offending Native Americans


A Native American leader questions the use of the Tongva name

Four months after the student government at the University of California Los Angeles passed a resolution in support of renaming the Janss Steps on campus, it remains conflicted on who should be honored.

At the center of the change is a dispute over the appropriateness of using the Tongva tribe name, as Native American activists have raised concerns about the inclusiveness of the name.

The student government had passed a resolution in July to rename the steps named for real estate developers, the Janss brothers. The company sold real estate at reduced prices to help establish UCLA but also sold some land that had racially restrictive covenants in the contracts.

Now, after originally saying that the steps should be renamed for the Tongva tribe, the student government has changed its mind and plans to ask the university to name the steps the “Kuruvungna Steps” in order to be more inclusive and accurate.

“Both the Kuruvungna name and the Tongva name were meant to honor Indigenous people who originally inhabited Los Angeles and the UCLA land,” the campus paper the Daily Bruin reported in early November, paraphrasing comments from American-Indian Student Association Vice President Desirae Barrigan. The goal is to “submit the proposal to the UCLA administration by the end of fall quarter,” according to the Bruin.

The campus paper reported that the Undergraduate Student Association and AISA were working on a proposal to urge the university to rename the steps after the Kuruvungna, but details remain sparse on the proposal.

“When we look at the native history that is taught by UCLA, we always hear ‘Tongva’ and ‘Gabrieleño,’ but when it comes to the reality of the tribal history, there are other entities that make up the Gabrieleño tribe,” Barrigan said.

Barrigan did not respond to a Facebook message on Tuesday seeking an update nor an Instagram message on Wednesday. The AISA did not respond to multiple emailed requests for an update on the resolution in the past two days.

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“There was no such thing as a ‘Tongva Tribe,’ and to name something that never existed and has no relation to the prehistory of the land would only be adding to the lies of our California history,” the paper quoted Andrew Salas, tribal chairman of the Gabrieleño Band of Indians, as saying.

(Salas later responded to an email from The Fix with several links explaining his comments and the history of the name. Read them here and here.)

The Bruin ran another article on Barrigan on November 20, but provided no further details on an actual resolution. It published a profile piece on Barrigan but did not link to an actual resolution in its report.

The leadership of the Undergraduate Student Association, President Naomi Riley, Internal Vice President Emily Hong Van Luong, and External Vice President Aidan Arasasingham, did not respond to emailed requests for comment from The Fix on an updated resolution.

The student government website minutes for November do not appear to show anything referencing the renaming of the steps and there are no further stories in the campus paper on the issue.

Arasasingham did provide comment to the Bruin, however.

“Renaming the steps would reflect UCLA’s values and be a symbolic step in mending wrongdoings of the past,” Arasasingham told the campus paper. “We definitely have a broad coalition behind us, willing and able to apply pressure.”

The Fix asked Steve Ritea, the chief media officer for UCLA, for comment on the proposals but did not receive a response.

“We are committed to UCLA’s values of equity, diversity, and inclusion, and are considering ways to better align the names of campus structures and spaces with those values, as well as to honor the contributions of people from a variety of backgrounds,” university spokesperson Bill Kisliuk told the Daily Bruin.

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Editor’s note: Andrew Salas contacted The Fix several days after publication with sources for his comments about the Tongva name. This article has been updated to include those links.

IMAGE: Ken Wolter/Shutterstock

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