SAN DIEGO — Abel Silvas can trace his family’s history back about 250 years here, in what is now known as San Diego.
His father taught him about both his Kumeyaay/Diegeno and his Acjachemen/Juaneno sides of the family, and today, Silvas is a historical comedian, mime and storyteller. He uses his one-man show, “Running Grunion,” to teach others about the history of indigenous people in California, using pantomime and humor.
“It was important to me to create a tribal history that dismissed romanticized beliefs about the Mission Indians, and make it humorous instead,” he says.
Silvas, 56, lives in Pacific Beach and also teaches performing arts in schools, works as an American Indian monitor on archaeological sites under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, and is a member of the tribal council of the Juaneno Band of Mission Indians of the Acjachemen Nation. He took some time to talk about his work on the tribal council and as an archaeological monitor, his “Running Grunion” show, and his upcoming performances.
You’re on the tribal council of the Juaneno Band of Mission Indians for Orange, Los Angeles and San Diego counties. What does your work on the council entail?
Yes, I am on the tribal council of the Juaneno Band of Mission Indians of the Acjachemen Nation, under the Belardes government. Father Serra named us Juanenos after we built the Mission of San Juan Capistrano in 1776. We refer to ourselves as Acjachemen people because the mission was built on our village, called Acjachema, and villagers from all over the area were brought here for this construction. We are recognized by the State of California as a tribe, however, the federal government still does not recognize our sovereignty. In recent times, anthropologists wrote papers that called the Juanenos extinct. So, my job is to prove them wrong
You’re the Native American archaeological monitor under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. What can you tell us about this law?
It’s a federal law that was passed in 1990, requiring all federal agencies, and public and private museums that have received federal funds to return all Native American cultural items . . . to lineal descendants, and culturally affiliated Indian tribes and Native Hawaiian organizations. However, this law does not require these agencies to consult with non-federally recognized tribes, like the Juaneno Band of Mission Indians.
Since the passing of this law, what has its benefit been to Native Americans?
Relief! Relief that our many grandparents buried here are safe from any destruction that comes their way. The biggest benefit I see is that the law allows oral stories to be heard in courts to back up our arguments, and these stories teach cultural sensitivity. So, on-site, the law encourages Native American monitors to tell these stories to the workers, so we have a much better working environment. I call it “Ancient Lives Matter.”
Tell us about “Running Grunion.”
“Running Grunion” was created in the summer of 1984 in New York City, just after I attended the Marcel Marceau School of Mime at the University of Michigan. Marcel was so intrigued with my Native American background that he encouraged me to come up with a way to present Native American history in the form of pantomime. The following year, I was accepted to dance with the Northeast American School of Dance in Massachusetts, where I was allowed to create and direct ballet pieces under the artistic director, Tony De Vecchi. One of the dances I did was the beginning of what would become “Running Grunion.” A few years later, I was discovered at the La Jolla Comedy Store, where I met the famous Native American comedian, Charlie Hill. Charlie really liked my idea and began working with me on it.
. . . Finally, in 1988, I had my East Coast debut for the show at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.
What can people expect at these performances?
To learn a lot about what happened to these unique communities of Native Americans and Californios (which is a California Indian with Spanish ancestry).
What’s been challenging about your work as a performing artist teaching people about this history and culture of California’s indigenous people?
That just because I don’t put on mime makeup doesn’t mean I’m not doing pantomime. That just because I’m “Indian” doesn’t mean I know everything about the Grand Canyon or The Four Corners.
What has it taught you about yourself?
That I’m just a small grunion in a large ocean, but without one little me, there would be one less story in this world.
What is one thing people would be surprised to find out about you?
That I speak English and that I’m not Hawaiian or Polynesian.