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Indian leader dies at 82

Rudy Ortega wanted federal recognition of tribe

Posted: August 3, 2009 9:55 p.m.
Updated: August 4, 2009 4:55 a.m.

Rudy Ortega Sr. puts his arm around Alice Lyon Carillo at the San Fernando museum in 2005. Ortega Sr. died July 28 in a car crash.

 
Rudy Ortega Sr. was upbeat on a recent Tuesday when he left the offices of the Fernandeño Tataviam Band of Mission Indians after spending time identifying historic photos of tribal members.

He was driving home to Palmdale along Soledad Canyon Road in Acton on July 28 when he suffered a heart attack and lost control of the car, sending it crashing off the road, his son Rudy Ortega Jr. said Monday.

The elder Ortega died in the crash. The president of the Tataviam band's executive branch was 82.

"There was nothing we could do to make him rest from this work," Ortega Jr. said Monday.

Ortega's wife, Celia, and brother-in-law Pablo Torres were also in the car at the time of the crash.

The younger Ortega said his mother remains hospitalized and stable, and that his uncle suffered "bumps and bruises" and was released from the hospital the same day.

Ortega's son Larry, tribal vice president, is completing his father's presidential term, which ends in 2011.

Ortega spent much of his life working to document the history of the Fernandeño Tataviam tribe, the first inhabitants of the northeast San Fernando Valley and the Santa Clarita Valley, who built the San Fernando Mission.

Ortega Sr. - who took on the name Chief Little Bear in the 1970s - was born in 1926 and raised in San Fernando, his son said.
He served in the U.S. Army during World War II, fighting on the Pacific front in the Philippines.

After returning home, he worked as a riveter for Lockheed and eventually took a job as a Postal Service clerk - the job from which he retired, Ortega Jr. said.

The senior Ortega took an interest in his heritage at a young age, and in the 1950s was appointed leader of the band after the death of his father, James Ortega.

Ortega's family was descended from Indians who lived and worked at the mission from 1797 to 1846, according to information provided by his son.

His father's goal, Ortega Jr. said, was to see the Tataviam recognized as a tribe by the federal government.

"It is saddening to lose such an important tribal elder as Rudy Ortega Sr.," said Leon Worden, past president of the Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society. "In the native American culture, the elders are the arbiters of their history and traditions.

"The elders keep their ways alive by passing them along from generation to generation through ceremony and oral teachings."

Longtime Santa Clarita Valley resident Andrew Martin said he met Ortega in 1958 and recalled him as "one of the nicest guys in the world."

Ortega Jr. said his father was instrumental in incorporating contemporary bylaws into the structure of the tribe. Under his leadership, in 2002 the tribe adopted a constitution.

The elder Ortega is survived by his wife, in addition to 10 children, 49 grandchildren and 54 great-grandchildren.

A viewing is set for 5 p.m. Aug. 13 at San Fernando Mission, with a prayer service and burial scheduled for Aug. 14.

Ortega Jr. said his father leaves behind a rich legacy, citing "the values he delivered to us as a father, (and) the passion that he had for his people.

"He always told us to stand up and be proud of who we are."

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