Unveiling the Indigenous Legacy: Mercedes Dorame's Artistry and the Gabrielino Tongva Connection


Norine Holguin

7/20/20234 min read

Within Southern California's sprawling urban landscape, there lies a rich tapestry of history that often goes unnoticed amidst bustling modernity. If land could speak, it would unfold tales of ages past, and one such story is etched into a seemingly ordinary granite boulder that holds the fingerprints of time. The journey of this boulder and the artist who brings its hidden tales to light encapsulate the resilient spirit of the Gabrielino Tongva Indian Tribe, a people whose heritage intertwines with the very land on which they walk.

Exploring the Landscape of Memory

Venturing into the picturesque Topanga Canyon, one might stumble upon an unassuming granite boulder nestled near a tranquil spring. At first glance, this boulder might not command much attention, but its surface tells a tale of ancient significance. Carved into its weathered face lies a small indentation, a bedrock mortar that once held the labor of the Tongva and Chumash tribes—early inhabitants of the Santa Monica Mountains who utilized it to grind acorns and sustenance. Mercedes Dorame, an artist of Gabrielino Tongva heritage, recognizes the significance of this simple tool, drawing attention to the hands that shaped it and the stories it carries.

Art as a Bridge to Ancestry

Dorame's lens and vision transform the mundane into the extraordinary, emphasizing the symbiotic relationship between history and the present. In her captivating photograph titled "Well of Moon and Sky — Kotuumot Kehaay," the bedrock mortar takes center stage. Resting near the mortar is a portable metate that once belonged to her grandmother, a poignant connection bridging generations. This image, currently displayed at the Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens as part of the "Borderlands" exhibition, portrays the ancient tool brimming with water and surrounded by oak leaves, creating a reflection that blurs the lines between past and present.

Continuity in Culture

Dorame, a native Angeleno, reflects her heritage and culture through her art, showcasing the indelible mark left by her ancestors on the landscape. The spring she visits with her father, Tongva elder Robert Dorame, forms a living link between generations. It's a space that encapsulates the tapestry of her family's narrative, now interwoven with her own. Through her evocative images, she encapsulates the essence of lineage and vitality, capturing a story that she will pass on to her daughter—an embodiment of the legacy that still lives on.

The Tongva's Silent Presence

The Tongva, though not federally recognized, possess a legacy deeply embedded in the land they've long inhabited. This connection is channeled through Dorame's creative lens as she transforms overlooked patches of Los Angeles into her canvas. These fragments of the city's landscape serve as a testament to her identity and an unbroken line of heritage that has persevered despite historical challenges. Her additions of sage bundles, abalone shells, and pigments evoke a spiritual relationship with the land, breathing life into forgotten corners amidst the concrete sprawl.

Reclaiming Narratives Through Art

Dorame's journey into art wasn't a linear one. It was a conscious reclamation of a narrative that was once obscured. A pursuit of photojournalism led her on a different path, and it was a chance gift—a vintage medium-format Rolleiflex camera—that rekindled her creative fire. This manual instrument became the vessel through which she could redefine the stories that often remain untold. It was through this lens that she found her voice, not just as an artist but as a carrier of ancestral wisdom.

Beyond the Frame: A Call to Remembrance

Dorame's mission reaches beyond the aesthetic realm; it's a powerful call to remembrance. Her involvement as a cultural consultant for Indigenous artifacts and remains, a role shared with her father, has bestowed upon her the responsibility of humanizing the history buried within the land. By connecting these artifacts to human experiences, she challenges the objectification that has historically accompanied Indigenous representation. It's an effort to remind the world that these remains and belongings are a testament to the human-ness of those who came before.

An Ephemeral Bridge to Identity

In a world where the landscape bears scars of transformation, Dorame's work stands as an ephemeral bridge to Indigenous identity. Her art serves as an affirmation that Indigenous people are not relegated to the past; they are a living presence with stories still unfolding. It's a delicate dance between history and the contemporary—a dance that acknowledges the past while embracing the evolving present. Her art exists not as a permanent incision on the land but as a frame that gently captures a moment, a spotlight on the stories beneath our feet that often go unseen.


As we walk the streets of Los Angeles and navigate its intricate layers, it's important to remember that the history etched into the land is not confined to books or museums—it lives and breathes in the landscapes we call home. Mercedes Dorame's artistry stands as a beacon, guiding us to see beyond the surface and discover the tales woven into the very fabric of our surroundings. With every photograph, she extends an invitation to embrace the profound cultural legacy of the Gabrielino Tongva Indian Tribe and the Indigenous peoples that have left their mark on this land.


Miranda, Carolina A. “How Artist Mercedes Dorame Shares Pieces of Her Tongva Heritage across L.A.’s Public Landscapes.” Los Angeles Times, 6 July 2022, www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/story/2022-07-06/mercedes-dorame-huntington-borderlands.

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