Rudy Ortega Sr. was a leader and community organizer for the Fernandeño Tataviam Band of Mission Indians. As a teenage he became very interested in the history, culture, and rights of the San Fernando Indians. Born in 1926, he lived his early life during a time when identifying openly as an Indian was not easy. After learning of his own Indian identity and encouraged by his aunt Vera Salazar to form an Indian cultural club in the early 1940s, Rudy started to research his family and community history, lineage, and ties to San Fernando Mission.
Rudy Ortega’s efforts to form an Indian cultural club were interrupted by World War II. Rudy Ortega served in the US army from 1943 through the end of the war. As a soldier Rudy Ortega fought in the Pacific front and took part in the Philippines campaign. When he returned to San Fernando, he again took up research of his tribal history and heritage. The San Fernando Indians were organized into three main families, the Ortega, Ortiz, and Garcia lineages. During the 1928 California Indian Judgment Roll, the Ortega family feared removal to reservations away from their traditional homeland in the San Fernando and Santa Clarita areas. Most members of the Ortega family decided not to register in the 1928 California Indian Roll based on the fears and advice of their leader and captain Antonio Maria Ortega, who was Rudy Ortega’s grandfather. Rudy Ortega, however, believed that the San Fernando Indians should register as American Indians with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and started to campaign for the recognition of the San Fernando Indians, and sought a reservation and political recognition as an Indian tribe. The quest for federal recognition as an American Indian tribe became a primary goal for the San Fernando Indians. After the death of his father James Ortega in 1951, Rudy Ortega was appointed leader or captain by community consensus. He gained considerable historical, cultural and genealogical information in his research, and he was active in community events, and with community fundraising that provided help to needy community members.
In his research Rudy Ortega discovered that the Ortega, Ortiz, and Garcia families were descendants of Indians who lived and worked at the San Fernando Mission from about 1797 to 1846. He traced his ancestry to Indians living in the Tataviam villages located in present-day Santa Clarita, and who by 1810 moved to San Fernando Mission. Rudy Ortega’s great grandmother, Maria Rita Alipas and great great grandfather Francisco Papabubaba were one-third joint owners of Mexican land grant to one square league at Encino during the middle 1840s. Rudy’s ancestors lost the land to sharp business practices in the 1850s, while the federal government declined to uphold its responsibility to protect California Indian land.
During the 1950s, the San Fernando Indians decided to make a more public presence and organized the San Fernando Mission Indians. Rudy Ortega was elected captain, and he led the community in actively pursuing federal recognition as Californian Indians. Many members of the San Fernando Mission Indians applied and were accepted to the 1971 California Indian Judgment Roll. The roll recognized them as individual Indians, but not as a community or government. Under Rudy Ortega’s continued leadership, the San Fernando Indians engaged in community building, sought federal recognition, and recovered history and culture. The community met in regular meetings and events. In the early 1970s, the San Fernando Mission Indians created a non-profit named the San Fernando Valley Inter-Tribal, Inc. Rudy was elected chief of the new non-profit and a board of directors was elected in community gatherings. Rudy Ortega took on the name Chief Little Bear, or Tomiar Tsinuj Hunar in the Tataviam Indian language. The nonprofit raised funds, applied for grants, held community events, distributed scholarships, food, and toys. In 1976, the San Fernando Mission Indians adopted bylaws and renamed themselves to the Fernandeño Band of Mission Indians. Rudy Ortega was reelected chief, and was continuously reelected chief until 2007. In 2002, the tribe adopted a constitution and took on the name of Fernandeño Tataviam Band of Mission Indians. Rudy Ortega Sr. was elected president every four years under the new constitution. Under Rudy Ortega’s leadership the Fernandeño Tataviam Band of Mission Indians were active in federal recognition, protecting sacred sites, recovering culture and language, seeking recovery of ancestral land, and establishing ties to local, county, state and federal governments.
Rudy Ortega dedicated his life to the benefit and welfare of the San Fernando Indian community. His style of leadership was very much in the traditional Indian way. He was comfortable and had the patience to seek consensus within the community discussions. As he said, he knew his people and how far he could push them. In the late 1940s Rudy Ortega introduced by-laws to organize tribal meetings and government, but many were reluctant to give up the old consensus based discussions and community meetings. So the discussion about bylaws continued over a period of about 18 years before the tribal community adopted bylaws in the 1976. After the adoption of bylaws, the community meetings continued to hold considerable political power and were conducted toward the end of gaining consensus. Rudy Ortega’s style of leadership was reminiscent of the captains or Tomiars of his Tataviam ancestors and of tribal political processes where influence, sometimes humor, and good will were necessary to develop agreements and action from within the community. Captains were people who were willing share their time, resources, mentorship, and were concerned for the general welfare of the family lineages and community. They were people of great knowledge of the history and culture of the community. Rudy Ortega was recognized to have the commitment, cultural knowledge, and desire to serve the community, and for these qualities he was early recognized as a community leader. He followed in the footsteps of his father, grandfather, and great grandmother in assuming the role and responsibilities of captain.
Rudy Ortega Sr. was a father, elder, chief, captain, president, community builder, and social activist. He was the father of ten children, and had 49 grandchildren, and 54 great grandchildren.