Reggie Pagaling: Come From A Good Place in Your Heart

A proud member of the Chumash tribe, Reggie Pagaling is a self-employed entrepreneur who has worked in many capacities, including archaeological consultant, and gaming commissioner for casino operations. He was born in 1954 in Santa Maria, California, attended Guadalupe High School, and moved to Sacramento in 1976, eventually returning to his local roots. He spoke to us about his Native American heritage and the lessons life has taught him.

“During late 1960s, the Native American community was becoming quite active. My mother was involved with bringing fresh water and a sewer system to the Santa Ynez reservation, to make it livable again. This was an interesting time to find out about my heritage and go to meetings and hear the elders argue about the structure of the reservation. They lacked a formal education, but they knew what was right.”

“One of the things I’ve learned is that it is real important to know how to speak well and present yourself. When it’s time to be a duck, then dress like a duck, walk like a duck, quack like a duck. When it’s time to fly like an eagle, fly. I have learned live in two worlds, to cross over.”

“I had an opportunity in the 1970s to see the transition to where Native Americans were going. I’ve been active since then in Native American programs. Some of these programs provided services to families that needed food, jobs, health care, eye care, dental care…others were to help Native Americans get education.”

“I’ve been to reservations in the Dakotas and other places, and I’ve been fortunate to see where some other Native Americans live, and what they have gone through. It’s been eye-opening, shocking, sometimes. I’ve been to one recently that still looks like a slum and a ghetto. One of my early mentors was an ordained priest, a very Christian man, who ran a health program for Native Americans on reservations throughout the state. We would drive twelve, fourteen hours together, and during that time I learned so much about trying to be a better person, about how neighborhoods work, and how to value someone else’s experience in life, what they learned, what they did…”

“And I had no idea there were so many Indian people that needed so much help. I was very fortunate to have this experience with my mentor. It gave me a real understanding, not only of what it was like to be Indian, but to be better educated, to be a better person. It allowed me to fill my picture, and I understood I could be a better person myself, if I would be open and listen.”

“One thing that makes me proud to be a Native American is the ability to maintain an identity with my culture. I went to a conference once where they talked about language and they said that the Chumash were extinct as far as language was concerned. So very gently, I said, ‘Haku.’ They said, ‘What does that mean?’ I said, ‘Well, you list Chumash as being extinct, and Haku is a greeting in Chumash, so it’s not extinct if I can still speak my language.’ Is it spoken fluently? No. Is it still spoken? Yes.”

“I am careful about how I approach someone else’s language. I don’t want to offend them. I have learned to be very careful about asking. If I am going to say something or ask for something, I need to ask if I can say it from their language. I want to show respect before I speak someone’s language.”

“I’ve learned storytelling from other storytellers, and I know songs. To both my daughters, when they were still within their mother’s womb, I sang songs that I was taught by my leaders. And when they were born, I wanted a Chumash greeting song to be the first thing they heard when they came out into this world, so I sang that to them. It is a repetitive, monotone welcoming song. There is a calmness to it. I wanted them to know this is their foundation, their base. Although my wife is not Chumash, I want my children to know they are. ”

“And I know how to bless in four directions, but it’s hard for me to do this unless I am actually standing and grounded. It’s usually in prayer, to bring myself back to the center. I try to come from a good place in my heart. You need to have spirituality and balance in your life. Which religion? It doesn’t matter to me. I just want you to have choices, and I just want to make sure you never insult another’s spirituality. Respect people’s space, their beliefs, and their spirituality. There is no set place you need to be. I went to church on Christmas Eve. It wasn’t my church, but it was a church. When I was in South Lake Tahoe a week ago, I went to a different kind of church – I walked in the forest with the snow and the quietness, talking to God one on one. That was a church to me.”

“I can still walk in the hills here and feel very strong power places. Many spiritual people walk in the hills and know there are still medicine spirits there. In some of the painted caves I go to around this area, without a doubt, without a doubt, I can feel the presence of others. I have sung a song to the presence at the caves.”

“And there are some places I won’t go, like the Santa Barbara Mission. Even from the museum, I can still feel that power from the Mission. I’m not supposed to go there. I won’t. And I won’t go to Fiesta Days, when they have that celebration there in front of the Mission there. I won’t go to that.”

“The mission system was an attempt to show the heathen Indian savages that this is the only way. The Chumash revolted against the La Purisma and Santa Ynez Missions in 1824, led by a strong leader who had grown up in the mission and realized it was wrong. But the leaders were separated from their tribes, and lack of ability to communicate with other Chumash at different missions prevented success. The mission system became, in a sense, a prison system, a way to disperse our people and separate the strong leadership from the people.”

“I’ve heard many stories about Indian people being imprisoned in the walls in Santa Barbara. I do believe that the bodies of Indian people are buried in the missions. Personally, I won’t go there. Anthropologists have had questions about this, and many suffered very bad dreams. The missions were painful places for many of the tribal people, not only Chumash, but all the tribes.”

“My father came from the Philippines to this country. He said to me, ‘I never want you to go back and work in the dirt.’ He drove tractors and farm machines. At some point, I realized that what he was saying was he wanted me to go out and get an education. And now I work in the dirt in archeological sites, but I do it in education, and I know what I’m looking for. Big turning point.”

“My brother died in Vietnam at the age of nineteen. He had not even been able to vote, and here he is, giving up his life. For what? The last image I can recall of him is when we went hunting. I watched him bring down a deer with a small rifle. I watched him running up a hill. He was of a much smaller frame than me, but he was very fast. I remember him chasing a rabbit down with a stick…”

“I had a sister who died of cirrhosis of the liver. I had realized my mortality as a young boy. I knew I was going to die. But I’ve learned that I can prevent hurting myself and my family by not being an alcoholic, not drinking to the point where your liver becomes bloated and extends out of your body. I had to help my sister out of a tub, and I could literally see her liver protrude from her side because of the alcoholism in her body, and then she would want another drink later that night. She died on the same day my wife came down from northern California and announced her pregnancy for our firstborn. This showed me the circle of life. As one leaves, another enters. This helped complete the circle. We are all part of one.”

“The last realization, the hardest, had to do with my other brother. He was a truck driver, big semi. He had a mental breakdown on the road from Utah. He was driving through stop signs, like in a movie – you can’t stop those big trucks. He came back here and was medically treated, sedated. He was given two drugs, one designed to kick you up, give you energy, then another to bring you down. You’re flying high and you’re crashing at the same time. Your body is never balanced. My brother eventually ended up killing himself, and there was nothing I could ever do to help him. I learned not to trust pharmaceuticals to control one’s attitude and behavior.”

“These epiphanies, these points of turning around in my life – each had something to do with my perspective on how I see myself, how should take care of myself. Sure, I drink wine, but not to excess. It’s a matter of moderation. Balance. Understanding alternative medicine as well as western medicine. These experiences all added to all my beliefs.”

“My advice? Ask questions. Never stop learning. Speak well. Read. Read a lot. Imagination will get you farther than reality will ever take you, and reading gets you there faster. If you work hard enough, everything else comes. And if you have a fear, don’t let anyone else see it. The biggest fear you can overcome is fear itself. Even if the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, face it, get through it.”

“I think the most important goal in life is to leave a legacy to the kids. Help people who need help. Maybe not monetarily, maybe just listening, being a friend, helping them in a way that means something special to them.”

“And have a conscious sense of respect for those who came before you. Take the time to pause and reflect on what has come before, and the gifts we are given. Center yourself. Come from a good place in your heart.”

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