Today, hundreds of Native Americans representing many tribes and nations throughout California will converge on the State Capitol’s West Lawn to celebrate their heritage, cultures, and contributions.
What began under Governor Culbert Olsen as “Indian Day” in 1939, became “California Indian Day” under Governor Ronald Reagan in 1968, is now “California Native American Day.” It is commemorated on the fourth Friday of each September; returning this year after a two-year hiatus, due to the pandemic.
Nearly 400 miles to the south, Air Force veteran Ricardo “Shadowdancer” Ortega Melendez considers every day to be California Native American Day. Since 2015, he’s lived at the Veterans Home of California-Ventura, which is situated on land that his ancestors began calling home more than 5,000 years ago.
Melendez is a descendant of the Chumash tribe that inhabited the Central Coast area beginning in about 3,000 B.C. Among the largest Chumash settlements was Sa’aqtik’oy, later a community known as Saticoy.
“It is sacred ground,” Melendez said. “The Chumash had no written language, but the name ‘Sa’aqtik’oy’ means ‘place sheltered from the wind.’” As Spanish, Mexican, and then white settlers came to California, the Chumash and other tribes saw their lands taken and divvied up through land grants and other means.
In 2010, some of that land began sheltering roughly 60 veterans, when CalVet opened its Veterans Home of California -Ventura. Now, two veterans of Chumash ancestry and links to Saticoy–Melendez and Stanley Leighton–call the Ventura Veterans Home, well, home.
Melendez’s father, Simon Ortega Melendez, grew up in Saticoy and went on to become a decorated Korean War veteran.
Shadowdancer, with 13 generations of Spanish and Mexican descent and thousands of years of Chumash ancestry, joined the Air Force in 1977 and became a medic on C-9s based at Scott Air Force Base in Illinois. His unit transported ailing or injured military personnel from hospital to hospital across the country. He spent four years on active duty and another year as an Air Force reservist before transitioning out in 1982.
In 1988, while heading to work in Port Hueneme near Oxnard, his motorcycle was struck from behind by a drunk driver.
“I hit a light pole, and it was a near death experience,” Melendez said. He lost his right leg above the knee and his left required major reconstructive surgeries. The driver, who fled the scene and later was captured, served a three-year prison sentence, Melendez said.
Up to that point of his life, he identified more with his Hispanic heritage than Native American, because of his father’s influence. The injuries he endured from the crash sent him spiraling into an emotional depression.
“My abyss,” he said. “The place I was in was dark—no light—for three years.”
A Chumash tradition, he said, brought him out of it.
“I did a vision quest in the White Mountains,” Melendez said, referring to a life-changing ritual among many Native American tribes. “Three days and three nights that introduced me to my creator.”
During that experience, he heard the name “Shadowdancer,” and made it his own.
“It means ‘spirit guide’” Melendez said. “During the 30 years I’ve been on my path, I’ve been able to listen in different ways.”
It’s drawn him deeper into his Santa Clara River Chumash Turtle Clan heritage, which he wears proudly.
Melendez meshes his military service and tribal heritage, writing a story for the Veterans Home’s recent newsletter detailing the Chumash history and how the Home rests on sacred grounds.
“Shadowdancer (Ricardo) exemplifies our Ventura motto ‘Heroes Live Here and Heroes Work Here.’” Ventura Home Administrator Julian Bond said. “He believes in words and deeds, to include serving as the Allied Council President, new resident sponsorship program, volunteers in the garden, and encourages our residents to live life to the fullest.”
Bond said Melendez brings much more to the Home as well.
“He is proud of his Native American heritage and educates both the staff and residents on the contributions of the Chumash people, Native American service members, to include the famous Navajo Wind Talkers of WWII, and the importance of celebrating diversity,” Bond said.
The tranquility his ancestors sought, Melendez said, can transcend to all of the veterans and residents who live at the Home–past, present, and eternally–and make every day Native American Day.
“When I got here, I made myself steward of the grounds,” said Melendez. “Whoever comes here and enters this establishment, it’s going to be their last home. When it’s time to cross over—let it be in a peaceful way.”