By Susan Reuben
Once upon a time, the only luxury homes on the Westside were mud huts, and the only human beings who wandered throughout our gently rolling hills were members of the Tongva Indian tribe, or “people of the earth” in their language. The Tongva occupied the entire Los Angeles basin, as well as the islands of Santa Catalina, Santa Barbara, San Nicholas and San Clemente. Their self contained villages dotted the landscape from Topanga Canyon to Aliso Springs in Laguna Beach and from the San Gabriel Mountains to the sea. There are thirty-one sites across the Los Angeles basin, which are known to have been inhabited by the Tongva, each site consisting of up to 500 individual huts. Over 2,800 archaeological sites have documented the existence of the Tongva Indians as indigenous to this area for 7,000 years. Their history can be found in the California state historical records, federal archives and the Catholic Church records at the San Gabriel and San Fernando Missions.
Before the arrival of Spanish explorers, the Tongva population was estimated at 200,000. It was the Tongva who rowed their Ti’ats, or plank canoes, out to greet Spanish explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo when he arrived off the shore of what is now San Pedro in 1542. Over two hundred years later (1769), explorer Don Gaspar de Portola of Spain and his expedition encountered the Indians and were guided to the Tongva’s holy Kuruvungna Springs to replenish their water supplies. These springs are located on what is now the campus of University High School in West Los Angeles.
The Tongva Nation was a vital civilization with a working government, legal system, religion, music, dance, art, cultural exchange and monetary system. Each village was ruled by a chief who reported to a central chief, who was responsible for the welfare of all members of the tribe. These were peaceful people who were hunter-gatherers, existing on nuts, berries, seafood and small game.
After Father Junipero Serra arrived from Spain in 1770 to establish the first missions, many tribal members were brought to the missions to supply the labor to sustain them. After conversion, they were forced to abandon their villages and their culture. Mission de San Gabriel and San Fernando were founded in 1771. The Indians became known as Gabrielenos because of their close association with the San Gabriel Mission. In 1781, the Spanish settlers founded El Ciudad de la Reina de Los Angeles, called “Yangna” by the Tongvas. By this time the Tongva population had dwindled to about 70,000.
The Tongva land holdings were divided into land grants given to Mexican military officers and others of distinction. When Mexico gained its independence from Spain in 1824, Mexican culturization of the Indians continued with a loss of many religious rites, customs and dialects. As the missions were secularized in about 1833, the Tongvas were scattered and left to work at subsistence level on the rancherias in the area. Disease contributed to the decline in their population, and by the late 1800s, only about 6000 remained.
Tongva Indians still live in the Los Angeles area, and tribal members still gather regularly in San Gabriel to keep their traditions alive. In 1994, the cities of Los Angeles and San Gabriel and the State of California recognized the Gabrieleno/Tongva Indians as the indigenous people of Los Angeles.
To learn more about the Tongva Indians, visit The Tongva Memorial, located on the Leavey Campus at Loyola Marymount University. In part, it memorializes two archaeological sites which were destroyed by the development of the campus. Also, on October 8th, from 11:00 – 4:00, The Gabrieleno/Tongva Springs Foundation is hosting a Native American arts and crafts festival called “Life Before Columbus Day” at University High School, 1439 South Barrington Avenue. This will include cultural displays of Tongva history and artifacts as well as demonstrations of basket weaving, ancestral weaving and American Indian tortilla making. For more information, contact Angie Behrns at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For additional information, contact the Gabrieleno/Tongva Band of Mission Indians of San Gabriel at 626-286-1632.