Map showing areas inhabited by various native peoples before the influx of colonial settlers. (Native Land (.CA) 501c3, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)
On this Indigenous People’s Day, it seems appropriate to learn more about the indigenous people of the Los Angeles area, and about increasing local efforts to acknowledge those who came before us on the land that was most frequently stolen by colonial settlers.
Who Are the Tongva/Gabrieleño People?
As shown on the map above, most of what is now the Los Angeles basin and the Southern Channel Islands sit on land originally occupied by the Tongva people. According to Wikipedia, the Tongva had as many as 100 villages in a 4,000 square mile area and were “primarily identified by their village name rather than by a pan-tribal name.”
Radio station KCRW adds that “Tongva villages were often built near rivers, creeks, and other sources of water. Their biggest village was called Yangna and it sat right where downtown LA sits today, near the Los Angeles River. The Tongva traded extensively between themselves and with other tribes- like the Chumash, their neighbors to the North and West.”
And the LAist website notes that “If you live in what’s now known as the Los Angeles Basin, you’re living on what its Indigenous residents call Tovaangar, which means “the world.”
In the 1700s, however, after the founding of the Mission San Gabriel, many Tongva were enslaved, forcibly relocated and/or victimized by treaties that promised but never delivered land and other benefits. The Tongva were also called “Gabrieleño” and “Fernandeño” after the missions built on their land.
According to Wikipedia, the Tongva were rumored to have died out by the early 20th century, but in reality, “a close-knit community of the people remained in contact with one another between Tejon Pass and San Gabriel township.”
Since 2006, Wikipedia continues, four organizations have claimed to represent the people: the Gabrielino-Tongva Tribe (the “hyphen” group), the Gabrielino/Tongva Tribe (the “slash” group), the Kizh Nation (Gabrieleño Band of Mission Indians), and the Gabrieleño/Tongva Tribal Council.
But while the state of California now officially recognizes the Gabrielino as “the aboriginal tribe of the Los Angeles Basin,” the federal government does not recognize any organized group representing the Tongva – even though by 2008, “more than 1,700 people identified as Tongva or claimed partial ancestry,” and “in 2013, it was reported that the four Tongva groups that have applied for federal recognition had over 3,900 members collectively.”
Today, reports KCRW, “Roughly two thousand Tongva descendants live in Los Angeles,” and many communities in the foothills of the San Gabriel mountains, including Rancho Cucamonga, Azusa, Pacoima, and Tujunga have names that originated with the Tongva. The last of these – “Tujunga” – “comes from the word ‘tohu’ which is like an elder woman or an esteemed elderly woman in the community.”)
What are “Land Acknowledgements” and Why are We Seeing/Hearing So Many of them Now?
While the Tongva have been at various times nearly erased from history, we are now hearing an increasing number of official land acknowledgement statements at various kinds of local meetings and gatherings. The statements often go something like this:
“This organization and the homes of most of our members are on the traditional, ancestral and unceded lands of the Tongva people, who continue to live here and who cared for these lands for thousands of years. We recognize and mourn the often-deadly harm inflicted on the indigenous people of this country. We lift up their grace, resilience, and their relationship with these sacred lands.”
Or they can be more specifically tailored to the missions of individual groups or organizations, like this one from the Los Angeles Conservancy:
“The Los Angeles Conservancy recognizes the Gabrieliño Tongva as the past, present, and future caretakers of the land, water, and cultural resources in the unceded territory of Los Angeles.
As a county-wide historic preservation organization that advocates and educates about historic places and spaces, we honor and respect the history of the original inhabitants and places that preceded the founding of Los Angeles and we are committed to sharing this history in our programs.
California State University Long Beach said in a 2019 statement that, “Simply stated, a land and territorial acknowledgment is a statement that recognizes the ongoing presence and relationship of the First Peoples whose land an institution occupies. For First Peoples, this recognition is protocol for visitors and guests traveling, working, or living in a community that is not their original homeland. The statement expresses an awareness about the dispossession of the indigenous peoples of the land to make visible ongoing forms of settler-colonial privilege and dominance.”
And according to the LAist story mentioned above, land acknowledgements are “an important step in the process of “rematriation” — the reunion of the land with its original caretakers and stewards.”
“By stating our name, by talking about us, by making ‘Gabrielino Tongva’ a word that people know, it makes them consciously think about the land that they’re occupying and standing on, and that they’re guests of this land,” said Kimberly Morales Johnson, tribal secretary for the San Gabriel Band of Mission Indians/Gabrielino Tongva and a member of the Los Angeles City/County Native American Indian Commission, in the LAist story.
One local official who has been active in promoting a similar effort for the City of Los Angeles is City Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell – a member of the Wyandotte Nation and the first Native American councilmember in Los Angeles history. Last month, O’Farrell made a motion to create a new Indigenous Land Acknowledgement, which has now been forwarded to the Immigrant Affairs, Civil Rights, and Equity Committee for further discussion.
“The City of Los Angeles, and the Civic Center itself, sits on Indigenous land,” said O’Farrell in a statement about the motion. “We cannot secure a better future for ourselves without first acknowledging the truth of our past. An official land acknowledgement policy, regularly recognizing the true history of the Los Angeles region and its ancestors, will be another major step forward in our movement to give greater voice to Native American and Indigenous issues, history, and people.”
O’Farrell has also led several other other efforts acknowledging Native Americans and indigenous people, including the formal establishment of Indigenous Peoples Day, which in 2017 officially replaced Columbus Day on the second Monday of October. In addition, O’Farrell helped remove a statue of Christopher Columbus from Grand Park in 2018, and sponsored the 2021 adoption of “a formal apology from the City of Los Angeles to all Native Tribal Nations that have been injured by previous actions of the City.”
Also, to celebrate Indigenous People’s Day this year, O’Farrell and the City of Los Angeles are hosting an Ingigenous People’s Day event starting at 4 p.m. today, at Grand Park (200 N. Grand Ave., Downtown), featuring blessings, performances, speeches, food, musical performances and more.
Learning More About the Tongva
In addition to today’s celebrations and the links above, you can also learn more about the history of the Tongva people in the Resources for Further Reading list below.
And if you’d like a more real-world experience, you can visit the Gabrielino sacred creek, Kuruvungna Springs, located on the campus of University High School at 1439 S. Barrington Ave.
The site is leased from LAUSD and maintained by the non-profit Gabrielino/Tongva Springs Foundation. It contains both the well-preserved natural resource, and the Kuruvungna Village Springs & Cultural Center, featuring “artifacts, historical documents, photo collections and other historical resources directly associated with the history of the Tongva people as well as the High School.”
According to the Foundation website, the area is open to the public the first Saturday of each month from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. To learn more about the springs before you visit, see the link above or this recent story from Alta Online.
Resources for Further Reading:
[Note: Portions of this story were adapted, with permission, from an article previously written by the author for the Unitarian Universalist Community Church of Santa Monica.]