The Tongva are a people indigenous to the American Southwest. When the European conquest of that region began, they were the dominant people in what came to be known as the Los Angeles Basin. At that time, their realm spanned more than 3,000 square kilometers of land and sea. For over 1,000 years, had they lived in some 100 villages spread across the coastal plain of Los Angeles Basin and on at least three of the eight Channel Islands. Though many fewer in number today, their place names are still echoed in names like Azusa, Cahuenga, Rancho Cucamonga, and Topanga — as well as in the routes of many of our streets and roads, including iconic Wilshire Boulevard.
The Tongva are referred to, by nearly all non-academic sources and in nearly every (well-meaning but misinformed) land acknowledgment, to be Los Angeles’s original people or the indigenous people of Los Angeles. The phrase “since time immemorial” tends to be uttered quite a lot. It will surprise few of my readers, I hope, that the truth is more complicated and thus more interesting. Although the Tongva have been here for a very long time and continue to live here today, they are not actually indigenous to Los Angeles. Nor were they the first people to live in what’s now Los Angeles since by, the time they arrived, there had been people living in what’s now Los Angeles for likely more than 10,000 years.
Los Angeles, of course, didn’t exist until 1781 CE, by which time the Tongva themselves had lived in the region for thousands of years. But even though the Tongva were amongst the first people encountered by the Spanish, when they arrived in what’s now Los Angeles — it’s wrong (and a little insulting) to assume either that things had pretty much just existed in stasis for the more than 13,000 years of human history in the area that led up to that day, nobly and gently stewarding the land in their prelapsarian paradise. People moved vast distances. There was war and peace. Cultures arose, absorbed, interacted, and evolved. Huge cities rose and fell. Neither the city nor county of Los Angeles corresponds very closely with the territories of any non-European people who lived there at any point in history. It was, as it still is, a dynamic place.
TONGVA, KIZH, GABRIELINO, AND GABRIELEÑO
The Spanish were seemingly uninterested in what Natives called themselves or the lands on which they lived. Their custom was rename them after their own institutions, holidays, and whims. Thus, those Tongva who came to be associated with Misión de San Gabriel Arcángel were renamed by the Spanish, Gabrieleños. Those Tongva that came to be associated with Misión San Fernando Rey de España were, along with Chumash and Tataviam also captive there, renamed Fernandeños. Most Tongva, history records, tended to self-identify by their villages or clans — not by an overarching term that described all speakers of a mutually intelligible language or recognizably related culture. Thus the residents of Yaangna, for example, referred to themselves most often as Yaangnavit.
Many people today are comfortable with the Mission-derived identifiers and prefer to self-identify as such. Others prefer Kizh, which comes from the word for their thatched reed homes, kit’c. Tongva is attested to at least as early as 1903, when it was provided as an endonym by Narcisa Higuera Rosemeyre (1845 – 1912), one of the last fluent speakers of the Tongva language, who made clear to the ethnographer that it was pronounced “ˈtɒŋvā.” It may not have been a widely-used term of self-identification, though, although it has been embraced, widely (if far from universally) from those to whom it is applied and is usually pronounced “ˈtɒŋvə” by modern speakers.
The fact is that many people around the world are known today by exonyms rather than endonyms. It was Latin-speaking Genoese explorer Christophorus Columbus, for example, who first referred to the Arawak as “Indios” because he insisted (until his dying day and in the face of all factual evidence) that he was in Asia. The names, Cheyenne, Cree, and many other Native American examples come from the names provided by their neighbors. Thanks to the deliberate erasure of Native languages, we often don’t know how, or if, people self-identified with a single, unifying term. It’s not just limited to peoples of the Americas, though. The English name for Korea is derived from Chinese, the term for China is derived from Indian Sanskrit, and our name for India (from which we derive “Indian”) is derived from Latin. A good rule of thumb, in my opinion, therefore, is to just refer to people how they’d like to be referred.
The Sonoran Desert, from whence the Tongva likely arrived in what’s now Los Angeles, is a vast desert south of the Mojave that covers parts of modern-day Arizona, California, Baja California, Baja California Sur, and Sonora. Their ancestors likely migrated to the desert from a region in what’s now Nevada. Today this desert, although vast and hot, is home, however unlikely, to California’s largest lake — the Salton Sea. The Salton Sea is often said, wrongly, to be the product of a human-made disaster — the bursting of a levee along the Colorado River in 1905. The real human-made disaster, I would argue, was the construction of levees, aqueducts, and irrigation canals that prevented the Colorado River from doing what it had until that time done for thousands of years — that is, namely, flowing occasionally into the desert where the Salton Sea is now — and where was formerly a vast inland sea known retroactively as Lake Cahuilla that rose and fell over the ages.
The oral histories of the Kumeyaay, ʔívil̃uqaletem, and other Uto-Aztecan Language-speaking peoples — a group which also includes the Acjachemenemen, Kuupangaxwichem, Payómkawichum, Tataviam, and Tongva — all reference a homeland situated on a large body of water to the east. The most well-known speakers of an Uto-Aztecan language, the Aztecs (or Mexica) claim to have migrated from the north, where their homeland Aztlān was also said to have existed on the shores of a great body of water. Might they, and other Uto-Aztecan Language speaking peoples, have in their pasts lived along the shores of the vast Lake Cahuilla? might they have migrated elsewhere during one of the periods in which it dried up? The notion that Aztlān is a real place was long dismissed as mere myth by many scholars but was embraced, in the 1960s, by the Chicano Movement. Though I’m no anthropologist, there does seem to me to be a trend in which indigenous legends are proven to be rooted in historical fact.
Most historians believe that the Tongva arrived in what’s now Los Angeles around 1500 BCE and were the region’s dominant people by roughly 500 CE. They likely encountered a Los Angeles Basin that had been largely depopulated by humans for centuries or even millennia. The Tongva and related Takic peoples never claimed that they were the first humans in the region, however, and Tongva elders readily acknowledged that they were predated by the Chumash. When asked in 1916 to explain the meaning of the village name of Topa’nga, elder, Sétimo Moraga Lopez (1844-1930) indicated to ethnologist John Peabody Harrington that it meant “where the mountain meets the sea” but was adapted from the name of a Chumash village that existed there when the Tongva arrived.
Relationships between the Tongva and Chumash appear, for the most part, to have been mutually beneficial. To the Tongva — having arrived from an aridifying desert — the grasslands, woodlands, rivers, wetlands, and chaparral of the Los Angeles Basin that had been abandoned by the island-hopping and coastal Chumash may’ve seemed like a land of unimaginable abundance. The desert-descended Tongva and Acjachemen probably learned from the Chumash how to make sewn-plank canoes using driftwood from the Coast Redwood forests of the north and the oil that seeped up from the ocean floor. Deep seafaring by natives of the Americas was otherwise apparently limited to the Mapuche in what’s now Chile. The Chumash called their watercraft tomol. The Tongva called them ti’at and used them to settle Pimuu’nga (Santa Catalina Island) and Kinkipar (San Clemente Island).
It is not known, conclusively, whether or not the original colonizers of the Southern Channel Islands were Chumash. What is known, however, is that people were living there at least since roughly 8000 BCE. The Tongva are believed to have arrived at some point between 2000 BCE and 500 BCE. Evidence of warfare on them suggests that the transition of ownership from their previous inhabitants to the conquering Tongva was a conquest. You could even, dare I say, describe their presence on the islands as an occupation on unceded land. At some point after the Tongva conquered the island, the people of Kinkipar (San Clemente Island) enjoyed trade with their neighbors and obsidian from the distant homelands of the Coso, Kawaiisu, Mono, Paiute, and Timbisha.
If it’s not by now clear, the Tongva were not native to Los Angeles — which means that they were not indigenous to it. Having migrated here from elsewhere, they where indigenous to that place. None of this is to suggest that they didn’t (and don’t) have a stronger claim on the land than those who arrived after — but (to use another fashionable and annoying term) they were, it could be said, Los Angeles’s first “transplants.”
The Chumash, on the other hand, were almost certainly the first people to live in what’s now Los Angeles and thus, the only who can meaningfully be said to be indigenous to the region. Their Paleoamerican ancestors lived on the Channel Islands at least 13,000 years ago. From there, according to their creation myth, they grew too numerous and spread to the mainland by walking across a rainbow. Those who slipped and fell into the Santa Barbara Channel were transformed into dolphins. On the mainland, they established their most populous village at the Ballona Wetlands. At its greatest extent, their vast homelands extended at least as far north as Morro Bay, at least as far south as the Bolsa Chica Wetlands (and possibly San Clemente Island), and at least as far inland as Kaštiq (Castaic) and the San Fernando Valley. After centuries of droughts, however, the Chumash territory retracted and, when ocean levels rose, many of their abandoned mainland villages were submerged.
TRADITIONAL TONGVA CULTURE
Historically, the Tongva ate and prepared many foods from plants including acorns, chia seeds, prickly pear, yucca, tubers, corms, mushrooms, roots, fruits, flowers, cattails, lilies, holly-leaf cherry, and wild onions. They also hunted deer, fish, rabbits, seals, shellfish, and whales. The women wore skirts made of thin strips of bark, tule grasses, or animal skins. During colder seasons, women and men wore capes made of animal skins. The Tongva usually went barefoot but they also wore sandals made from yucca fibers. Traditional Tongva art included but was not limited to tattooing, jewelry-making, basketry, music, sand-painting, and pictograph tree and rock art created throughout their territory. Tongva music was made with bull-roarers, clapper sticks, flutes, rattles, whistles, and voice. The traditional Tongva year begins on the Winter Solstice, which is the most important festival on the Tongva calendar.
THE SPANISH CONQUEST
In 1542, Iberian explorer Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo sighted Kinkipar and renamed it Victoria after one of the three ships in his expedition, La Victoria. It would again be renamed by the Spanish after Saint Clement of Rome in 1602. Cabrillo’s crew anchored off Pimuu’nga on 7 October 1542. The island’s residents, the Pimuvit, rowed their tomols out to meet him. As was customary, Cabrillo renamed their island — calling it San Salvador, after his ship. It, too, would be again renamed in 1602, in its case after Saint Catherine of Alexandria. There they encountered a large number of people whom Cabrillo’s scribe claimed they befriended. The next day, 8 October, they arrived in San Pedro Bay, which they named Baya de los Fumos. The reason for the name is contested. Fire was used in hunting, land management, cooking, to preserve fish, and with signal fires. They were sailors — surely they had seen a marine layer before. Surely the Spanish had encountered “fumos” in enough places for it not to be exceptional — and yet, this is what they named it.
San Pedro Bay was home to the Tongva village of Povuu’nga, meaning “place of emergence.” It was here that the Tongva believed they originated — and many of the Takic brethren. Although we know that all of their ancestors came from the Sonoran Desert — might this not be where a distinct Takic culture and identity coalesced? The Tongva believed that it was the birthplace of the sun god, Chingishnish (Chinigchinix). He was venerated by other Takic peoples as Qua-o-ar, Ouiamot, Saor, and Tobet. The tyrannical god of the sky and ruler of the Tongva, Wiyot, was poisoned by his sons, an act that was said to have introduced death into the world. Chingishnish appeared to restore law and order and to provide instruction for the Takic peoples, assigning each their own territories and dialects. The Tongva territory, Tovaangar (or Továngar), stretched from Topanga, which bordered Chumash lands, south to Aliso Creek, which marked the border with Payómkawichum. To the north were the Tatavim. To the east were the ʔívil̃uqaletem and Taaqtam, including the Maarrênga’yam and Yuhaaviatam.
Cabrillo and his men sailed on to Santa Monica Bay the next day. They sailed on from there, possibly as far north as the Columbia River, before the approach of winter compelled them to turn back. On 23 November 1542, they arrived back in Pimuu’nga and decided to winter there. This time, conflict arose between the visitors and their hosts and on 3 January 1543, Cabrillo died of gangrene contracted during a fight with the islanders. A possible gravestone was located north, on the Chumash-controlled island of Tuqan (San Miguel Island). Cabrillo’s fleet, minus their captain, returned to Navidad, Mexico, and arrived on 14 April 1543. A second expedition, led by Sebastián Vizcaíno, sailed up the coast in 1602. It was Vizcaíno who renamed the Channel Islands San Clemente and Santa Catalina. He renamed the Baya de los Fumos, San Pedro. He also noted the location of a shrine to Chinigchinich near Two Harbors.
THE MISSIONIZATION OF CALIFORNIA
Having found no gold in Alta California, the Spanish had little used for the region and mostly ignored the region for the next 200 years. The Spanish returned in 1769, when Catalonian explorer Gaspar Portolà i Rovira led an overland expedition that was the prelude to the Spanish establishing a network of missions and presidios. Many native peoples were killed by diseases introduced by the Spanish for which they lacked immunity. This is sometimes pointed to by apologists as evidence that the Spanish (and American) conquests weren’t truly genocidal. The diseases they introduced were, for the most part, passed along accidentally. The Spanish and other Europeans, after all, themselves suffered from their own disasters Great Famine and the Black Death and they recovered whereas Native American peoples didn’t (at least not quickly to pre-disease numbers). One key difference, though, is that Europeans, Middle Easterners, and North Africans didn’t have an occupier actively prohibiting their recovery with enslavement and the systematic eradication of their way of life. The missions are brutal places in which children were separated from their parents — and those who attempted to escape from the missions would be punished by having their ears cut off or brands burnt onto their flesh.
Children in the mission system were abused but adult “neophytes,” were far from passive victims, it should be noted. Many performed many acts of resistance and rebellion at various missions. Spain’s first Alta California mission, Misión San Diego de Alcalá, was established in the Kumeyaay homeland in 1769. The Kumeyaay responded by killing the a priest and burning the mission to the ground. The Misión de San Gabriel Arcángel, built in the Tongva homeland in 1776, recorded five uprisings. The most famous was an unsuccessful rebellion led by Nicolás José, Tomasajaquichi, Alijivitand, and Toypurina in 1785. Their rebellion was driven, in part, by a ban from the padres on dancing and otherwise observing their traditional mourning ceremony. The Tongva worried that if they didn’t perform their annual rites, their deceased relatives’ spirits would be disturbed. The participants were lashed, put in chains, and imprisoned. Toypurina was sent to San Francisco and married to a Spaniard, Mañuel Montero. She died at the age of 39.
Toypurina has in recent years been reclaimed as a symbol of female resistance. In 1993, Judy Baca created a station art piece for a Metrolink platform in Baldwin Park titled Danzas Indígenas. Although there are no known images of Toypurina made during her lifetime, artists Joséph “Nuke” Montalvo, Raul González, and Ricardo Estrada depicted her in their mural, Conoce Tus Raíces, painted in Ramona Gardens in 2009. In 2014, the play, Toypurina, written by Tongva playwrights by Matthew Lovio and Andrew Morales, debuted at the San Gabriel Mission Playhouse.
YAANGNA AND EL PUEBLO DE LOS ANGELES
In 1781, a group of 44 pobladores established El Pueblo De Nuestra Señora La Reina De Los Ángeles De Pornicula at what’s now the neighborhood of El Pueblo. Its location chosen in compliance with a body of laws known as the Leyes de las Indias. It was sufficiently inland to protect it from pirates, located near a water source (the Los Angeles River), and was located near a Tongva village, Yaangna, whose inhabitants could be used as a labor force. Yaangna’s location was marked by a large, sacred sycamore tree, known to the Spanish as El Aliso. Its location is marked by a plaque in the sidewalk at the intersection of Commercial and Vignes streets, the latter a reference to a vineyard it later loomed over, and between a freeway and a cannabis dispensary. When the Philadelphia Brewery opened there in 1875, it stood in the courtyard. It was chopped down and used for lumber when the brewery was expanded.
MEXICAN INDEPENDENCE AND SECULARIZATION
Mexico declared its independence from Spain in 1810 and it was achieved in 1821. Afterward, beginning in 1834, the missions were secularized — which might seem like a good thing for the enslaved Tongva and other natives — but rather than return the lands, the Mexicans sold and deeded them to Mexican elites, further depriving the Tongva and requiring them to either work in servitude on the ranches or live as refugees on their own homelands. Laws were passed requiring Tongva to work. Many moved to the Pueblo in search of manual labor. Relatively few Tongva were deeded land — only about twenty — and they were small compared to those given to the Mexicans. One of the largest to a Tongva, 22 acres, was granted to Prospero Elias Dominguez. In 1846, 140 Tongva petitioned the authorities demanding access to their lands but they were rejected. In 1847, a law was passed requiring Tongva to show proof of occupation.
THE LONE WOMAN OF HARAASNGNA
Archeological evidence suggests that humans, probably the Chumash, lived on San Nicholas Island for some 10,000 years. They called the island Ghalas-at. The Tongva, however, conquered the island, and as with San Clemente and Santa Catalina islands, archeological evidence suggests that the transfer was violent. Tongva renamed the island Haraasngna. The Chumash referred to the inhabitants as Niminocotch. What they referred to themselves as, if anything, has been forgotten. The island was renamed Isla de San Nicolás by Sebastián Vizcaíno in 1602 . The Spanish (and later, Mexicans) thus referred to them as Nicoleños. In 1814, the Russian-American Company Under the High Patronage of His Imperial Majesty (Под высочайшим Его Императорского Величества покровительством Российская-Американская Компания) arrived on the island and a party composed of Russian and Aleut otter and seal hunters raped and killed many of the island’s inhabitants.
By the 1830s, there were only an estimated 14-20 inhabitants on the island. In 1835, Captain Charles Hubbard sailed to the island aboard the schooner, Peor es Nada. The remaining inhabitants boarded the ship except for a lone woman. Hubbard brought them to and brought them to Misión de Santa Bárbara, where they were resettled. Hubbard intended to return for her but the Peor es Nada sank in San Francisco Bay during a storm. The lone woman remained alone on the island until 1853, when after nearly twenty years of solitude, Captain George Nidever rescued her and took her to the mainland. By then, all but three or four of the other islanders who’d been taken to the mission had died. The Chumash at the mission couldn’t translate her language. The lone woman was taken in by Nidever and his wife. She contracted dysentery and died seven weeks later. Before she died, Father Sanchez baptized and christened her, Juana Maria. Her real name wasn’t apparently recorded. She was buried in an unmarked grave at the Santa Barbara Mission cemetery.
In 1928, the Daughters of the American Revolution installed a plaque in the cemetery commemorating her. The image of the woman most often used is not actually of her. It is a photo of an unknown Native woman donated by scholar Emma Chamberlain Hardacre’s niece, Elizabeth Mason, to the Santa Barbara Historical Museum. Scott O’Dell‘s beloved book, Island of the Blue Dolphins, based on the woman’s experiences, was published in 1960. It was adapted into a less-loved film of the same name in 1964, starring a mostly white cast in brownface.
THE US CONQUEST
The US invaded Mexico in 1846 and, in 1848, roughly a third of the country was ceded to the conquering Americans. The US government signed eighteen treaties between 1851 and ’52 guaranteeing Natives 3,400,000 hectares of land on which to live but the land was never ceded. Instead, Tongva and other Natives were arrested for nuisance crimes and forced to work as convicts. By the early 20th century, the Tongva and other natives were sometimes romanticized but generally regarded as having gone extinct.
Today there are five organizations that represent these Southern California natives: the Gabrielino-Tongva Tribe (aka “the hyphen group”), the Gabrielino/Tongva Tribe (aka “the slash group”), the Kizh Nation (Gabrieleño Band of Mission Indians), the Gabrieleño/Tongva Tribal Council and the Coastal Gabrielino-Diegueno Band of Mission Indians. The organizations claimed together to represent, in 2013, more than 3,900 members. In the 1990s, the Gabrielino/Tongva Springs Foundation revived the ceremonial use of Kuruvungna Springs. The state of California recognized the Gabrielino “as the aboriginal tribe of the Los Angeles Basin” with the passage of Senate Bill 1134, in 1994. The Tongva have never been recognized, though, at the federal level. In 2008, more than 1,700 people surveyed self-identified as being of Tongva ancestry. In 2004, the seal of Los Angeles County was changed, replacing Pomona (the Roman goddess of fruits) with a depiction of a Tongva woman. Tongva Park opened in Santa Monica in 2013. In 2017, Los Angeles decided to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day. In 2022, a one-acre property in Altadena was donated to the Tongva.
NOTABLE TONGVA IN CONTEMPORARY LOS ANGELES
Not only, then, are Tongva not just figures who populated Los Angeles early history — they are also, it’s even less-often acknowledged — contributors to Los Angeles’s contemporary and evolving culture, as well as its future. There are numerous Angelenos who self-identify as Tongva, in other words, who are modern public figures, including artist Adrienne Kinsella, activist AnMarie Mendoza, chief Red Blood Anthony Morales, scholar Charles Sepulveda, author Cindi M. Alvitre, educator Craig Torres, activist Emilio Reyes, astronomer Glenn Miller, Jr., musician Jessa Calderon, spiritual leader Jimi Castillo, poet Kelly Caballero, artist L. Frank Manriquez, researcher Mark Acuña, artist Mercedes Dorame, actress Tonantzin Carmelo, and artist Weshoyot Alvitre.
As always, additions and corrections are welcome and appreciated!
A Brief History of the Tongva Tribe: The Native Inhabitants of the Lands of the Puente Hills Preserve by Rosanne Welch
Defining the Takic Expansion into Southern California by Mark Sutton
“Eighteen Years Alone,” by Emma C. Hardacre for Century Magazine
Letters of the Los Angeles County Indians by Hugo Reid
Mapping Indigenous LA: Placemaking Through Digitial Storytelling
“Mapping the Tongva villages of L.A.’s past“ by Sean Greene and Thomas Curwen
“Native Month: Know Your ‘Na!'” by the Militant Angeleno
Studies of California Indians by C. Hart Merriam
Tongva People: A dynamic study of the Villages and Locations of the Gabrielino-Tongva Indians
Továngar: a Gabrielino Word Book by Anne Galloway
“Toypurina” by Robert Peterson (The Hidden History of Los Angeles)
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2 thoughts on “No Enclave — Tongva Los Angeles”
Interesting read, but of the modern figures most of them are not Tongva. Most are from families of the 1769 PORTOLO EXPEDITION and 1779 RIVERA EXPEDITION that did not marry a Tongva person in their direct lineage.