LA’s Tongva descendants: ‘We originated here’

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KCRW listener Araceli Argueta wanted to know more about the history of Los Angeles’ indigenous people and submitted this question to Curious Coast. “What Native Tribes’ lands are we on? Are there living descendants? What is their story?”

Kuruvungna Springs flows on a small nature preserve near Santa Monica. It’s a sacred spot to the Tongva, one of LA’s indigenous tribes. The name – Kuruvungna – means “a place where we are in the sun” and it was the name of a Tongva village that once sat at this site of this natural spring.

Today, the Gabrielino Tongva Springs Foundation leases the land from the Los Angeles Unified School District and invites people to learn more about indigenous culture, tradition and history.

This is where I met Julia Bogany, a Tongva tribal elder, educator and the Cultural Affairs officer for the Gabrielino/Tongva Band of Mission Indians. She says sitting along the spring, which flows under the shade of a 150 year old Mexican Cypress, makes her think of what life was like for her ancestors.

“The water is flowing cool. It’s really nice. It’s a nice place to be in the middle of the city. There’s peace and quiet,” said Bogany about Kuruvungna Springs. “As for ceremonies, it’s really important because we don’t have those places where we can go for our own ceremonies, but here we can.”

The Tongva have been in Southern California for at least 10 thousand years, according to archeologists. Some Tongva descendants, like Craig Torres, say they’ve been here since the beginning of time.

“Now the name Tongva comes from a word in our language which means the earth or the land or one’s landscape, so it translates to ‘people of the earth,’” said Torres, a Tongva educator. “In our stories, we originated here, we didn’t come from any land bridge we get where this is where we are from.”

Kuruvungna Springs flows under a 150 year old Mexican Cypress, a Tongva village once sat at this site. On the other side of the fence, University High School’s football field. (Photo: Jenny Hamel) (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

The Tongva lived all throughout the Los Angeles Basin down to north Orange County and on Catalina and San Clemente islands. 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. Torres said a major reason they thrived, was that they had a relationship with the natural land based on a deep respect.

“There is this reciprocity that is needed in any type of relationship we have, whether it’s human or animal planet whatever. It’s a give and take. And that’s how my ancestors were able to survive on this land for not a few hundred years, but for thousands of generations,” said Torres. “And that’s why it looked the way it did when the Spanish first came up here and they noted it in their diaries it was like a paradise.”

When the Spanish arrived in Southern California in the late 1700s, life as the Tongva knew it was over. From that point on, the history of the Tongva and of all indigenous people in California, is an incredibly painful one – wrought with stories of mass killing, stolen land and stolen identity.

The Spanish settlers arrived and built the Mission San Gabriel in 1781. Thousands of Tongva were forced to leave their villages to work and live in the Missions. The missionaries collectively called all natives “Gabrielinos.”

The Tongva and other tribes were baptised, forced to give up their language and their culture.

The tribes fought back fiercely. But as bad as things were under the Spanish, the slaughter only increased when California became a state in 1850.

“It was worse when California was taken over by the Americans because there were actually mandates on the extermination of California Indians,” said Torres. “And that was probably one of the worst times for our people.”

The state of California finally recognized the Gabrielino-Tongva under state law in 1994. The tribe never received federal recognition or assistance.

“I think if the United States just acknowledged that there is a history of the people that were here. I don’t see recognition in my lifetime… I’ll be 70 next month” said Julia Bogany, tribal elder. “But I do see an acknowledgement of the people and I think it’s happening slowly. I think it’s happening slowly as colleges and the San Gabriel Mission are saying ‘These were the first people.’”

Roughly two thousand Tongva descendants live in Los Angeles today and some of our local cities have names that originated with the Tongva.

“If you notice they’re all in the foothills of the San Gabriel mountains Rancho Cucamonga, Azusa, Pacoima, Tujunga- and that comes from the word ‘tohu’ which is like an elder woman or an esteemed elderly woman in the community,” said Torres.

Craig Torres, a Tongva educator, standing in front of an elderberry tree, every part of which- from the berries to the branches- were valuable to his Tongva ancestors. (Photo: Jenny Hamel) (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

For Torres, keeping Tongva culture alive means educating today’s Angelenos, young and old, about the earth and treating it with respect and reverence as his ancestors did.

“For me part of bringing healing back to our communities,” said Torres, “is educating people that live here that they really should be paying attention and adhering to those ancient instructions that we were given you know thousands and thousands of years ago by our ancestors on how to conduct ourselves on the land. Because all the kids, you know, we all have different mothers but we only share one mother earth and we don’t get another one.”

Both Torres and Bogany have worked with UCLA on education projects, including a website called “Mapping Indigenous LA,” which is dedicated to the diversity of Los Angeles and is platform for the Tongva and other communities to tell their own story.

Bogany’s role as an educator includes teaching her great-granddaughter about the Tongva culture and language. Bogany says the 11-year-old is proud to be a Tongva descendant.

“I always say the Tongva women never left their land. They became invisible,” said Bogany. “We’re not invisible anymore.”

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