The Indigenous Angelenos

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Photo by Charles Deluvio on Unsplash

I live near a place called Moyo, or Moyonga, by the ancient and modern native people of this captivating coastal region. The Spanish termed the land the Rancho San Joaquin, and you may know it by its American names, the cities of Newport Beach, Laguna Beach, and Irvine in Orange County, California. I was recently reflecting upon why I didn’t learn the name Moyo in school, or hear anything but a passing reference to the name of nation whose land I now inhabit, the Tongva. Of the over 10 million who now inhabit the Tongva’s ancestral home, called Tovaangar, I imagine few know the story of the first and true Angelenos, those who aspired, created, and performed first in a city now famed for all three.

Indeed, the residents of Los Angeles and its metropolitan area, so greatly regarded as the place of transplants, immigrants, and exiles, have alternatively forgotten, disregarded, and erased those for whom Southern California is the most sacred and ancestral place. As a resident of one of Southern California’s diaspora communities and a second-generation American, Los Angeles signifies much more more than just a city. Yet, to them, it was and is more than it will ever be to me. They needed no opportunity or glamor to attract them, no fame or fortune to compel them. For them, this was and is the land of their people, their Home with a capital “H.”

For seven thousand years, Southern California was Tovaangar, the word meaning “world” in the Tongva language. Almost one hundred settlements across the region, from Catalina Island to San Bernardino, and from Santa Clarita to San Clemente, contained such a collection of people and culture as rivaled any in the world. There were grand monuments and rich societies in the West, and in the Americas more broadly, at the time. The Tongva, though a smaller people in number relative to the more widely known native nations on the continent, had a spiritual and societal richness all their own.

Like many native peoples of the West, the Tongva were connected to this enchanted land in their most foundational stories and practices. In the south, where the Los Angeles Basin begins, was a place called Povuu’nga, or “the place of emergence,” which held a deeply sacred meaning in Tongva culture as the origination point of their people. In the north was a village whose name you may recognize, Topaanga, one of several Tongva names which survive in modern Los Angeles. At modern Two Harbors on Catalina Island, there was Pimu, a profoundly significant locality in Tongva traditions.

The unpardonable lack of education about Tongva history in Southern California classrooms has led to a drought of understanding about their society and its story, but the work of people like Professor Pam Munro of UCLA, who is working to teach and reconstruct the Tongva language, is beginning to reacquaint those who settled upon Tongva land with the culture of the people who call it their ancestral home. The small echoes of their story, in the names Topanga, Rancho Cucamonga, Tujunga, Azusa, Cahuenga, all of which originate with the Tongva, are beginning to be complimented by the picture of a prosperous and admirable society.

Motivated by a desire to spread Catholicism and attain their own shares of America’s plundered wealth, a group of Spaniards set out to the north from Mexico in the 1760s to begin the California Mission System. The architect of the system, Father Junipero Serra, has been made famous again in recent weeks by the toppling of his statues, and indeed, he was the man who inaugurated the system of Native American slavery and the genocide of native peoples in California. Under the guise of religious conversion, the people of California were subjugated, enslaved, and murdered in numbers which are scarcely conceivable. Three-quarters of the coastal population died.

The Tongva were enslaved to construct the Spanish Mission San Gabriel Arcangel, becoming known to the Spanish not by their ancestral name, but by the exonym Gabrielino. Their enslavement continued in the Mission itself, where neophytes, as the Spanish called the natives forced to reside there, were worked and overseen living what the Spanish called “the Christian life,” but which was a most abject, detestable, and unconscionable state of enslavement and dehumanization. Meanwhile, the Spanish moved into the L.A. Basin, and near the Tongva settlement of Yaanga, founded El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de Los Angeles in 1781.

The population of Indigenous people in Southern California had been greatly reduced by the conclusion of the Mission Era. With the American conquest of California in 1848 came new treaty promises to protect Tongva lands, yet in keeping with its modus operandi, the Congress refused to honor or consider any such promises. Eighteen “lost treaties” signed following California statehood in the 1850s were never ratified by the Senate, and instead placed under an injunction of secrecy for fifty years, whereupon they were rediscovered. The treaties promised a collective 8.5 million acres to the Tongva, land which represented a fraction of their ancestral region.

Following the rediscovery of the “lost treaties” in the early 20th Century, some California officials began to advocate for the fulfillment of the promises made to the Tongva by American representatives after the conquest, including notably the future Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren. However earnest these efforts may have been, the U.S. Court of Claims’ eventual award, which amounted to $0.07 per acre of land, could scarcely be described as an attempt at compensation.

The Tribal History of the Tongva, as recorded on the Tribe’s official website, details further action taken after World War II, inspired by the service and sacrifice of Native Americans in the conflict, which ultimately ended in the payment of $633 to each member of the Tribe in 1972. By then, however, policies of Native assimilation led to the confiscation of further lands and the adoption of Native children into white households. While both of these developments were ultimately ended through legislation and judicial action, the Tongva were still left without any governmental recognition and little individual recognition from the now booming Los Angeles population.

The State of California ultimately recognized the Gabrielino-Tongva Tribe as the indigenous people of the Los Angeles Basin in 1994, but no federal recognition has yet been attained. The Tribe routinely elects a Council to this day, and despite tremendous pressures of discrimination and deprivation, the Tongva remain here in Southern California today. Yet, the fact that in the world’s global center of art and aspiration, a place which has welcomed millions from all cultures, nations, and traditions, is governed by a Congress which does not recognize its native people engenders shame, sorrow, and, hopefully for all of us, support for change.

My family adopted Southern California as their home, fleeing from the violence and upheaval of the Iranian Revolution. This land has similarly enchanted, inspired, and called out to the oppressed, marginalized, and aspirational from all places and of all personalities. Yet, with the adoption of this place, originally conquered and expropriated by Spain, Mexico, and the United States of America, must come an acknowledgement of where we stand, and on whose ancestral ground we construct our communities.

We reside here in eternal tenancy. For as long as we who are not of the land may call it home, we shall be tenants of those whose legacy is woven into the land itself. Multiple flags have flown here, and many peoples have come to see Los Angeles, and California, as their home, but to not recognize that we stand on Tongva ground, where Tongva people have lived for three-hundred and fifty generations, is an abrogation of the highest responsibility.

Southern California is indeed a place of immigrants, yet it is, in its very soul and substance, Tovaangar, the land of the Tongva.

Written by

Jefferson Scholar at the University of Virginia | Orange County, CA

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