Who are the Tongva and Why Do We Acknowledge Them in Our UUSM Services?

Takic language map

“Our church 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.”

We hear these words during every UUSM service now, and while the message is clear, it has often piqued our curiosity and made us (especially those of us who didn’t grow up in Los Angeles and didn’t study California history in fourth grade) want to learn more about the Tongva people: Who are they? What is their history? Where are they today? And why have UUSM and many other organizations (including some municipal governments) started using these kinds of public “land acknowledgements” in public gatherings?

Here are a few answers, and some resources for further information.

Who are the Tongva and what is their history?

The Tongva are an indigenous people from the Los Angeles basin and Southern Channel Islands. According to Wikipedia, the Tongva had as many as 100 villages in a 4,000 square mile area and “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.”

“Along with the neighboring Chumash,” Wikipedia says, “the Tongva were the most influential people at the time of European arrival. They developed an extensive trade network through te’aats (plank-built boats) and a vibrant food and material culture based on an Indigenous worldview that positioned humans, not as the apex of creation, but as one strand in a web of life (as made evident in their creation stories). Over time, different communities came to speak distinct dialects of the Tongva language, part of the Takic subgroup of the Uto-Aztecan language family. There may have been five or more such languages (three on the southernmost Channel Islands and at least two on the mainland).”

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 are also called “Gabrieleño” and “Fernandeño” after the missions built on their land.

San Gabriel Mission circa 1832
Painting of Mission San Gabriel by Ferdinand Deppe (1832), showing a Gabrieleño kiiy thatched with tule.

Where are the Tongva now?

Gabrieleño dwellings at Acurag-na rancheria near Mission San Gabriel, California (1877–1880).  (Public domain image via Wikipedia.)

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 UUSM and other organizations doing them now?

In a 2019 statement about the practice, California State University Long Beach says, “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 travelling, 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, the statements have more recently become “more visible in the U.S. in the last several years as public officials, universities, nonprofits and others start to incorporate land acknowledgment into their regular communications.” 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.

Where can we learn more about the Tongva?

Kuruvungna Springs photo by Jengod via Wikipedia.

For more information virtually, see the three stories linked to above, or any of the other links in the Resources for Further Reading section below. But if you’d like a more real-world experience, you might also consider visiting a Tongvan sacred creek, Kuruvungna ( “a place where we are in the sun”) Springs, located very close to Santa Monica 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, and it contains not only the well-preserved natural resource, but also 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. And if you’d like to learn more about the springs before you visit, see the Foundation link above, or this recent story from Alta Online.

Resources for Further Reading:
Tevaaxa’nga (Te-vaah-ha-nga) to Today: Stories of the Tongva People: https://www.rancholoscerritos.org/tongva/


6 thoughts on “Who are the Tongva and Why Do We Acknowledge Them in Our UUSM Services?”

  1. I am so glad we are discussing and honoring the indigenous people of our community. They are always present at celebrations on Olvera Street. I am on the Board of Olvera Street area and will keep you posted as to when they will be represented there.
    Beverly Alison

  2. Thank you for publishing this piece on the Tongva people. I can’t help bu wonder how our society can make this right for them. It seems that the burden should primarily be on the pooled resources of the federal and state governments, insisted by all of us who vote to elect our political leaders.

  3. Thanks Newsletter team. The link to the sacred springs is worth highlighting.
    In addition to the famous folks I was also a graduate of UNI class of 1967 and I did not even know about the site. To my memory I never saw it and it was never talked about in any of my classes. First Saturday of every month from 10-3 eh.
    I’m interested in visiting.

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