Ode to L.A.'s First Inhabitants : It Took 17 Years to Write, but Bill McCawley’s Book on the Gabrielino Fills a Major Gap in California’s History


Bill McCawley has been fascinated by Southern California history since he was a kid growing up in Long Beach in the 1960s, a time when there were still wide open fields waiting to be explored by children hoping to find Indian arrowheads and dinosaur bones.

He got his first real glimpse into the history of the area when he took a class at Cal State Long Beach taught by Frank Fenenga. And it was Fenenga, a respected California archeologist, to whom McCawley went for advice when he decided to write a magazine article about the local Gabrielino Indians.

Fenenga listened quietly to his former student, then uttered the words: “Why don’t you write a book instead?”

That was in 1978.


Now, more than 17 years later, McCawley’s book has finally been published.

“The First Angelinos: The Gabrielino Indians of Los Angeles” (Malki Museum Press / Ballena Press, 1996) is the first book-length treatment of the Gabrielino in more than 30 years.

The region where Gabrielino culture thrived for more than eight centuries encompassed most of Los Angeles County, more than half of Orange County and portions of Riverside and San Bernardino counties.

McCawley says the Gabrielino culture is estimated to have first taken shape between AD 500 and 1000. At its peak, just before the arrival of Spanish colonists in the late 1700s, there were an estimated 5,000 Gabrielino in the region.


It was the labor of the Gabrielino who built the missions, ranchos and the pueblos of Los Angeles. They were trained in the trades, and they did the construction and maintenance, as well as the farming and managing of herds of livestock.

“The Gabrielino are the ones who did all this work, and they really are the foundation of the early economy of the Los Angeles area,” he says. “That’s a contribution that Los Angeles has not recognized--the fact that in its early decades, without the Gabrielino, the community simply would not have survived.”

When he started working on his book, McCawley says, “I thought I knew a lot about the Gabrielino. As years went by I found myself continually amazed by the complexity and intricacy of their culture.”

His thoroughly researched, illustrated book covers the Gabrielino community, place names, political and social structure, economic organization and trade, religious beliefs and ritual practices, music, games and recreation.

Fenenga is no longer living, but Thomas C. Blackburn, professor of anthropology at Cal Poly Pomona, calls McCawley’s book “a much-needed addition to the basic literature on Southern California native peoples, and one that fills a major gap in our understanding of aboriginal life ways in this area prior to European settlement.”

Not bad for someone who majored in psychology and who has spent most of the past 18 years working as a corporate accountant.

Indeed, for McCawley, who had only one freelance magazine article to his credit at the time he visited his former professor, Fenenga’s advice was rather bold.

“That was Fenenga; he was always encouraging people to write,” says McCawley, now 43 and living in Midway City. “The funny part of it is, when he told me that, I sat down and thought, ‘That could take me two or three years--or even longer. I don’t know if I can do that.’ ”


He did, of course, but 17 years?

“People always focus on that,” he says with a laugh. “It’s sometimes a little embarrassing.”

But, as he says, “the book kind of took on a life of its own.”

McCawley, who researched and wrote the book in his spare time--he had no grants, no outside funding--quickly discovered that major publishers weren’t interested in a regional book. Even university presses that publish anthropology and local histories felt the book was too regional.

As years went by, he says, he couldn’t help feeling discouraged.

“There was one time I almost chucked the whole thing into the fireplace. Instead, I picked up the manuscript and threw it up into the air and it went all over the room.”


McCawley’s long road to publication actually benefited the book. Each time he submitted his manuscript he updated and expanded it, partly in response to suggestions made by each publisher, he says, and partly to incorporate new material he had uncovered.


The biggest payoff of delay came in 1986.

That’s when the Smithsonian Institution released on microfilm the field notes of anthropologist John Peabody Harrington, who had conducted interviews with Gabrielino during the first decades of the 1900s.

The notes had been available in manuscript form at the Smithsonian, McCawley says, “but I didn’t have the budget to go traveling to Washington, D.C., to do that kind of research.”

Harrington’s notes, which McCawley examined on microfilm at UC Riverside, offered a trove of information--on Gabrielino place names, villages and community locations, stories, legends and histories, religious practices, weapons, tools, housing, clothing.

“I spent virtually every weekend . . . for about a year and a half at the library at UC Riverside going through the Harrington notes,” he says.

Bernice Johnston’s “California Gabrielino Indians” was the first book to use Harrington’s notes and has been considered the reference book of choice on the Gabrielino. But Johnston’s book was published in 1962 and is now out of print. And during the more than 30 years since then, McCawley says, “We now have more information from archival and historical resources.”

Like Johnston, McCawley kept scientific jargon “down to an absolute minimum” and wrote his book to appeal to the general public. He says it also includes vocabulary information, “which we thought would be helpful to the education community as well as to the Gabrielino themselves.”


Although the Gabrielino were involved in various battles and feuds, McCawley says, they were not known as warring people. They were hunter-gatherers with a vigorous maritime culture.

The Gabrielino living on the southern Channel Islands--Santa Catalina, San Clemente and San Nicholas--traveled between the islands and the mainland in canoes made of wooden planks.

On Catalina Island, they quarried soapstone, a valuable material that they traded to mainland Gabrielino and Chumash Indians from the Ventura and Santa Barbara area, who fashioned it into cooking and pipe bowls and small effigies.

McCawley says the Gabrielino had a refined religion, the heart of which was a belief in a supreme being named Chengiichngech. They also had an elaborate mythology, moral code, ceremonies and rituals.

The arrival of the Spanish in the late 1700s, however, marked the beginning of the end of the traditional Gabrielino way of life.

The Gabrielino--named by early anthropologists after Mission San Gabriel--were tapped to work in the missions in San Gabriel and San Fernando and, to a lesser degree, at San Juan Capistrano.

“One of the most central issues here is once the Gabrielino joined the mission and were baptized, they were no longer free to leave the mission,” McCawley says.

With the differences in language, culture and religion between the Gabrielino and the Spanish, he says, “I think you have to question whether the Gabrielino really understood the implications of joining the mission.”

As the local economy began to thrive, the first Angelinos and their culture began to diminish.

Intermarriage with the Mexican population was one factor, McCawley says. Measles, influenza, smallpox and other European diseases also wiped out a major segment of the Gabrielino population.

“That, coupled with the economic loss of people joining the missions, undermined the traditional Gabrielino economy and political structure,” he says. “The villages simply could not maintain themselves because of this population loss and disruption.”

McCawley says estimates of Gabrielino today range from several hundred to several thousand throughout the state.

“I don’t know if there are any what we’d call full Gabrielino, but I don’t believe the Gabrielino community today sees that as an important issue,” he says. “They’re more concerned with the survival of their traditional culture. What’s going on now parallels a lot of what we see in societies throughout the world. They’re rediscovering their culture and taking great steps to preserve it.”