Carving a Niche


You can learn about indigenous peoples of the Far West, and maybe a tad about those even farther west, in a single block of Laguna Beach. Start at Len Wood’s Indian Territory and Museum of the First People; have dinner at the Royal Hawaiian.


Len Wood’s Indian Territory specializes in Hopi kachinas, Zuni fetishes and Navajo textiles and boasts one of the finest collections of Southern California Mission Indian baskets and artifacts anywhere. A back room houses the Museum of the First People, weavings and baskets from Wood’s personal collection. The weavings date to 1870, basketry from 1850 to 1929.

Among the latter is a “star basket” made by Ramona Lubo, the best-known Cahuilla thanks to a 19th century novel about her and Hemet’s annual “Ramona” pageant. She made the basket as a prayer for her murdered husband; because Ramona was Indian, she couldn’t testify against a white man in the case.


Ever see the 1969 movie “Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here”? The real Willie Boy’s mother also made one of the baskets. Those made by Mission tribes use rattlesnake motifs. Baskets ceased to be made after the stock market crash of 1929, when collectors stopped buying them--and after Native Americans discovered the convenience of the white man’s containers.

Hundreds of Navajo weavings range from the transitional period of the 1880s, when they went from shoulder blankets to trading post rugs or wall hangings, to mint-condition rugs made in the 1920s.

Wood’s interest in Native Americans began when he was growing up in Banning. He often accompanied his physician father when he made his rounds on horseback to Cahuilla patients on the Morongo Reservation. The gallery, a family concern run by Wood, his wife, Toni, and their three sons, has been in Laguna Beach for 29 years, and in its current location for 14. Before he retires, Wood hopes to find a permanent home in a nonprofit environment for his Museum of the First People, so see it here while you can. (Admission is free.)

For sale in the gallery are Navajo, Zuni and Hopi jewelry and a wide selection of books. Weaponry includes a 5-foot-6-inch flintlock trade musket and a collection of 50,000 Paleolithic and archaic points--a.k.a. arrowheads--of which about 100 fascinating examples are displayed. Take a few minutes to compare the Anasazi, Pueblo and Hohokam pottery.


If you’ve got time before dinner, compare those vessels to the non-indigenous pottery on display at the Laguna Art Museum (across the street at 307 Cliff Drive) through Sept. 13. “International Contemporary Ceramics From the Igal and Diane Silber Collection” is far-flung in scope and style, but at least one piece, from Patrick Crabb’s “Temple” series, could have been made by some ancient New World culture. Most could not. Museum admission is free of charge 5-9 p.m. Thursdays.


Remember the Polynesian-themed restaurants from the 1940s and ‘50s? Beverly Hills still has Trader Vic’s; Orange County has the Royal Hawaiian, which celebrated its 50th anniversary last year. You can’t miss it. Look for lots of foliage and several large carved tikis out front, including one with yellow light bulbs for eyeballs.

That could be you! Just meet the tropical cocktail challenge called lapu lapu ($7.25). The food has barely changed over half a century, though now there’s a dish featuring spare ribs on a tortilla called Royal Hawaiian Fajitas.

The fried shrimp and Wiki Wiki steak (“Wahine special”) are still there. Don’t expect poi; entrees here come with cheese bread, pineapple and a no ka oi (oy!) tossed green salad. Flaming ice cream is the signature dessert.


1. Indian Territory

305-D N. Coast Highway, (949) 497-5747, 10 a.m. - 5 p.m. Monday - Saturday


2. Royal Hawaiian

331 N. Coast Highway (949) 494-8001 5-10:30 p.m. Tuesday - Saturday and 2-9 on Sunday


Parking: There is metered parking on North Coast Highway and Cliff Drive and free parking on residential streets northeast of Coast Highway.

Buses: OCTA Bus No. 1 runs along North Coast Highway with stops at Cliff Drive and Aster Street. Laguna Beach Transit’s Gray Line serves North Laguna and stops at Cliff Drive and North Coast Highway.