Native American life -- in West L.A.

Times Staff Writer

LONG before Christopher Columbus sailed to the so-called New World in 1492, there was already a civilization in Southern California, an established world with its own life and landscape. Indeed, long before Los Angeles Basin was transformed into a smog-filled, celebrity-obsessed metropolis, it was home to the Native American Gabrielino/Tongva nation, some of whom lived in a place called Kuruvungna.

To Indians, Kuruvungna is a sacred site; in the Tongva language, the name means "a place where we are in the sun." To the state of California, it is a registered landmark. To most Angelenos, however, it is the campus of University High School in West L.A., and on Sunday, it will be the site of the Gabrielino/Tongva Springs Foundation's 11th annual Life Before Columbus Day Native American Arts and Crafts Festival.

"It's to show the public, 'Hey, we're still here. We never went away,' " says Gabrielino Indian and foundation spokeswoman Angie Behrns.

On Los Angeles Unified School District property and funded, in part, by the Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department, the event is designed to give visitors an opportunity to observe and participate in ancient Indian rituals, beginning with a blessing of the grounds and continuing throughout the day with impromptu Chumash storytelling sessions, traditional games, and flute and dance performances.

"Indians are not like Anglos," Behrns says of the informal schedule. "We don't say so-and-so is going to get up there and sing for 15 minutes. If they're inspired, they'll get up and play the flute or sing. It's real Indians doing their own thing."

Founded as a nonprofit in 1992, the foundation aims to preserve and protect Kuruvungna and to educate the public about its cultural and historical significance.

Part of that education is provided through guided tours of the site, which the group offers to the public throughout the year. Tours are also available during Life Before Columbus Day.

Additionally, there are hands-on classes for crafty types to paint pottery, weave baskets, make dolls and even grind corn. Those who are more inclined to buy their crafts can peruse the stalls of silver jewelry, beadwork, Navajo purses and painted gourds from Indian and Aztec artists, or they can simply look at the displays of native plants, herbs, genealogy and artifacts that have been unearthed on the site.

WHAT is known about Kuruvungna dates to 1769, when Spanish explorer Gaspar de Portola led the first expedition to the land between San Diego and Monterey. Historians believe De Portola and his crew camped at Kuruvungna, where the Indians gave them watercress, chia and fresh water from the site's numerous natural springs, which still exist on campus today.

In 1925, when construction began on what was then called Warren G. Harding High School, workers found arrowheads, grinding implements and bone tools. The whereabouts of those items are now unknown, but subsequent digs have unearthed a burial site and various food-grinding implements, the latter of which will be on display Sunday. The rest of the year, those implements are stored at Behrns' house. Eventually, she hopes the foundation will have its own museum.

"This area's a treasure, an oasis in the middle of L.A., and nobody knows it exists," she says. "It's got environment, history. We have to use it in a positive way so we can show our children that this is a beautiful spot to be respected and taken care of for future generations."


Life Before Columbus Day

Native American Arts and Crafts Festival

When: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday

Where: University High School, 1439 S. Barrington Ave., West L.A.

Cost: Free

Info: (310) 397-0180

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