Teachers: Here’s a study guide to teach about Tongva in your classrooms

The Times asked three local educators to formulate questions based on our story of the Tongva language and efforts to revive it.

By Thomas Curwen

In California, the study of pre-Columbian settlements and people is introduced in the fourth grade, and while the state’s framework for social science instruction does not mention Tongva, the lives of these indigenous people play a key role in the history of Los Angeles.

To help teachers incorporate Tongva into their classroom instruction, The Times asked three educators to formulate questions based on the Column One feature about the Tongva language and the work of UCLA linguist Pam Munro to revive it.

Barbara Moreno, an education consultant and former elementary school teacher, suggests that educators read the story from a systems perspective. Systems — or systems thinking — would consider the story and Munro’s work with an understanding that language and culture are shaped by geography and natural and man-made resources.

  1. Based on the information in the article, what story can you weave together describing the life of the Tongva people? Why are articles such as these important for us to read in 2019?
  2. Study a topographic map of Southern California. Identify Santa Catalina, Palos Verdes, Saddleback, Malibu, San Bernardino. Pinpoint the landforms and water sources near those places. Where in Los Angeles County might you have once found bayous and savannas, prairies and estuaries, rivers and mountains? Which landforms and water sources are still a part of our local geography? What could have caused some of them to disappear?
  3. Create a list of reasons as to why the Tongva people began to lose the use of their native language after the arrival of the Europeans. In what ways would language loss have affected their ability to maintain an interconnected community?
  4. Once the Southern California missions were established, the Tongva people began to live and work there. In what ways do you think that transition transformed Tongva life?
  5. What is the job of a linguist? What might motivate someone to recover a native language that the tribal members rarely speak anymore?
  6. Imagine yourself as a Tongva person who had lived here more than 200 years ago. Write a short poem using words from the Tongva language that lets the reader understand the ways in which you celebrate some everyday occurrence, or wonder about some natural phenomenon, or yearn for some essential part of your life to change.

Mary Frances Smith-Reynolds, a second-grade teacher at Ivanhoe Elementary School in Silver Lake, consulted with her teaching colleagues. They would recommend the story about the Tongva culture and language to third-, fourth- and fifth-graders and suggest that the Column One and accompanying articles be read and discussed together. After pre-teaching the vocabulary, they would develop lesson plans based on the following questions:

  1. What do you notice about the definitions of the Tongva words? What do most of them name? What do these words tell us about the world of the Tongva? What new word would you like to add to the Tongva language? Why?
  2. Why is it important for the people taking this language class in San Pedro to study the Tongva language with teacher Pam Munro? Why are they learning a language that is spoken by so few people?
  3. Explain what reporter Thomas Curwen meant by this sentence: “Tongva would no longer be a museum piece.”
  4. Explain what linguist Michael Krauss meant when he wrote: “Surely, just as extinction of any animal species diminishes our world, so does the extinction of any language.”
  5. Choose at least five Tongva words. Create a picture dictionary of these words and label them with the Tongva words.
  6. What are the benefits or problems of not having a written language?

Liam McLoughlin, a fifth-grade teacher at Maywood Elementary School in the Los Angeles Unified School District, recommends focusing instruction on the final section of the story, titled “We are going.” After pre-teaching “naturalist” and “nature reserve,” he would begin with the following questions:

  1. Why have the students come to the Santiago Park Nature Reserve? Support your answer with evidence from the text.
  2. What do the students and teachers see, hear, smell and touch at the nature reserve? Make a list and then organize the list into the four sensory categories.
  3. What do you notice about all the Tongva words? Look at the spelling. What do they all have in common?
  4. Find three phrases in the text that begin with, “words …” Underline all three phrases. What does each phrase make you think of? Why do you think the author chose these phrases?
  5. When the last native speaker of Tongva died some 50 years ago, the language could no longer be heard. It existed only on paper. What do you think the teacher and students are trying to achieve when they get together and speak Tongva?

Additional resources:

Video: “From Villages to Missions: The Great California Indian Migration, 1772-1840”

“Early California Cultural Atlas” and the project’s map

“Mapping Indigenous LA”

“Mapping Indigenous LA: Placemaking Through Digital Storytelling”

“Perspectives on a Selection of Gabrieleño/Tongva Places”

“Early California Population Project”

“Survey of California and other Indian Languages – California Language Archive”

“Languages of California”

Credits: Illustration by Peter Hoey and Maria Hoey.