Intersections: Descendants of the Tongva look to their past

Long before Los Angeles made its name as the entertainment capital of the world and became known for traffic, diversity, great weather and coveted In-N-Out burgers, it was home to an indigenous peoples known as the Tongva, who lived and thrived in the region, including Glendale, for thousands of years.

Given the push to turn this month’s Columbus Day into Indigenous Peoples Day in an effort to celebrate often forgotten Native American culture and contributions, here’s a look into the people who helped shaped the area we now call home.

The Tongva, also called the “Gabrielinos” by early settlers who — according to the Glendale Historical Society website — would name native tribes after the nearest Mission, were skilled in fishing and made medicinal use of local plants. They had complex social and political systems and the Glendale hillsides where they lived haven’t changed much today.

The names of nearby towns and cities, such as Tujunga, Azusa and Pacoima, come from the Tongva language, and the Gabrielino Trail, which runs through the Angeles National Forest, is named after them. More recently in 2002, thanks to the efforts of local resident and prominent Tongva Tribe member Richard Toyon, a summit in the Verdugo Mountains was named Tongva Peak.

When settlers descended on the area, the tribes succumbed to religious conversions, genocide and disease. What traces of the Tongva were left soon disintegrated into the ether of L.A. history.

Newspaper archives reveal a bleak situation for the Tongvas, whose interaction with settlers were explored in a 1967 Los Angeles Times article, entitled “Ancient Indians in L.A. Had Tragic Lives.”

The article, written by George Getze, a Times science writer, covers the research of UCLA professors into the fact that the Tongva inhabited a larger area of Southern California than once originally assumed, as well as the treatment they suffered at the hands of settlers and missionaries.

According to Forbes, Spanish records are full of rapes and assaults committed by soldiers against the Tongvas as they passed through San Diego and Monterey.

The article mentions a chilling quote by a Franciscan missionary: “No Indian woman was safe when the Spanish were in the neighborhood.”

Men who sought retribution for the kidnapping of their wives and women were killed, children converted to Christianity and separated from their parents. Those who did convert became subordinate to missionaries and soldiers.

“The shock of these methods and the dismay and despair caused by their loss of freedom created dissatisfaction among the Indians, particularly after the founding of Los Angeles in 1781 on the site of a Tongva village called Yangna,” the article continues. “In the span of 10 years, the Tongva Indians of Los Angeles County had lost their freedom and religion to the missionaries, and their lands to settlers.”

These days, ongoing efforts have sought to revive the Tongva culture, especially the language.

Keepers of Indigenous Ways is a nonprofit dedicated to preserving and promoting the culture, language, arts and more of the Tongva people. For more than a decade, the group has devoted time and research to put the missing pieces of the Tongva language together. In 2008, with the help of UCLA linguist Pamela Munro, “Now You’re Speaking Our Language,” a phrase book of the Gabrielino/Tongva/Fernandeño language, was published.

The tragic circumstances surrounding what happened to the Tongva and other indigenous peoples hits close to home for many people who now live in Southern California, but descend from lands with histories that contain bloodshed, genocide and horrible human rights abuses. As we seek to keep our own cultures and traditions alive, remembering and reviving the forgotten history of those who came before us is just as important.

Whether we arrived yesterday, 20 or 300 years ago, we’re all immigrants in the end.

LIANA AGHAJANIAN is a Los Angeles-based journalist whose work has appeared in L.A. Weekly, Paste magazine, New America Media, Eurasianet and The Atlantic. She may be reached at