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Indigenous Peoples of the LA River Basin

A growing body of data obtained from archaological research indicates that maritime-adapated and seafaring groups have lived along the southern California coast for at least ten thousand years.

During a period between approximately 2,000 B.C.E. and 700 C.E., the Uto-Aztecan (formerly known as Shoshonean) peoples entered the LA basin, either absorbing or displacing the previous Hokan-speaking peoples. These peoples lived in the LA basin through the arrival of the first European explorers in the mid-1500s and the settlement of the first Spanish colonies in 1769.1McCawley, William. The First Angelinos: the Gabrielino Indians of Los Angeles. Banning, CA: Malki Museum Press, 1996. 2.

The Uto-Aztecans lived in many different villages, from which multiple distinct nations, lineages, dialects, and identities emerged. Among others, these included the Ventureño Chumash, Fernandeño Tataviam, and Gabrielino Tongva, who lived and continue to live in close relationship with the land and its natural processes. The presence of nomadic communities—and eventually more permanent villages—ebbed and flowed with the basin’s environmental conditions. Although each village operated as its own tribe with distinct leadership and governance, complex intermarriage practices nurtured a tight kinship between villages.2FTBMI Petition

Indigenous Tribes, Sites, and Villages along the LA River
LA County Map
There were once dozens of multi-ethnic indigenous villages along the LA River.
This map was compiled from several sources, including consultation with Indigenous representatives. Data for Fernandeño Tataviam villages is attributed to Fernandeño Tataviam Band of Mission Indians (2015). Data for the Gabrielino Tongva sites and villages is based on "Mapping the Tongva Villages of L.A.'s Past" story map published by Sean Greene and Thomas Curwen via the Los Angeles Times on May 9, 2019.

By 1500, dozens of tribal villages had become established in the area of present-day LA County 3FTBMI Petition They were often positioned near streams and springs, as wetlands served as an important resource for the plants and animals that provided subsistence and raw materials.4Hamel, Jenny. “LA’s Tongva Descendants: ‘We Originated Here.’” KCRW (July 17, 2018). Willow bark, cottonwood bark, and yucca were used to fashion clothing. Baskets,a celebrated artistic legacy of the Ventureño Chumash, Fernandeño Tataviam, and Gabrielino Tongva,5Richard Ciolek-Torello, Jeffrey A. Homburg, Seetha N. Reddy, John G. Douglass, & Donn R. Grenda. “Living in the Ballona Wetlands of the Southern California Coast: Paleoenvironmental Reconstruction and Human Settlement.” Journal of Wetland Archaeology (2013). 10.1179/1473297113Z.0000000001 were woven from rushes, grasses, and squawbush.6Villasenor, Pamela. Presentation at LA River Native Community Discussion (June 1, 2019). Sturtevant, William C. Handbook of North American Indians. Washington: Smithsonian Institution, 1978. The attunement to and reciprocity with the land that underpinned all of these communities has been carried forward today in place names, as the modern words for certain cities, neighborhoods, and waterways are derived from Indigenous ones that themselves often refer to landmarks or important natural features. One example is “Pakoinga,” a Fernandeño village meaning the place of “the entrance,” which is now known as Pacoima.7Harrington Reel 106 (1916) or King, Chester for US Dept of Agriculture, Enthnographic Overview 2004. The Tataviam referred to the LA River as “Wanüt” or “Orít.” For the Tongva, the river was known as “Paayme Paxaayt,” meaning “west river.”8Paayme Paxaayt “Los Angeles River” The living descendants of the Indigenous Peoples of LA County continue to express a close relationship with the land through contemporary cultural, spiritual, and medicinal practices, as well as through climate activism.

Many of the Indigenous communities were brought into and enslaved at the missions that the Spanish settlers established in California throughout the 18th century to promote Catholicism and loyalty to Spain and thus help fortify the Spanish claim to California.9Historical truth as demonstrated via the University of California’s current undertaking “Critical Mission Studies.”
They adopted new tribal names based on the missions into which they were absorbed. Those at the Mission San Gabriel became the Gabrielino, whereas those living in the region surrounding the Mission San Fernando became the Fernandeño. Many descendants of the Gabrielinos now identify as Tongva, a traditional name that speculatively refers to a village in the San Gabriel Mission area. A coalition of the Fernandeño refers to their traditional name, Tataviam, but operate along their traditional village system identification.10McCawley, William. The First Angelinos: the Gabrielino Indians of Los Angeles. Banning, CA: Malki Museum Press, 1996. 9.

An elderly Gabrielino (Tongva) woman works dough on a tone metate (1840).
Southwest Museum.

Over generations, the Gabrielino lineages split and reorganized when a population became too large for the surrounding territory to support them, or when resources became limited due to environmental change.11McCawley, William. The First Angelinos: the Gabrielino Indians of Los Angeles. Banning, CA: Malki Museum Press, 1996. 89. When groups departed, some changed their speech and customs, becoming distinct nations upon their newly inhabited land. Language itself was an important indicator of lineage and identity, though linguistic differences among lineages also fostered harmony. Each dialect possessed only a portion of the components for rituals and ceremonies, which meant two or more lineages needed to come together to perform them successfully 12FTBMI Petition

Separately, the Fernandeño coalition exercised power over territory, self-government, a judicial system, and upheld a network of social, economic, and political ties to other lineages over an extensive area. Traditionally, there was no collective tribal entity above the lineage. Before the founding of Mission San Fernando, autonomous and self-governing lineages lived within independent villages, held their own territory, and maintained political and economic sovereignty over their local areas. They remained linked to neighboring lineages through social exchange. The lineage system continued as the major form of social and political organization through the Spanish Period and is the primary form of indigenous organization among the present-day Fernandeños. Today, the Fernandeño lineage coalition is known as Fernandeño Tataviam Band of Mission Indians (FTBMI).

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