The Tongva (Part 1)

by John Neiuber

As we navigate our way into 2021, and as much as we would like to, it is difficult to leave the events and emotions of 2020 behind us.  Hopefully, as we put distance between us and the pandemic and social and political upheaval, time will allow us to reexamine and reflect so as to learn from our experience—to evaluate our responses, actions and beliefs.  Time has a way of doing that.  We are able to gain perspective.

It has been, at the very least, a tumultuous year.  Many have suffered, many have died. The pandemic has taken a toll on people’s livelihoods, on business, on our way of life.  Polarization, hate and divisiveness have taken a foothold in our society.  Misinformation abounds.

Events have forced us to face the systemic racism that still exists within our society and as we have done this, we have looked back at our history to be confronted with the simple fact that even some of our most venerated historical figures held beliefs that today we are unable to support and embrace.

Such is the nature of individuals in history.  Such is the nature of humans to mirror the beliefs and biases ingrained in the society and time in which they lived and to still have accomplished things we find admirable.  And such is the nature of discovery when we examine and analyze history more closely. 

Currently, the City of Claremont is more closely examining some of its history and, more specifically, exploring how things came to be named.  Case in point is Cahuilla Park, named so in 1963 to honor the Native Americans that were then considered to have been the original habitants of the Claremont area.

This last August, the City Council directed the Community and Human Services Commission to review the possibility of renaming Cahuilla Park to better reflect the history of the indigenous people that populated the area.  A large body of research over the past few decades has revealed that, though the Cahuilla did live relatively nearby, the Tongva were the original occupants of what is now Claremont.  Later it was their association with the Mission San Gabriel that gave the Tongva their Europeanized named Gabrielino, so that today they are called the Gabrielino/Tongva San Gabriel Band of Mission Indians.

This is the second time that the City has visited this issue.  In 2012, the Community and Human Services Commission recommended that the park keep its name due to budgetary concerns.  Claremont Heritage, in keeping with its mission that “advances, preserves and celebrates the historic architectural, natural and cultural resources of the community through education, advocacy and collaboration,” has recently adopted and posted a Land Acknowledgement Statement:

“Claremont Heritage, Inc. acknowledges the Gabrieleno/Tongva peoples as the traditional land caretakers of Tovaangar (the Gabieleno/Tongva world, including the Los Angeles Basin, South Channel Islands, San Gabriel, and Pomona Valleys, and portions of Orange, San Bernardino, and Riverside Counties) and Torojoatngna (Claremont) specifically. We are grateful to have the opportunity to work with the Taraaxatom (Indigenous peoples) in this place. As an institution located on unceded Indigenous land, Claremont Heritage pays our respects to Honuukvetam (ancestors), ‘Ahiihirom (elders), and? Evoohiinkem (our relatives/relations) past, present, and emerging.”

For thousands of years, dating back to 7000 B.C.E., the Los Angeles Basin went by a different name—Tovangar. The area was home to the Tongva people, who made their homes in an estimated 100 villages dispersed throughout the region. Tovangar occupied approximately 4,000 square miles, including the entire Los Angeles Basin, the four Southern Channel Islands, most of what is now Orange County, parts of Riverside County and as far east as the San Bernardino/Colton area.

To the north were the lands of the Chumash and Tataviam, to the northeast the Serrano, to the southeast the Cahuilla and to the south the Juaneno and Luiseno.  This is an important distinction, especially when considering the native people of Claremont and the naming of things.  The Tongva language affixed the suffix –nga or –ngna to the village name, which is present in the name of the Claremont village, Torojoatnga, and translated means, “the place below snowy mountain,” referring to Mount Baldy.  

Many of the communities throughout Southern California owe their names to the Tongva language, among those Cucamonga, Cahuenga, Topanga, Jurupa, Pacoima, Azusa and many others.  The word Tongva means “people of the earth” and it was a fitting name given the respect that they had for the land.   There was a balance of the ecosystem where fish and game were bountiful and the rivers ran free with fresh water from the mountains.

The Tongva were among the wealthiest and most influential indigenous groups in the Southern California area.  Their trade and influence spread as far north as the Sacramento area, east to the Colorado River area and south into Mexico.  Their trade items have been found as far as central Arizona.  The Tongva were mainly plant-gatherers and hunters.  They also mined steatite or soapstone which became an important trade item.

The steatite was quarried on both Santa Catalina and San Clemente Islands.  There was no private, individual ownership of the quarry sites.  The resources belonged to the group and therefore belonged to all.  Some tribal members developed the ability to produce finished items from the steatite, and as such the finished articles from the quarry were worth more than owning the site.

To this day, one can still see evidence of the quarry sites on Catalina Island.  The steatite was used for smoking pipes, grooved arrow shaft straighteners, bowls, pots, drip pans, frying pans, weights for digging sticks and ornaments.  Powdered steatite was used as talcum on babies to prevent chafing.  

The Tongva mastered the sea and built seaworthy plank canoes called “te’att” from driftwood.  By doing so, they were able to transport the steatite from the islands to the mainland to trade within Tovangar and beyond.   Other tribes highly valued the Tongva bowls and quarried stone.

To be continued.


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