The Indigenous legacy of the Tongva beneath CPP

By Jessica Silverio, Feb. 20, 2024

Beyond the academic classrooms and modern architecture of Cal Poly Pomona lies a deeper narrative of the land’s original inhabitants, the Tongva tribe, who once thrived upon its very soil.

Long before the university’s existence, the Tongva people thrived on this land, leaving behind a cultural imprint that continues to shape the area’s identity.

It’s essential to recognize the name “Gabrieleño” was bestowed upon the tribe by Spanish colonizers. However, the tribe has reclaimed its native name, “Tongva.” This act of reclamation reflects a deep sense of pride and homage to their ancestors, who resided both within and beyond the confines of the San Gabriel mission, marking them as the original inhabitants of Los Angeles. Embracing both names underscores the tribe’s resilience and honors their enduring legacy in the region.

Josh Andujo, a member of the Gabrieleño-Tongva San Gabriel Band of Mission Indians under the leadership of Chief Anthony Morales, offers a comprehensive insight into the storied history of the Tongva tribe.

“We’ve been here since time immemorial,” said Andujo. “The creation of the Gabrieleño people takes place in Long Beach where Cal State Long Beach sits on top of, which is the village site of Puvunga, and also the creation of our religion that we had that was adopted by other tribes in Southern California.”

Chingichnish serves as the original religion of the Tongva people, centered around their deity of the same name. Within Chingichnish, nature holds a central role, deeply integrated into the spiritual practices and beliefs of the Tongva community.

Nathan Nuñez, from the village of Japchivit, located in the San Gabriel Mountains, has nearly two decades of Gabrieleño cultural and religious participation.

“Puvunga is a very sacred place to the Gabrieleño-Tongva people,” said Nuñez. “There was a full-on spirituality religion that existed before Christianity, but I want to take that a step further and show that it wasn’t so much a sense of just religion, it was more so a relationship with the world and natural environment around us.”

Nuñez explained how the native people viewed the living environment around them as alive or as a relative. The rivers were seen as living and the mountains were seen as immortal because they have been here since time immemorial.

Monument dedicated to the Gabrieleño-Tongva by the Department of California Military Order of the Purple Heart. | Courtesy of Josh Andujo

The Tongva tribe inhabited a vast expanse spanning more than 4,000 square miles, encompassing what people now recognize as the Greater Los Angeles Basin. Referred to as Tovaangar by the Tongva themselves, this expansive territory bore witness to their rich cultural heritage and deep connection to the land.

Additionally, Nuñez highlighted how crucial it is to consider where the Tongva people lived and how abundant their environment was.

“We’re very lucky in the sense that they are in a really rich environment,” said Nuñez. “In the sense of rich, I mean the amount of resources they had at their disposal was incredible because the Gabrieleño people were not just coastal or inland people, but they were maritime people as well. So, they would travel from the coasts out to Santa Catalina Island, San Nicolas and be able to go back and forth. When the Spanish came here, they were amazed by these wooden vessels called Ti’at, or plank canoes, that our people created because they were so advanced and sophisticated.”

These canoes are built to hold 10 people comfortably and still have room for storing supplies. Each are made with a special coating made from tar that could be found from the La Brea tar pits, sap from pine trees and ash from burned wood. This coating, applied inside and out, keeps the canoe from sinking in the water.

Mona Recalde, a member of the Gabrieleño-Tongva San Gabriel Band of Mission Indians, is currently dedicated to serving her tribe as the Community Outreach director. In her role, she sheds light on the historical displacement and injustices endured by the Tongva tribe, bringing awareness to their struggles and resilience.

“When the European exploration came, what it brought was guns and disease,” said Recalde. “And the idea and the concept of having power over one human over another. From there, you go into the Mission period. There were 21 missions and San Gabriel was the fourth one to be built. We were taken away from our villages and we were made to work as the enslaved at the mission.”

During the Mexican period, there were hopes for improved conditions for the native populations, yet the reality fell short of expectations.

“It was really, again, another time or another period in which we were enslaved,” said Recalde. “Then you fast forward and California becomes a state. This is where things went even more sideways.”

During the 1850s, Gov. John Bigler of California infamously issued a bounty on the heads of Native Americans within the state, offering a reward of $17.50 to anyone who provided proof of a slain Native American. This initiative aimed to eradicate Native American populations from the region.

In 2019, Gov. Gavin Newsom took a significant step by issuing a formal apology for the historical atrocities inflicted upon Native Americans in California. This acknowledgment marked a pivotal moment of recognition and reconciliation, acknowledging the painful past and reaffirming the commitment to justice and healing for indigenous communities.

In 2021, Mayor Eric Garcetti of Los Angeles offered an apology as well, acknowledging the city’s role in perpetuating injustices against Native Americans.

“Eric Garcetti apologized for the atrocities that happened to our people on our ancestral land, including the slave market,” said Recalde. “It’s also important to call out that Los Angeles was one of the very first major cities to change Christopher Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day.”

Currently, the Gabrieleño-Tongva San Gabriel Band of Mission Indians is actively engaged in revitalization efforts encompassing language, culture and environmental activism, particularly focused on clean water initiatives and food sovereignty. Additionally, they are diligently working toward reclaiming additional land.

Kinship map of all the Gabrieleño-Tongva villages within the LA Basin created by archaeologist Chester King. | Courtesy of the LA Times

To learn more about the Gabrieleño-Tongva people, visit their Instagram page (@sgbmigt) and check out their Linktree in the bio for more information.

Through ongoing efforts in land acknowledgment, the university strives to honor and respect the indigenous roots upon which it stands, ensuring that the legacy of the Tongva tribe endures for generations to come.

The Native American Student Center (NASC) on campus aims to provide vital support to Native American students, facilitating their success through outreach, recruitment and retention initiatives. Serving as a valuable resource for the campus community, the center addresses Native American issues and fosters cultural understanding.

To stay informed about the NASC’s events, programs, cultural celebrations and opportunities for Native American students, follow them on Instagram (@cpp_nasc).

The Rain Bird BioTrek Project at Cal Poly Pomona provides an educational journey focused on sustainability and connection to nature, similar to the values of the Tongva people who once inhabited this land. By promoting respect for nature and sustainable living, the BioTrek Project honors the legacy of the Tongva tribe and encourages visitors to adopt eco-friendly practices for a better future.

To learn more about the BioTrek Project and their efforts, visit their Instagram page (@biotrekcpp) for more information.

A previous version of this article used the incorrect logo and has been updated Feb. 20 with the correct one. 

Logo courtesy of the Gabrieleño-Tongva tribe, Feature image: Victoria Mejicanos 

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