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Part II: The First Americans of Ballona—Food and Plant Uses

November 14, 2013

This is the second in a 3-part series of articles on the Tongva people by Cindy Hardin, LA Audubon Outdoor Education Director, and  Jane Beseda, Director at Large, Santa Monica Bay Audubon Society.

The Tongva cooked outside over open fires as a communal activity.   To shade them as they worked, each group of  kiiys (dwellings), had a large structure without walls, called a ramada by the Spanish.  Like the kiiy, the ramada was framed with willow branches, with the roof covered by tules.

Replica of Tongva granary/  Source:

Replica of Tongva granary

Each cluster of dwellings also had a raised storehouse, or granary, for acorns.   The granary was a large basket woven from young, pliable willow branches and lined with the leaves of the Bay Laurel tree.   The leaves served two purposes: they kept the acorns dry, and the pungent laurel acted as a natural insect repellant.   To protect the acorns from other contamination, the Tongva placed the granaries about six feet above ground on stands made of poles.

Coast Live Oak

Coast Live Oak
(G. LoCascio)

The acorns of various species of California oak, particularly the Coast Live Oak, provided the source for acorn mush, the staple of the Tongva diet.   Acorn gathering was a group activity which occurred annually in the fall when the acorns were ripe.   Foraging groups from the village of Sa-angna walked to the nearby Baldwin Hills, which are visible from Ballona, where Coast Live Oak grew in profusion.

The Tongva carried the nuts back to their villages in burden baskets that held up to 200 pounds.   They wore basketry hats to ease the pressure of the carrying strap that went across the forehead.   These hats were also used as measuring standards for acorns and seeds.   After the acorns were gathered and shelled, they were pounded in a stone or wooden mortar.  The bitter tannin in the meal was leeched out with water through several rinse cycles.  Then the meal was boiled in tightly woven watertight baskets by dropping super-heated rocks of steatite, or soapstone, into the water.   The rocks were moved constantly with looped stirring sticks, so as not to scorch the basket.   The Tongva ate the mush cold.

The Black Walnut was another important plant resource.   They ate the meat of the walnut, and used the inner shells to make a black dye.   The Tongva were excellent basket weavers and used this dye to decorate their handiwork.   They filled the empty shells with asphaltum, a sticky black substance that naturally seeps up from the ground in the Los Angeles area, as we can still see today at the La Brea Tar Pits and on our local beaches.   They pressed pieces of abalone shell into the asphaltum, and used the walnut halves to gamble in a type of dice game.

Fishing with net, Bowers Museum.  Source:

Fishing with net.  
(Photo: Bowers Museum Collection)

The sea was an abundant source of food.   The Tongva caught small schooling fish with nets, and larger fish with hooks of abalone shell or bone.   The fiber for both the nets and the fishing lines came from the milkweed plant.   Although they did not hunt whale, occasionally one would wash up on shore, and they would harvest the meat.   At low tide, they dug for clams, and collected shellfish and crustaceans, which they steamed in pits layered with hot coals and seaweed.   Ballona Creek also teemed with fish and freshwater crustaceans.   Steelhead Trout would head up the creek annually to spawn, as they did in all the local rivers and streams at that time.

The Tongva hunted land animals for their fur and meat, and kept dogs to help with the hunt.   The region was full of wild game, including bear.  Grizzly Bears were present in the Santa Monica Mountains, and would come down to take advantage of the steelhead spawning.    Although the Grizzly disappeared from this area long ago, the Black Bear is still present in our local mountains.

Deer and elk were hunted from blinds, with their meat used for food and skins used for clothing.   Arrows were fashioned from Elderberry branches, with arrowheads made of obsidian, a volcanic rock they obtained as trade goods from tribes to the north.  Sometimes a hunter would dress in a full deerskin—head, antlers and all—and stand downwind from a herd of deer.  Hunters would also rub their bodies with California sagebrush to camouflage their scent. This would allow them to get close enough to make a clean kill.

Smaller animals were also important to the diet.  Burrowing animals were smoked out of their holes, and rabbits were herded into nets.   According to village edict, a hunter or fisherman was required to share his catch with the rest of the group.  This rule helped to prevent hoarding and enhance group survival.

The Tongva used native plants for first aid, many of which can be seen at the Pitzer College native garden.  The John R. Rodman Arboretum began in 1984 as a movement to save surviving indigenous vegetation. The Arboretum gardens are spread through the campus and demonstrate that drought-tolerant and native landscaping can produce a beautiful and environmentally responsible setting.  A list of Medicinal Plant Uses was compiled by Barbara Courtois, founder of the Ballona Audubon Education Program.  In addition, a list of general uses of natural materials such as plants, minerals, and animals is included in the book California’s Chumash Indians, a project of the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History Education Center.

Link to Part I: The First Americans Of Ballona – Origins and Daily Life
Link to Part III: The First Americans of Ballona – culture and Time of Change

See References at the end of Part III of this series of posts on “The First Americans of Ballona.”

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