Skip to content

The Tongva

This was originally a 3-part series of articles on the Tongva people by Cindy Hardin, LA Audubon Director of Outdoor Education, including the Ballona Wetlands Education Program, and Jane Beseda, Director at Large, Santa Monica Bay Audubon Society.

Tongva Village

“Wiyot’s Children,” Gabrielino Indian Village of Sa-angna
Playa del Rey, California, Ballona Wetlands
(Painting: Mary Leighton Thomson)

Part I: The First Americans of Ballona—Origins and Daily Life

The Tongva First Americans, also known as Gabrielinos,  who populated the Ballona Wetlands area, arrived from the east when desertification made the formerly lush Great Basin a less hospitable place in which to live.  This westward migration occurred between 9,000 BPE (before present era) and 2500 BPE.  The Tongva are distantly related to the Comanche and the Hopi Pueblo indigenous populations.  Their name means  “People of the Earth.”

The Tongva inhabited the Greater Los Angeles area as far east as the base of Mount Wilson, 40 miles inland.  Their territory was bounded by Malibu to the north and Laguna Beach to the south.  They also occupied some of the Channel Islands, including Santa Catalina, San Clemente and San Nicolas.  You can still hear their language in place names such as Pacoima, Tujunga, Topanga, Azusa, Cahuenga, and Cucamonga.

The Tongva’s appearance and costume were distinctive.  The people were somewhat short and sturdy by European standards.  They were also lighter-skinned than the indigenous people further to the south in Mexico and Central America.  They had brown or reddish hair, and no baldness.  The Tongva washed their hair with urine to kill lice, and this practice might have accounted for their light hair color.  Some Spanish explorers wrote of them as the “blonde” people of the area.  The women used red ochre, a type of clay that is heavy in iron, as sunscreen.

Hair and clothing shown in photo of trading display. Photo" Bowers Museum Collection. Source:

Hair and clothing shown in display of trade goods.
(Photo: Bowers Museum Collection)

Women wore their hair loose and long.  The men also wore their hair long, but wound the top part into a bun, fastened with pins of bone or wood.  Only the men wore hairpins, as this was done to keep the hair out of their eyes when hunting or fishing.

Women wore knee-length skirts or front-and-back aprons of skins, grasses, shredded bark or strings made from yucca fiber.  During the warmer months, men went naked or wore loin cloths, and the children wore no clothing.   During cooler months, the Tongva wore garments and wraps of animal skins, often made of rabbit.  All went barefoot except when traveling in cactus country or rough mountain areas.

Tongva woman at her shelter covered with tule mats on the banks of Los Angeles River. Photo: Bowers Museum Collection. Source:

Tongva woman at her shelter covered with tule mats on the banks of Los Angeles River.
(Photo: Bowers Museum Collection)

The Ballona village site of  Sa’angna, is formally designated as Area CA-LAN-62.  The actual location is believed to have been east of the saltmarsh along the base of the Westchester bluffs in what is now Playa Vista.  At that time, Centinela Creek flowed freely and was a source of fresh water for the settlement.  The village of about 100 people was approximately 1500 feet long and consisted of several clusters of 4 to 5 houses, or kiiy (pronounced “key”), spaced 15-20 feet apart.  (Spelling variants include ki, pronounced “key,” and kich, pronounced “kish.”)   These houses, which the Spanish called  jacals, served mainly as sleeping quarters for an extended family.

The kiiy were dome-shaped and framed with bent poles.  The branches of the Arroyo Willow, which is still abundant at Ballona, were used to make the frame.  Tule grass, a type of bulrush found in freshwater habitats, was dried and used to cover the frame. Tules were also dried and woven together to serve as floormats inside the kiiy.  A hole at the top of the dwelling let out the smoke from a fireplace in the center of the structure.  The replica of a kiiy located at the entrance to Ballona wetlands is much smaller than the actual kiiy used by the Tongva, which were 3 to 4 times larger and served as sleeping quarters for an extended family.

The Tongva were a friendly tribe, paddling out to greet the first Spanish ships with gifts of nuts, berries, acorns, and seafood.  Conflict between villages over failure in gift-giving at ceremonies, abduction of women, poaching and trespassing, or hurtful sorcery sometimes resulted in war.  But the decision to go to war was taken very seriously, and all members of the community were involved.  Most conflicts were resolved by “song fights,” the days-long singing of insulting songs in vile language, accompanied by much stamping and tramping of the ground.

Tongva pictographs are very rare today, having been destroyed by the development of Greater Los Angeles.  There are paintings at a few sites in the San Gabriel Mountains and in the northwestern part of the San Fernando Valley, but none are public.  A replica of their rock art is on display at The Southwest Museum.

The purpose and function of Tongva pictographs may have been similar to that of the Luiseno, since both have diamond patterns and wavy lines.  Luiseno boys and girls painted with red hematite on rocks during their puberty ceremony.  During the ceremonies, sand paintings were created to illustrate the Luiseno conception of the universe, the night sky, sacred beings, and the spiritual component of the human personality.  At the end of the ceremony, the sand paintings were destroyed, and girls raced to a rock where they painted angular and diamond shaped designs.  Perhaps the young Tongva women also painted these symbols during their puberty ceremony.

See references at the end of Part III.


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

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.

See References at the end of Part III.


Part III: The First Americans of Ballona—Culture and Time of Change

"The Best Indians I ever glorified in Pictures" by J.A. Brooks, June 1916, at unspecified site, presumably in California. Source:

“The Best Indians I ever glorified in Pictures”
(Photo:  J.A. Brooks, June 1916, at unspecified site, presumably in California)

With plentiful resources, the Tongva were able to establish a community of more permanence than those usually found in hunter-gatherer societies.  They also had a very effective and far-reaching trading network that enhanced their comfort level and provided social stability.  In fact, abalone shells used for trade have been found as far east as the Mississippi.

The Tongva’s skill as boat builders helped to facilitate this trading.  The most common kind of watercraft used by the Tongva was the ti’at, a plank canoe made from driftwood.  Redwood and pine planks would be shaped using stone axes and drills, and then sewn together with fiber string and sealed with tar.  Ti’ats could hold anywhere from three to twenty passengers, including a young boy whose job it was to bail water.
This ti'at, called Moomat ˜Ahiko or "breath of the ocean" voyaged from Long Beach to Catalina in 1996. Similar vessels would have been used for fishing and trade between the other islands and the mainland (Photo: Bill Bushing)

This ti’at, called Moomat ‘Ahiko or “breath of the ocean,” voyaged from Long Beach to Catalina in 1996. Similar vessels would have been used for fishing and trade between the other islands and the mainland. (Photo: Bill Bushing – Catalina Is. Conservancy)

The Chumash made sewn-plank boats similar to the ones made by the Tongva.

Chumash boat

Replica of Chumash sewn-plank canoe, 1912. (Photo: Bowers Museum Collection)

These seaworthy boats allowed the mainland Tongva to trade with the island-dwelling Tongva on Santa Catalina, San Clemente and San Nicolas.  This was very important, as steatite, or soapstone, was quarried on Santa Catalina.  Steatite can be heated directly over fire without breaking, and was carved into cooking bowls.  Steatite chunks were also superheated and dropped into watertight baskets in order to bring liquids to a boil.  Meat, seeds and acorns were traded for this important material.

Specialized technologies facilitated better food gathering and cooking techniques.  The Tongva were highly skilled at basketry, and made seed beaters, winnowing trays and mush boilers using local plant materials.  They also fashioned digging sticks, which were weighted with stones carved into donut shapes, to hunt for roots and bulbs.

The Tongva had a codified and complex leadership system.  Each settlement had its own leaders, and several settlements would form a confederation overseen by a more powerful chief.  The Tongva had strong spiritual traditions, and every settlement had a shaman, or holy man.  They held intricate rituals on various occasions throughout the year.

Modern Gabrielino woman representing Toypurina. Source:

Modern Gabrielino woman representing Toypurina.

Power was passed down along hereditary lines, but they would skip a generation if they thought the next heir in line was unsuitable for the job.  Since the position of chief was based on blood lineage, chiefs could be either male or female.  If a chief had no son or brother, elders could appoint his sister or eldest daughter, but not his wife as she was of a different lineage. Born in 1760,  Toypurina was a powerful female spiritual leader, respected for her bravery and wisdom.  She was considered a great communicator, speaking with and trading with dozens of villages.  She opposed the rule of colonization by Spanish missionaries in California and, at age 23, led an unsuccessful rebellion against them.

San Gabriel Mission with Tongva ki in foreground. Source:

San Gabriel Mission c. 1800 with Tongva kiiy in foreground.
(Painting: Courtesy of the San Gabriel Mission Museum and the LA County Library)

The prosperity and success of the Tongva began its decline when increasing contact occurred with the western Europeans.  In the winter of 1604-1605 the explorer Vizcaino sailed into Santa Monica Bay.  He was followed by various exploratory parties, and then the Spanish monks.  The Tongva were marched against their will to build a mission in San Gabriel.  The Spanish gave them a new name:  Gabrielinos, meaning the people of the San Gabriel Mission.  Families were split up, and chiefs and leaders killed.  European diseases to which the Tongva had no immunity further decimated the population.  By the end of the 19th century, 250,000 people had been reduced to 9,000.

There are still surviving members of the Tongva living among us.  Some of them are hard at work preserving what remains of their culture, and educating others about the first inhabitants of the Los Angeles region.  Critical to this effort is preservation of the Tongva language, which is part of the Uto-Aztecan family.  To take part, you may want to order “Now You’re Speaking Our Language,” a phrasebook of words and sentences  by Julia Bogany.  You can also visit Tovemur Rock in Palos Verdes, where the “first Singer and Dancer” of the Tongva Nation was turned to stone.  You might want to say a prayer or sing a song or just enjoy the gorgeous area.

Tovemur Rock, Rancho Palos Verdes. (Photo: Denise Clement)

Tovemur Rock, Rancho Palos Verdes. (Photo: Denise Clement)

The Tongva are also pursuing the goal of achieving Federal recognition as a tribe.  Anthropologist Alice Mirlesse of Claremont McKenna College published in 2013  “Identity on Trial: the Gabrielino Tongva Quest for Federal Recognition,” written to enrich the scarce body of literature about the Tongva, and to reach both policymakers and a general audience.  The state of California and the cities of Los Angeles and San Gabriel already recognize the Tongva as a tribe.

tongva blue dolphin book

Believed to be Juana Maria, the Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island. Source:

Believed to be Juana Maria, the Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island.

About The Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell:   This very popular book about “the lone woman of San Nicolas Island” is often included in the State of California’s fourth grade curriculum.  It contains much information about how this woman, known as Juana Maria, lived alone on San Nicolas from 1835 until her discovery in 1853, including how she fashioned a cormorant-feather cape for herself.  However, the book is not historically accurate.  Upon her “rescue” from the island, she was taken to Santa Barbara, where she could not communicate with the Hokun speaking Chumash of that area, or with those who spoke the Tongva language.  Upon her arrival in Santa Barbara she consumed large quantities of fruit and unfamiliar foods and perished within seven weeks.

That’s All!


REFERENCES (Sources for this series of articles are *starred):

Places to Visit to Learn More:


  • Ballona Wetlands, while much of the reserve is currently closed to the public, Friends of Ballona Wetlands and other community partners offer many tours, restoration events, and more.
  • Tovemur Rock,  can be viewed from Pelican Cove Park, 31300 Palos Verdes Drive South, Rancho Palos Verdes.
  • Point Vicente Interpretive Center, Rancho Palos Verdes, includes a diorama of a Tonga village
  • Satwiwa Native American Indian Culture Center, hosts Native American workshops and programs throughout the year.  Rolling grasslands, oak woodlands, and chaparral can all be seen on the same hike.  Newbury Park, Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area.
  • Kuruvungna Springs Cultural Center & Museum, at University High School, West Los Angeles.
  • Heritage Park Tongva Exhibit, Santa Fe Springs.
  • Discovery Park, museum without walls, Playa Vista.
  • The Rancho Los Alamitos, once the sacred Tongva village of Povuu’ngna, Long Beach.
  • Louis Robidoux Nature Center, home to an authentic Tongva site housing genuine artifacts, such as a worksite for women and slicks and mortar, Riverside. Update: This site was substantially damaged by fire in October 2019. Stay tuned for updates.
  • Tongva Memorial, at Loyola Marymount University, a place to learn more about the first Angelenos and some of the plants they used, Westchester.



  • *Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History-Chumash Section, home to a life-sized reproduction of a Chumash boat, which shares the same technology as boats built by the Tongva, Santa Barbara.
  • Catalina Island Museum, the repository for all archeological digs on the island with one of the largest collections of Island Gabrielino artifacts in the world, Avalon
  • *Bowers Museum, First Californians Exhibit, with great examples of Tongva basketry and other artifacts, Santa Ana.
  • Southwest Museum,  In the Mt. Washington area of Los Angeles.
  • *Los Angeles County Natural History Museum, this extensive museum includes many exhibits that touch on Tongva history.  Exposition Park, Los Angeles.  On the Museum’s website, search on keywords Native Americans for a list of current exhibits.  The main Native American section is tucked in the back on the west end of the first floor.

Sources for Further Research:

Alcala, Martin“The Gabrielino/Tongva Indians of California Tribal History” (pre-2008).

* Altshcul,  Jeffrey H. and Grenda, Donn R., Islanders and Mainlanders:  Pre-historic Context to the Southern California Bight  (2002), SRI Press, Tucson, Arizona.

Bogany, Julia et al., “Now You’re Speaking Our Language,” (2012), Pamela Munro and the Gabrielino/Tongva Language Committee.  A phrasebook of words and sentences in the Gabrielino/Tongva/Fernandeno language of the Los Angeles Basin.  Available at

*Bowers Museum, Southern California Indian Curriculum Guide:  an online resource for teachers.

* Eagle Rock-Highland Park 4-H Club, “Mixed Nuts: Tongva Use of Southern California  Mixed Oak/Black Walnut Woodland” (1997), Southwest Museum, Los Angeles, CA.

Gray-Kanatiiosh, Barbara A., Gabrielino, (2004), ABDO Publishing Co.  Available on, or order new or used copies at multiple sites on the internet.

* Los Angeles County Natural History Museum, Tongva Section and various exhibits, 900 Exposition Blvd., Los Angeles, CA.

Los Angeles Indymedia: Activist News website, Tongva: Our Voice, Our History, Our People, featuring highlights of an exhibit held in November 2008, in Aleupkingna (Arcadia).  Includes photos of rock paintings and reproductions of female attire and shoes.

Loyola Marymount University, Hannon Library,  Gabrielino Indians Publications Collections, 1 Loyola Marymount University Dr., Los Angeles, CA.

Mirlesse, Alice, “Identity on Trial: the Gabrielino Tongva Quest for Federal Recognition” (2013).  Pomona Senior Thesis.  Paper 90.

* Thomson, Mary Leighton, “The Gabrielinos.”  (1993), Playa del Rey, CA.  Historical booklet now out of print, carried by the Loyola Marymount University Library, or online on our Santa Monica Bay Audubon Blog.

Welch, Rosanne, “A Brief History of the Tongva Tribe: the Native Inhabitants of the Lands of the Puente Hills Preserve” (2006) (PDF download), PhD Program, Department of History Claremont Graduate University, Claremont, CA.

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: