Spaniards arrived in 1769 and were impressed by the resource wealth, sophisticated culture and economy of the Tongva living in present-day Los Angeles and Orange Counties. Once Mission San Gabriel Arcángel was established, the Tongva were called Gabrielino. Contrary to commonly held perception, the Gabrielino were not the area’s original human inhabitants, an earlier Hokan population predated them. Neither possessed a written language; however, archaeological and anthropological evidence validates the transition. Radio carbon dating techniques provide scientific evidence of their settlements on San Clemente Island as early as 7785 BCE and San Nicolas Island by 6210 BCE.
The Gabrielino belong to a Uto-Aztecan linguistic and Shoshoean-culture group, once extending from the Great Basin into Mexico. Evidence dates their migration into Southern California around 6000 BCE. Gabrielino legend identifies a settlement of “first people” in the Cajon Pass when “the earth was still soft,” and people were “naked, cold and lonely.” Southern California’s fertile environment is a logical reason for migration, although warfare cannot be entirely ruled out. By the time of Spanish contact, the Gabrielino had a highly developed society. Ethnographic and ethnohistoric accounts suggest the area supported a peaceful population living in 50 to 100 settlements on the mainland and coastal islands.
Gabrielino territory stretched north from Aliso Creek in south Orange County to Mount Wilson in the San Gabriel Mountains and Topanga Canyon in the northwest. Boundaries reached inland to San Bernardino and west to the Pacific Ocean, including several Channel Islands, notably Santa Catalina, San Nicholas and San Clemente Islands. Coastal life demanded exceptional navigational skills for ocean travel and procuring food. Gabrielino boats were described by American seamen as “small pine boards, sewed together and … capable of carrying 6 to 14 people, managed with paddles, and move with surprising velocity.”
Father Juan Crespí wrote of the generosity and kindly nature of Indians near present-day La Puente. He described late summer festivals associated with their dietary staple – the acorn. He suggested Gabrielinos held Spaniards in high regard, not surprising considering his ecclesiastical goals, but such comments led early historians to imply, erroneously, that Indians welcomed the mission system unconditionally. Extended European contact began with Mission San Gabriel in 1771. Mission San Fernando, built in 1797, lay within Gabrielino territory and although the natives at this mission were called Fernandeño, they demonstrated no significant difference from the Gabrielino.
The Gabrielino believed in one god, Qua-o-ar, the creator of all things. Animals vital to their diet were venerated and the respect shown to wildlife led some to think the Gabrielino viewed animals as gods. They considered the eagle was the reincarnation of “a remarkably clever, industrious man, chief of a large tribe.” They believed owls predicted death, crows signified a stranger’s arrival and that porpoises were intelligent guardians and protectors of the world. They did not believe in resurrection, but thought a wizard’s soul could exist in an animal’s body, especially the bear.
A chief or tomyaar led each Gabrielino community, or ranchería. Although a hereditary position generally passed from father to son, reports exist of female tomyaars. Chiefs held religious and secular responsibilities, including the management of economic affairs and maintenance of food supplies. Since women played a vital role in the collection and production of food, the tomyaar often had two or more wives. Multiple wives also allowed the tomyaar to mediate conflict and form alliances with other families and communities. Polygamy for other members of the tribe was not generally accepted.
A highly venerated and feared position within Gabrielino society was the shaman, or medicine man. His power to mediate with the supernatural world placed him in a crucial position to influence not only religious and medical affairs but also political, economic and legal activities. The A-hyb-su-voi-rot, or shaman, not only cured disease, but could create it; he made it rain when needed, consulted with good spirits and foretold the future.
Gabrielino lived in dome-shaped huts called wikkiups or kiys, the largest capable of holding 50 people. Constructed of plant materials, these huts were often burned to remove infestations of fleas or other vermin. They could be quickly replaced. The Gabrielino enjoyed a diet high in protein and calories, superior to that of most Europeans at the time. Diet included plants and seeds, small game animals, fish and marine mammals. The abundance of oak trees provided an unlimited acorn supply. Women leeched tannic acids from the acorns, ground them into meal, and made a porridge they often supplemented with berries or chunks of meat. Although they used fire, most food was eaten cold. Little salt was used because they believed it turned hair gray.
Woman’s role in food preparation and basket making increased her value within Indian society. Tightly woven coiled baskets held water and were used for cooking; decorative baskets were for trade or gifts and utilitarian baskets stored food. Extensive laws and codes of behavior ensured social control and stories, passed down through oral tradition, served to reinforce tribal laws and provide moral guidance. Robbery and trespassing within communities were unknown. Murder was rare and carried a death penalty, as did incest. The death penalty was administered by shooting a person with arrows. Fines were paid with food, animal skins or seashells. In all legal matters, the tomyaar was mediator and final authority.
The Spanish were oppressive in their treatment of indigenous Californians. While conversion and acculturation progressed slowly, decline of the Gabrielino proceeded quickly. Native life was irrevocably changed by soldiers and padres, armed with muskets, Bibles and a plan to convert and Hispanicize the natives. Overcrowded conditions at the mission encouraged the spread of disease and lack of tolerance for Indian customs led many Gabrielino to become fugitives, fleeing their homeland for other parts of the state. Mexican rule and American territorial expansion, along with repressive laws and discrimination, had increasingly damaging consequences and by 1900 only 16,000 Indians remained in all of California.
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