The Tongva and Yaanga village

The Tongva are those Native Americans who inhabited the Los Angeles Basin and the Southern Channel Islands, an area covering approximately 4,000 square miles. There are 31 known sites believed to have been Tongva villages, each having had as many as 400 to 500 huts. Yaanga village was one of the largest and was located in present-day Los Angeles, along the Los Angeles river, which is a few blocks from where you are standing now.

Along with the neighboring Chumash, the Tongva were the most powerful indigenous people to inhabit Southern California. The Tongva are also known as the Gabrieleño, Fernandeño, and Nicoleño —Europeanized names that were assigned to the Tongva after Spanish colonization. Gabrieleño and Fernandeño are derived from the names of Spanish missions built on or near the tribes’ territory—Mission San Gabriel Arcángel and Mission San Fernando Rey de España, respectively—while Nicoleño is derived from San Nicolas Island. At the time of European contact, they may have numbered 5,000 to 10,000.

The Tongva believed in a supreme being that brought order to the chaotic world by setting it upon the shoulders of seven giants made for that purpose. The Supreme Being went on to make animals, man, and woman. The Tongva believed that humans originated in the north where the Supreme Being lived and that the Supreme Being himself led Tongva ancestors to Southern California. The Tongva did not believe in evil spirits or any concept of a hell or devil until Spanish missionaries introduced these ideas. Porpoises and owls were highly esteemed and were never killed. The practice of medicine and healing was the responsibility of the medicine man.

Tongva communities and culture fell into a rapid decline with the arrival of the Mission de San Gabriel in 1771. Many of the Tongva joined the mission (and the Missions San Fernando and San Juan Capistrano) and, upon their conversions, were compelled to abandon their villages and culture. It was their association with the Mission San Gabriel that gave the Tongva their Europeanized name Gabrielino. By the time the first American settlers arrival in the Los Angeles area in 1841, Tongva survivors were scattered and working at subsistence level on Mexican land grants. Disease further decimated the Tongva population. Today, it is estimated that a few hundred to a few thousand Tongva still live in California.