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Volume 3:

A Perfect Place to Live: Santa Fe Springs 2000 B.C.E.

Traveling with the Tongva

The Tongva were water-loving people and consistently established their villages near springs, rivers, streams, and lakes. Waterways that no longer exist in our Southern California landscape facilitated a Tongva trade system where tule and bark canoes carried the cargo. Seafood from the coast may have been traded for acorns from inland tribes. Other likely commodities were obsidian for making arrowheads and steatite from Catalina Island for carving figurines.

The largest of the Tongva villages, with about 400 homes, was Puvungna, a major economic center located where the Long Beach State University campus is today. A smaller but significant village, located here in Santa Fe Springs, was called Chokiishingna or Chokiish, consisting of 30 to 50 homes like the one recently built at Heritage Park. The homes comprising the village may have spanned the area around the hot springs (Norwalk and Telegraph) to Little Lake (Florence and Pioneer). A trade route to the east led to the village of Cucamonga, and to the north lay Azusa, Topanga, and Tujunga.  

Other villages whose names are now forgotten, Ashaawanga, Saangna, and Mayonga, are now where the cities of Chatsworth, Santa Monica and Newport Beach are located. Dozens, perhaps hundreds, of Tongva villages were established throughout the southland from the Channel Islands to the mountains, from the San Fernando Valley to South Orange County. It is estimated that fifty thousand Tongva lived in Southern California, connected to each other through trade and inter-marriage, before the arrival of the Spanish. 

Tongva life had three components: village and family; hunting and gathering; and, relaxation and spiritual rituals. Most members of the village were from the same clan, taking their clanship through the father’s side. Ritual gathering of clans were important events that brought the sharing of song, dance and food. Wealth was distributed through lavish gift-giving. Even today, “gifting” is an important part of tribal life.  

Living With Abundance 

During the last century, a lot of inaccurate information about the Tongva was disseminated by local governments and in State text books. The worse of the misinformation expresses the view that the Tongva, or Gabrieleño, as they were renamed, were a rag-tag group of indigenous people whose quality of life improved only when they learned to farm and build missions. On the contrary, the Tongva may have been unaware of how to make metal tools and weapons, but they enjoyed a life far richer than the average European of that day.

One thing was sure, the tribal people of this area had plenty of food to eat. The first residents of Santa Fe Springs would have feasted on a protein-rich diet of salmon, trout, shell fish, deer, rabbit, and small game. Acorns from the abundant California Live Oaks were gathered annually and provided a nutritious cereal topped with nuts, honey and berries. Famine and plague, like the ones experienced by Europeans, were unknown to the Tongva. 

In a world as abundant and climate friendly as Southern California, life was more leisurely than we experience today. Time spent on housekeeping and food procurement tasks took a small part of the day, leaving plenty of time for grooming, bathing, napping, art making, storytelling and songs. All of these activities would be banned by the priests later who considered the local natives, many of whom resisted farm labor, to be lazy. In fact, much of their culture, especially the religious and bathing practices, would be forbidden by the Spanish.

By the year 500 A.D., the Tongva had achieved a high artistic level in bone, shell and stone technology. Archaeologists have found exquisite examples of their hair pins, jewelry, whistles and animal carvings. In caves, the Tongva left us mysterious rock paintings reminiscent of their ancient southwest heritage. Baskets that survived are so well made, they could be used to hold water and cook over a fire. Altogether, little is left of a culture that was once considered to be the richest, most sophisticated indigenous society in California.