The Gabrieleño, who are believed to have arrived in the Los Angeles area from the Mojave Desert more than 2,000 years ago, were the people who canoed out to greet Spanish explorer Juan Rodriquez Cabrillo in 1542 upon his arrival off the shores of Santa Catalina and San Pedro. Cabrillo declined their invitation to come ashore to visit. The Gabrieleño inhabited the southern portion of what is today Los Angeles County, northern portion of Orange County, and some western portion of both San Bernardino and Riverside Counties. There were an estimated 5,000 to 10,000 Gabrieleño living in the region when the first Spanish settlers arrived in 1781 to establish Los Angeles. There are 31 known sites believed to have been Gabrieleño villages, each having had as many as 400 to 500 huts. In each village, a hereditary chieftain wielded almost total authority over the community. The Spanish initially called at least the Gabrieleño near the mission by a Spanish variation of their original name (Kichireños or "people of the willow houses"), but, after bringing them under subjection to the Mission San Gabriel, began calling them instead Gabrieleños (as the Spanish were prone to do with local native people subjected to each of their missions).
Warfare was not frequent for the Gabrieleño and robbery, murder and incest was rare.
Gabrieleño religious ceremonies were held in a circular structure within each village. The structure could only be entered by select males of status in the community and, in the event of funerary ceremonies, by close relatives. Female singers were also allowed.
The Gabrieleño believed in a supreme being who brought order to a chaotic world by setting it on the shoulders of seven giants made for that purpose. The supreme being went on to make animals, man and woman. The Gabrieleño believed that humans originated in the north where the supreme being lived and that he himself led their ancestors into Southern California. They did not believe in evil spirits, or any concept of a hell or devil until these ideas were introduced by Spanish missionaries . Porpoises and owls were highly esteemed and were never killed. The practice of medicine and healing was the responsibility of a medicine man.
To fail to show courage was the height of disgrace among the Gabrieleño. Men would deliberately lie on top of red anthills and have handfuls of ants placed in their face to demonstration their courage. Boys were introduced to manhood through fasting, hallucinogenic rituals and trials of endurance. An experienced elderly man served to instruct the boys in the legends of the world’s origin and their future. The boys sought visions from their own special animal protector. These ceremonies were believed to provide the boys with a spiritual nature. The boys were also tested for courage by facing trials by fire, whippings, and lying on anthills. Boys who failed to endure these trials earned unfortunate reputations of weakness and cowardice.
Gabrieleño communities and culture went into rapid decline after the Spanish established the Mission San Gabriel in 1771. Gabrieleño were increasingly convinced, lured or even forced into joining the mission and, upon becoming converts (baptized as neophytes), pressed into abandoning their native village, culture, religion and language (see Toypurina - California's Joan of Arc). As legal wards of the mission under Spanish law, neophytes were subject to the padres as if they were children, unable to make key decisions independent of the padres and certainly never allowed to leave. Soldiers assigned to protect the mission were commonly abusive, but especially outside the mission. Diseases introduced by the Spanish also took a brutal toll, inside and outside the mission, killing at least half the native population. By the time the first American settlers arrival in the Los Angeles area in 1841, surviving Gabrieleño were scattered and working at subsistence level on Mexican ranches and virtually all original villages had disappeared (see "L.A. Video: Great Indian Migration from Villages to Missions" at end of this page). Promises earlier made by Mexican authorites that Gabrieleño would take ownership of former mission lands were unfulfilled and long forgotten. Sadly, in contrast to long romanticized images of early California, the actual experience of the native people of the Los Angeles area, from the arrival of the Spanish through the 20th century, proved to be a nightmare of subjugation, loss, disease, rape, abuse and death.
Today, most traces of L.A.'s original people from before the arrival of Europeans are gone and only a few thousand Gabrieleño are estimated to remain living in California. Beginning in the 1980s, Gabrieleño descendants began organizing for formal tribal recognition. In 1994, the Gabrielino-Tongva Tribe was recognized by an act of the California legislature as "the aboriginal tribe of the Los Angeles Basin." Since then, however, competing factions and groups have formed. All have been contentious with one another, claiming to be the only genuine representatives of L.A.'s original people. Despite varying degrees of state recognition, none of the separate groups have thus far succeeded, as a group, at obtaining federal recognition as a distinct Native American tribe.
We refer to the larger tribe native to Los Angeles County as Gabrieleño. Depending on which group they are associated with, they also go by Gabrielino, Tongva and Kizh. What should L.A.'s original people be called?
The Chumash, who are believed to have arrived in the Los Angeles area about 3,000 years ago, ranged into the Malibu area of Los Angeles County, although they mostly lived in parts of Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties. Being a seafaring people, Chumash Indians spent much of their time building small boats and fishing and were accomplished fishermen and artisans. They were more sophisticated craftsmen than their Gabrieleño neighbors to the south.
When the first Spanish missionaries arrived, there were believed to be as many as 22,000 Chumash. However, as did happen with the Gabrieleño, their population, communities and culture rapidly disappeared after the arrival of the Europeans. By 1906, there were only 42 known survivors. Today, about 2,000 people claim to be Chumash descendants, mostly living in Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties.
Source: California Indians - An Illustrated Guide, George Emanuels, Diablo Books. The First Angelinos: The Gabrielino Indians of Los Angeles, William McCawley, Malki Museum Press/Ballena Press
The smallest group of original Los Angeles native people are the Tataviam or Fernandeños (due to their close association to the Mission San Fernando). The sites of 20 early Tataviam villages lie north of the San Fernando Valley and in the Santa Clarita Valley. They were believed to have numbered about 1,000 people and were heavily influenced by the culture of their more numerous neighbors, the Gabrieleño and Chumash.