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Original People of Los Angeles County

Map of Native Peoples in and Around Los Angeles County

Map of territories of Orignal Peoples with county boundaries in Southern California, Los Angeles Almanac, 2019.
Information sources: Handbook of North American Indians, Vol. 8, California, William C. Sturtevant (Gen. Editor) & Robert F. Heizer (Vol. Editor), 1978, Smithsonian Institute,
and Dr. E. Gary Stickel, Ph.D. (UCLA), Tribal Archeologist, Kizh Nation / Gabrieleno Band of Mission Indians.

Kizh (also known as Gabrieleño)

The Kizh (pronounced "Keech") 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 and visit. The Kizh 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 Kizh 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 Kizh 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 the Kizh 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 to instead call them Gabrieleños (as the Spanish were prone to do with native people subjected to the missions).

Warfare was not frequent for the Kizh and robbery, murder and incest was rare.

Kizh 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 Kizh 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 Kizh 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 Kizh. 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.

Kizh communities and culture went into rapid decline after the establishment of the Mission San Gabriel in 1771. Many Kizh were convinced or lured into joining the mission (and the Missions San Fernando and San Juan Capistrano) and, upon conversion, quickly compelled to abandon their village, culture, religion and language. Their association with the Mission San Gabriel also led to the loss of their original identity as Kizh to that of being Gabrieleño. By the time the first American settlers arrival in the Los Angeles area in 1841, Kizh survivors were scattered and working at subsistence level on Mexican land grants. Promises earlier made by Mexican authorites that Kizh would receive former mission lands were long forgotten. Disease further decimated their population. Today, it is estimated that only a few hundred to a few thousand Kizh remain living in California.

Early native people did not typically call themselves by tribal names, but, instead, referred to themselves by their home village names (as did most other early peoples). When the Mission San Gabriel was established at its original location (in present-day Montebello), the Spanish pressed native people from nearby villages into laboring on mission work projects. These people from various villages collectively referred to themselves as Kizh (or Kij), a word said to refer to the huts in their villages. The Spaniards hispanicized the term to Kicherenos and it continued in use even after the mission moved to its current location. However, as became the practice in early California, the Spanish assigned the mission-oriented label Gabrieleño to the local native people (the version Gabrielino was introduced by anthropologist A.L. Kroeber in 1925). The name Kizh came to be referenced only by 19th century scholars, especially when referring to the local native language. A 19th century scholar also recorded Tobikhar as a name for L.A.’s original people, but, this was considered an invention.

The term Tongva was introduced in 1903, when ethnographer C. Hart Merriam, interviewing a single native person, a woman named Mrs. J.V. Rosemyre, asked her what her people called themselves. Since, as previously noted, earlier native people typically associated with where they lived rather than tribal names, she is believed to have responded with the name of where she grew up, Toviscangna, a native name for the Mission San Gabriel. It is argued that Merriam misunderstood her response, morphed it into Tongva, and incorrectly assigned it as the name for her tribe. Almost a century later, however, seeking to move away from the labels Gabrieleño or Gabrielino, some native descendants adopted Tongva as the name for L.A.'s original people. Other native descendants adopted Kizh for its historic use and native language origin. For the same reasons, the Almanac also elects to use Kizh to refer to L.A.’s native people.

Replica of a Kizh (Gabrielino) structure at Heritage Park in Santa Fe Springs. Los Angeles Almanac Photo.

Kizh Nation (Gabrieleno Band of Mission Indians)

Gabrielino-Tongva Tribe (San Gabriel Band of Mission Indians)


Chumash

The Chumash 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 Tongva neighbors to the south.

When the first Spanish missionaries arrived, there were believed to be as many as 22,000 Chumash. However, as had happened with the Tongva, their population, communities and culture rapidly disappeared. 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.

Chumash Mural, City of Lompoc

Chumash Mural in City of Lompoc, photo by Carol M. Highsmith, 2012.
Jon B. Lovelace Collection of California Photographs in Carol M. Highsmith's America Project, courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Wishtoyo Chumash Foundation.

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


Tataviam (Fernandeños)

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 Tongva and Chumash.

Fernandeño Tataviam Band of Mission Indians.