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What Are the Original People of Los Angeles County Called?

Indian Woman Gathering Acorns by Charles Nahl, 1859

"Indian Woman Gathering Acorns," drawing by Charles Nahl for Hutchings' California Magazine, 1859.

There are currently four different names for the original native people of Los Angeles: Gabrieleño, Kizh, Tongva, and Gabrielino. The name probably most often encountered (although arguably not the most historic) is Tongva.

In reality, the early native people of California did not typically use pan-tribal names, but, instead, associated themselves with the name of their home communities (as did most early people anywhere). That changed, however, after the Mission San Gabriel was established at its original location in present-day Montebello. The Spanish began pressing native people from nearby villages into laboring on mission projects and these people were said to use the term Kizh (or Kij, pronounced Keech) as way to identify themselves collectively as from the vicinity of the mission. The term may have referred to the dome-shaped homes in their villages, although there is some debate on this. The Spaniards Hispanicized the term to Kicherenos and, for a period of time, continued to refer to local native people as such even after the mission moved to its current location in present-day San Gabriel. However, as was the practice among early California missions, the Spanish assigned the mission-oriented label Gabrieleño to local native people (the version Gabrielino wasn’t introduced until 1925, then by anthropologist Alfred L. Kroeber). The name Kizh came to only be referenced by 19th century scholars, principally when referring to the original native language. By 1875, physician, naturalist and ethnologist Henry C. Yarrow reported from a visit in Los Angeles that the term Kizh was unknown among San Gabriel native people (whose language, by then, was almost entirely Spanish) and that an elderly chief stated that, besides Gabrieleño, his tribe called themselves Tobikhar (“settlers”). This term was later repeated by ethnologists Albert S. Gatschet (1876) and Walter J. Hoffman (1885). Later anthropologists, however, such as David P. Barrow (1909), considered the term 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, California native people typically associated themselves to their home community rather than to pan-tribal names, she was 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 misinterpreted her response, morphed it into Tongva, and incorrectly identified it as the name for her tribe.

During the 1990s, some native descendants, wanting to move away from the colonial-oriented labels Gabrieleño or Gabrielino, adopted Merriam’s Tongva (Gabrielino-Tongva and Gabrieleno Tongva). Other native descendants adopted Kizh (Kizh Nation), citing its historic use and origin in the original native language. Nevertheless, there is no known pan-tribal name for L.A.'s original people that predated the arrival of Europeans and is from the original language and has been used since.


Also see: Original People of Los Angeles County.