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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 used for the original native people of Los Angeles: Gabrieleño, Gabrielino, Tongva, and Kizh. The name probably most often encountered (although, arguably, the least 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 the vicinity of the Mission San Gabriel into labor projects and these people were said to use the term Kizh (or Kij, pronounced Keech) as a means to identify themselves collectively. The term may have referred to the dome-shaped homes in their villages, although there is some debate on this. The Spanish hispanicized the term to Kicherenos and, for a time, continued to refer to native people as such, even after the mission moved from the Montebello area to its present-day San Gabriel location. However, as was the practice among early California missions, the Spanish soon assigned the mission-oriented label Gabrieleño to local native people (the version Gabrielino wasn’t introduced until 1925 by anthropologist Alfred L. Kroeber). The name Kizh came only to be referenced by 19th century scholars, principally when referring to the 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 or English. He noted 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 what her people called themselves. Since, as previously noted, California native people typically associated themselves to their home community rather than with 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 entire tribe.

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

Also see: Original People of Los Angeles County.