Friday, December 21, 2012

The Kizh/Gabrieleño People and Misión Vieja

While this blog refers to the specific place name of Misión Vieja or Old Mission as the first European site established in Los Angeles County, there was thousands of years of habitation in the area by the native indigenous peoples.  While these first settlers are often called Gabrieleño (or Gabrieliño), because of their "association" with the Mission San Gabriel, which started at Misión Vieja in 1771 but relocated to the current site within a few years because of flooding from the San Gabriel River, a more recent appellation has been Tongva.  This latter term, however, has no real historical basis, whereas the name Kizh does have a legitimacy in the record and will be used here.

For example, in William McCawley's 1996 book, The First Angelinos, he cites the statement of Raimundo Yorba, who was a consultant to the archaeologist John P. Harrington stated to him that the natives living in the Old Mission area were "what they called a Kichireño, one of a bunch of people that lived at that place just this side of San Gabriel which is known as the Misión ViejaKichireño is not a placename, but a tribename, the name of a kind of people."

While the Kizh/Gabrieleño, like most so-called pre-literate peoples throughout the world, did not have a written language, they, naturally, had an oral one.  This, in turn, meant that there was a vast oral record passed down through the generations among the Kizh/Gabrieleño, having to do with their religious beliefs, history, cultural and social practices, and much else.  The fact that these attributes were not written down do not, in any way, make them subordinate to the written word—it is simply a different way of recording.

This 1925 United States Bureau of Ethnology map (click on it for a larger view in a separate window,) made by the United States Geological Survey, shows "Gabrielino" tribal villages in the broader Los Angeles region.  Note "Hout" in the upper center, corresponding with the term Houtg-na identified by Hugo Reid in 1852 as on "Ranchito de Lugo," probably Rancho Potrero de Felipe Lugo within the general Misión Vieja area.  While Reid also identified Isanthcag-na as specifically in Misión Vieja, it does not appear on this map, which was provided courtesy of the Workman and Temple Family Homestead Museum, City of Industry.

This makes documenting the history of native peoples anywhere on the planet troublesome for those who need written sources to determine what is valid.  When it comes to the Kizh/Gabrieleño and their thousands of years of residence in the Old Mission area, it has been reported that there were at least two or three villages.  One was noted as Isanthcag-na at "Misión Vieja" by Hugo Reid, a Scotchman who was married to Victoria Comacrabit, a native from the Mission San Gabriel and published 21 letters, the first written analysis, about the "Los Angeles County Indians" in the Los Angeles Star newspaper in 1852.   Notably, while Reid provided names for 28 villages and their 1852 locations, he also observed that "there were a great many more villages . . . probably some forty."

McCawley cited another source who claimed that the name, rendered as 'Iisanchanga, derived from a name for wolf, this being 'isawt, though Harrington considered this linkage "not clear."  McCawley, however, stated that "it is curious that 'Iisanchanga does not appear as a recognizable name in the mission registers" and, therefore, wondered if it "was a small settlement consisting of a few families, or simply a geographical placename."

Bernice Eastman Johnson's 1962 publication for the Southwest Museum, California's Gabrieliño Indians, states, however, that near the first mission site, "perhaps on the rounded hills where oil wells now pump day and night, lay the Gabrielino village of Isantcangna.  Men from this settlement helped the soldiers and the muleteers to raise the first rude structures of poles and 'tules' and gave their attention to the religious observance." 

There are several questionable aspects to this statement, one being that the natives would settle on bare hills rather than in the fertile lowlands closer to water, game and usable plant material. Another is the inference that the Kizh/Gabrieleño were as helpful in work and dutiful in the Spaniards' religious ceremonies as Eastman described.  Her statement, however, that the original 1771 mission structures "were built of materials as flimsy as those from which were formed the huts of neighboring Isantcangna," is notable for two reasons.  First, the demeaning use of "flimsy" (as opposed to, say, "flexible"?) and the suggestion that the Spanish were willing to copy native building materials for their new facility.

Johnson also mischaracterized the later settlement of Old Mission, writing that "years later a little Mexican village of adobe buildings grew up nearby and took the name 'Old Mission,' but this was destroyed in the floods of 1867 and now lies in the rubble behind the new flood-control dam."  This last statement about the 1867 floods is simply untrue:  the Temple adobe of 1851, built just a few hundred yards from the river and which was flooded in 1862, survived into the 20th-century and two years after the 1867 deluge, Rafael Basye built an adobe house adjacent to the Rio Hondo.  Moreover, the Old Mission community existed for decades beyond that flood.

Archaeological investigation, however, as pointed out in early posts on this blog, have not been able, with certainty, to establish this site, primarily because of the total disturbance of the area from flooding, ranching and farming, oil and gas development and the like.  It is thought, though, that a site just to the west of the Rio Hondo, the old course of the San Gabriel River prior to 1867, and north of San Gabriel Boulevard, which is roughly along the old road between the old and new mission sites, is the likeliest spot.

This map from William McCawley's The First Angelinos purports to show Gabrielino villages in the San Gabriel Valley, but does not show any in the vicinity of Old Mission, at the lower center, despite Reid's identification of two, one of which, Houtg-na (or Huunang-na/Hout) appears on the 1925 U.S. Bureau of Ethnology map above. 

McCawley also discussed "the community of Wiichinga [which] was also located in the Whittier Narrows area" and which was said to have been a "ranchería, that is to the east of this Mission on a plain closed by water on all sides."  According to McCawley, "this may have been a small settlement rather than a large community" and reported that there was only one entry in the mission records, from the earliest baptism recorded from Mission San Gabriel in 1771.

The other mentioned village was Huunang-na, although McCawley makes no mention of this site.  Johnson, however, cited Hugo Reid in noting "Houtg-na" as being on the "Ranchito de Lugo," which, stated Johnson, "lay in the vicinity of El Monte."  She linked that name with the term "hukngna" offered by Harrington as meaning willow trees, but then stated that "the Gabrielino word for willow is saxat and a village in the San Bernardino area, Saxangna, was based on that root." 

Confusingly, Johnson went on to say that, "here only the Spanish name El Monte refers to the thickets that bordered the swamps and streams."  She continued with a reference to an "old man who recalled this place [and] seemed to be referring to an incident which had occurred in his father's time," this being a lashing of Indians with willow switches.  On the 1925 map included in this post, there is a placename of "Hout" that appears to conform with the location of the Rancho Potrero de Felipe Lugo and it has been said that the village was located just north of today's Whittier Narrows Nature Center, south of the 60 Freeway and west of today's San Gabriel River.

There is another notable place associated in the general area surrounding Misión Vieja worth noting.  According to an account compiled by Harrington, the oral tradition of the natives cited a place called Xarvo, Xarvat, or Qarvat, where sorcerers were said to engage in witchcraft and the locale is also said to be connected to the oft-cited tale of Chengiichngech, in that this supernatural figure sent avenging creatures, such as bears, vipers and dog-like animals, to punish those people who did not obey his commands.  Another tradition related that shamans in this area called up windstorms to fight their enemies  from the coastal areas and that this occurred "near Punta de la Loma [a hilltop] by old S. G. Mission and Xarvut."

In any case, this site was said to be in "a deep gulch back of Petissier's [Pellissier's] place, opening to the west (near Bartolo Station)" and that "there is a big canyada opening through the hills.  Indians used to live there."  To McCawley, the likely location is Sycamore Canyon at the west end of the Puente Hills in Whittier, now a natural preserve managed by the Puente Hills Landfill Native Habitat Preservation Authority.

Despite what is probably inevitable differences and contradictions in available written sources, some of what appears in print clearly showed that native peoples lived in the Whittier Narrows area when the Spaniards arrived to establish the first Mission San Gabriel there in 1771.  Why Reid would acknowledge two villages in his 1852 work, being much closer to the period of their existence, and McCawley choose not consider them as true villages is curious. 

There are, however, many descendants of the Kizh/Gabrieleño in the area and their oral traditions are there, as well.  This confirms their sense of place in Misión Vieja relating to their presence there for thousands of years regardless of inconsistencies in the written historical record.

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