Tongvas Language Revived
By Shirley Dettloff
Recently there was an excellent article written by Tom Curwen, L.A. Times Reporter regarding the Tongvas and the work being done by linguist Pam Munro from UCLA. Ms. Munro has been teaching a class in the language of the Tongvas which was forgotten many years ago, when the Tongvas became known as the Gabrielinos. She calls her work a “reclamation effort” for a language that is no longer used in conversation.
Most of us living in Huntington Beach and those who have worked with saving both the Bolsa Chica wetlands and Shipley Nature Center know that the Tongvas were the Native Americans who lived in this region most recently. Much of their culture and language was lost when the Spanish Missions were built and the Native Americans were coerced into the Mission system. The Spanish called them “Gabrielinos” because the Mission that many were brought to was Mission San Gabriel.
We know that when the Spanish arrived, the Tongvas were a peace loving people and lived a simple life utilizing the abundant natural resources of the area. The weather called for fewer garments, and their homes were made of reeds. The baskets they wove could hold water, and they built boats that were sea worthy enough to go to Catalina. And while the makers and use of the ancient cog stones found at Bolsa Chica are unknown, they attest to thousands of year of human habiation in the Bolsa Chica area.
Pam Munro has been teaching the Tongva language class for 15 years and has discovered the Tongva Tongva words for many things. Bear is huunar, bird, yayaayt, sun, taanet, valley live oak, wijt, deer, shukaat and many, many others. She never thought she would study the Tongva language because there were no native speakers. She had done a study while at UC San Diego when she wrote of the language of the people of the Colorado River, which was the Mojave language. In that study she had native speakers, but in studying the Tongvas there were no speakers of the language. However, when she was given the notes of a former student who had done a study of the Tonvas, she began her study of the Tongvas and their language that continues to this day.
Someone who was a great help was John Peabody Harrington, who 150 years ago began compiling all of the notes on native languages in California. He began working with the remaining Tongva speakers and assembled a written record of their language. He stopped working with the Tongva speakers in 1930. So Ms. Munro had “bits and pieces” of the language but her interest continued. She held small classes of people interested in the Tongvas. Some of these people had a Tongva heritage, embraced the Tongva lifestyle, and wanted to learn more. Workshops were held which led to monthly meetings with students whom are now grandmothers bringing their grandchildren to learn about their heritage. A recent tour was held in Santiago Park in Santa Ana, where on their walks through the park, English words of plants and animals were replaced by using the Tongva name. In this way, the people of today get a glimpse into what California was like hundreds of years ago and what the Tongva heritage means today.