The Native Americans
There was proof of life in this area about 8,000 B.C., although as technology improves, we may find that human life existed even earlier. Some attribute those early peoples to the land bridge that existed across the Bering Strait. There is no definitive evidence showing those ancients as the forbears of the Gabrielinos who inhabited this coastal area at the time of Spanish discovery and settlement, however.
The Native Americans considered local to the westside were named the Gabrielino Indians because of their proximity to San Gabriel Mission, (established in 1771). In all probability, their ancestors migrated from Oregon and Nevada through California deserts. They were Shoshonean (Uto Aztecan linguistic stock) with impressive vocabularies. Because Native American history was passed down through generations by word of mouth, and since they lost their native languages with the colonization of California, our interest is far greater than information available.
The Gabrielinos were social, peaceful people who lived in villages, some nearby, in Los Angeles and Playa del Rey and even on the Channel Islands. There was a concentration of Gabrielino villages in the area of Long Beach. They seemed to select areas along water, (rivers or the ocean). Living to the north were the Chumash tribes, and to the south, lived the Juaneños and Luiseños.
The Gabrielinos lived as family, less organized than tribes, in huts called jacals or wicki-ups. These dome-shaped structures were quite large, framed in willows, and thatched with tules or grasses, which could be found along Ballona Creek. They were designed with a hole in the roof to let smoke escape, and partitions were hung for privacy since more than one family might live together.
La Ballona Valley offered water, safety and an abundance of food. Although the Gabrielinos consumed a variety of foods, acorns would probably be considered the consistent food staple. The community at large gathered and stored the acorns. After cracking and shelling them, the Gabrielinos made acorn mush, by pounding them and then leaching the bitter acid from them in hot water.
Beyond acorns, food gathering and preparation was mostly divided by gender. The women, the elderly, and the children, generally gathered plant materials, seeds, beans, and roots. Seeds were gathered using a beater, which knocked them into flat baskets. They also used pine nuts, walnuts and the fruits of cactus.
The Gabrielinos were expert basketmakers. They constructed baskets for their needs, which included cooking acorns that required the use of hot rocks in the water. They had the ability to waterproof items by using asphaltum, a material easily accessed at nearby La Brea Tar Pits. The hunters were usually male, with the exception of community rabbit hunts. These small animals were trapped into nets by large cooperative hunting parties. The Gabrielino men smoked out burrowing animals to snare them or kill them with throwing sticks. Nets were used to catch ducks and geese. They also hunted coyotes, rodents, tortoises, and lizards with slings.
Hunting larger animals, like deer, elk and mountain sheep, required bows and arrows or spears. It appears that in this area, dogs were used to assist large hunting parties, unlike Mexico, where dogs were used for food.
Fish was a normal part of the Gabrielino diet. Small schools of fish were caught in nets. La Ballona Creek, lagoons (at Playa del Rey) and the swamps (La Cienega) were ready sources of small fish. They also fished from the shore with line and abalone or bone hooks. Gabrielinos made board boats and canoes for fishing and transportation. They constructed reed boats called "bolsas," or wood plank canoes, both sealed with asphaltum from nearby La Brea Tar Pits or from deposits on the sandy beaches. They settled on high ground, but moved through areas like ours to gather needed food. Although they hunted sea lions and seals with spears and harpoons, whales were not generally hunted on the south coast of California. Occasionally, stranded whales did provide meat and bone, and ribs were used as a support structure for houses on the Channel Islands.
Most of the cooking occurred outdoors and was divided. Meats and fish were roasted in deep pits on hot coals, boiled, or sun dried for future use. Shellfish were often steamed in pits layered with hot coals with seaweed, topped with sand. Soup was made with small animals that had been crushed. Tortillas were common, and grasshoppers were roasted on sticks like marshmallows are roasted today.
Availability and tradition determined the Gabrielino diet. For example, bears, rattlesnakes and owls were often considered taboo. Other food restrictions occurred by ceremony. New mothers fasted and only drank warm water. New fathers fasted at the birth of the child, and were not permitted to fish or hunt. Hunters fasted during the hunting party, and they were not expected to eat their own catch. There were special foods and drink prepared for initiation ceremonies for boys and girls at puberty.
Gabrielino rituals, provided by their religion, governed their daily lives. There were ceremonies for marriage, pregnancy, births, puberty and deaths. Solstice was also a time of celebration. Cremation was common practice. Their chiefs, the primary leaders, acted as advisors, keeper of the sacred objects and calendar, but received assistance from the heads of families and shamans. A Shaman was highly respected but often feared, enjoying great political and religious power. There is evidence that women served in the capacity of shaman. Families fell into classes, with the chief's family at the top of the hierarchy. Although monogamous, there was a process for divorce. Reasons included a barren wife, or an unfaithful wife, at which time the husband could choose to take the wife of her lover.
Duties of the Gabrielinos were clearly defined, with cooking and housekeeping chores assigned to the women. Older women cared for the children. The children learned their life duties early. Boys learned hunting and gathering tasks progressively.
The Gabrielinos were short and stocky by today's standards. They had dark brown, not necessarily black hair, generally long, often pulled back, in braids or ponytails. They wore scant clothing during the summer. To weather the winter cold, they wore skins and fabric. Tattoos were common. Tradition called for girls' first tattoos between their eyebrows, progressing down their faces with the years.
Before the Spaniards arrived, the Gabrielinos had their own system of money. When they were not hunting and preparing food, they spent time playing games, even gambling, and manufacturing goods like baskets (for which they were well known), and other objects like their shell hooks, and wooden and stone implements.
To learn more about Gabrielinos, there are a variety of sources nearby. First, our city hall at 9770 Culver Blvd., has a public art installation by May Sun which honors the Gabrielinos. Visit the Page Museum and La Brea Tar Pits on Wilshire Boulevard for detailed information. The Southwest Museum is a wonderful resource about our Native American culture. For a real hands-on approach, look to the Gabrielino/Tongva Foundation, which is restoring University Springs (at University High School). They offer programs for school children and celebrations, open to the public.