American Indians celebrate today the cultural heritage found near West Los Angeles springs
By CORY FISHER / WESTSIDE WEEKLY
Angie Dorame Behrns was born in a farmhouse on the corner of Federal and Olympic avenues in 1937. As a little girl growing up in West Los Angeles, she remembers the strong ties with other families in her Gabrielino-Tongva tribe.
"Our families have been friends for generations in this area," said Behrns, now 61. "But we're urban Indians now. It's not like we're on a reservation in New Mexico. We've become Americanized, just like the feds wanted. But there are certain traditions we have managed to keep alive." Tribal elder Al Lassos, 69, remembers when Wilshire Boulevard was a dirt road. His family would travel by horse and buggy from West Los Angeles to visit relatives in the San Gabriel Valley.
"In school, kids called me a savage and wanted to beat me up or scalp me," he said. "Some people still ask me, 'Why in hell aren't you on a reservation?' I tell them, 'My roots are right here.'" In congested, bustling West Los Angeles, signs of the indigenous culture that once dominated this area are now few and far between.
That's why Behrns, Lassos and other descendents of the Gabrielino-Tongva tribe are celebrating Gov. Pete Wilson's recent signing of a bill appropriating $50,000 in state funds for the preservation of ancient natural springs on the University High School campus.
Located on the corner of Barrington and Ohio avenues, the springs area is considered one of the last remaining historic sites of the once-thriving Tongva tribe, who were renamed "Gabrielinos" by the Spanish who forced them to work at the San Gabriel Mission in the 1700s.
"It's a miracle we're still here," said Behrns, who attended University High in the 1950s. "We have a history to tell. It's always been a dream to revitalize this area and to reintroduce native plants." An oasis in the midst of a concrete jungle, the springs serve as a symbol of the area before Spanish contact with the Tongva people, descendents of the tribe say.
In an effort to bring awareness to the site and the culture, the sixth annual "Before Columbus Day" festival will be held today at University High. It will include traditional foods, basket weavers, drummers, hoop dancers, artifacts and more. In past years, the event has attracted more than 600 people.
Historically, the site has attracted people for centuries.
Not only have UCLA archeologists determined there was once a large Tongva village at the site, it was also the spot where the Spanish Portola land expedition camped and Father Junipero Serra celebrated Mass in August 1769.
The site is also known as Kuruvungna Springs, meaning "a place where we are in the sun." The local natives were described in unpublished diary of Father Juan Crespi, who traveled with the Portola Expedition in 1769-70. Upon encountering the natives, Father Crespi wrote:
"... as we arrived and set up camp, six very friendly, compliant tractable heathens came over, who had their little houses roofed with grass, the first we have been seeing of this sort. Three of them came wearing a great deal of paint; all of them, however unarmed. They brought four or six bowls of usual seeds and good sage which they presented to our captain; on me they bestowed a good sized string of the sort of beads that they all have, made of white sea shells and red ones (though not very bright colored) that look to be coral, though of a very inferior sort." As a result of its historic significance, the location is now registered with California State Historic Places.
But the site wasn't always treated with the respect due its heritage, some say.
In 1992, Behrns attended her high school reunion at University High. She hadn't been to the nearby springs for years and remembered the site as being well cared for. She was greeted with an unwelcome surprise.
"My brother and I decided to walk down there, and I was just sick by what I saw," she said. "It had been abandoned and neglected, there was trash and graffiti. It was overgrown and people were doing drugs close by. We were heartbroken." That same year, developers proposed the building of an underground parking lot one block north of the site, which would have cut off the spring's water. As a result, tribal descendants, community members and University High teachers and students got together and formed the Gabrielino/Tongva Foundation.
After a heated, two-year fight, the parking structure was voted down and 22,000 gallons of water each day continue to bubble up through the spring.
The foundation now leases the site from the Los Angeles Unified School District and has received a $7,000 grant from Los Angeles' Environmental Affairs Department to enhance the area with oak, sycamore, sage, herbs and vines.
The foundation's primary goal is to establish a cultural center at the site that would house historical documents and artifacts. The $50,000 from the newly signed legislation has brought them closer to that goal.
"It's a beautiful site, but it still suffers from vandals. We need to find a way to protect the property," said foundation member Loretta Ditlow. "We have a lot of work to do, but you will find peace there." Lassos visits the springs regularly with his grandchildren, who help him clean up trash. He's says it disappoints him that more people don't respect the only Tongva site in the area.
"We're just trying to establish ourselves as tribal people who are still here," he said. "We're trying to preserve our springs from the high rises of Wilshire Boulevard. Just because we beat one developer doesn't mean another one won't try the same thing. I'm all for progress, but leave us a little bit."
WHAT: "Before Columbus Day," an American Indian arts and crafts festival WHEN: 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. today WHERE: Gabrielino/Tongva Springs on the University High School campus, 1439 Barrington Ave., West Los Angeles CALL: (310) 397-0180
Link to: California's Modern Indian War