I grew up and lived here for 18 years, near the southwest edge of the San Fernando Valley. My mom is still in my childhood house.
This is where Tongva and Chumash land meet.
In 1542 Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo claimed all this. In fact, he claimed the whole West Coast all the way up to 42 degrees north latitude—that’s the California/Oregon border today. But he hardly stepped ashore around here.
For over 200 years, California remained an island, protected from European exploitation by natural forces. There were a few visits, but for the most part the desert deterred the Spaniards from overland invasion. Prevailing northwest winds prevented them from sailing up from Mexico. When they did, fog obscured their view. When the eventually found San Francisco Bay, it was by land.
But the Spaniards finally arrived in force in 1769. Junipero Serra set up the missions. They were more analogous to ISIS-controlled Raqqa than anything worth honoring today, a theocratic totalitarian slave state imposed upon the Natives. With Nazi-esque efficiency, the valley’s Natives were taken to the San Gabriel Mission, built in 1771. The San Fernando Mission was built nearly twenty years later. Baptism meant conscription and servitude. Conditions were so egregious that European visitors were appalled. The Native death rate in the missions caused their population to plummet. For their part, the Tongva and Chumash led several uprisings, taking over mission complexes on several occasions. The missions only lasted 65 years before the Mexican and European Catholic authorities shut them down.
Nevertheless, the missions are remembered today with nostalgia, their architecture reflected in houses and buildings throughout the region. Serra was recently sainted. Only last year did the state of California reform the school curriculum to include a more balanced message.
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As Alta California was falling from Mexican into American hands in the dying days of the Mexican-American War in 1846, the Mexican Governor Pío Pico turned most of the San Fernando Valley into the Rancho Ex-Mission San Fernando land grant. Sixteen years later, Pico, who was of Spanish, African, and Native descent, ended up owning the southern half of the property, the part where I grew up. From there, the land passed down to other ranchers and eventually, after the completion of the aqueduct in 1913, to real estate developers and, eventually, to my parents and thousands of others.
Today the Tongva and Chumash, like most California tribes, are a bit like a jigsaw puzzle dropped on the floor. First they were herded into the missions, merged with other tribes, and then released to become paupers in the new economy. Instead of being called Chumash or Tongva, they were called “mission Indians”, or Gabrieleño and Fernandeño, after the specific missions. That’s a bit like throwing Jews from Poland and gypsies from Czechoslovakia into Auschwitz and then calling all the survivors Auschwitzians.
There are more than a half dozen bands of the Chumash today and several of the Tongva. Yet, of all these groups, only a single Chumash band, the Santa Ynez, is federally recognized. Nevertheless, and remarkably, thousands of surviving Chumash and Tongva continue to keep their cultures alive today.