By Margaret Gill
Close your eyes and imagine how Long Beach looked before it was ever called Long Beach.
Before our houses and schools were built and before our favorite stores and restaurants were ever thought of. Even before the Spanish established the missions and the ranchos. Picture it — a vast floodplain nestled between the Los Angeles and San Gabriel rivers before they were encased in concrete. Envision a lush wetland teeming with life. With all of the buildings and roadways we’ve built on this land over the past 300 years, it can be difficult to imagine Long Beach ever looking like this. But with a little knowledge about the land and the indigenous people that called it home, it’s easy to see why it’s considered to be sacred.
A Place of Power
Along Bellflower Boulevard, on a far corner of CSULB’s campus, is the former site of a freshwater spring and an ancient village. It is from this location that the Tongva believe all life originated. Known as Puvunga, it’s where the creator deity, Wiyot, was killed and where a new prophet, Chingishnish, emerged in his place to teach the Tongva how to survive. When you consider the abundance of resources that enabled the Tongva to thrive in this area, it’s easy to understand why they believe it to be their place of origin.
Living Off the Land
“For the First Peoples, thousands of years ago, it was really idyllic and temperate,” says Dr. Theresa Gregor, an Assistant Professor in CSULB’s American Indian Studies Department. “They had access to a lot of different resources for food and supplies for shelter.” It seems like Long Beach has always had plenty of options when it comes to eating local. Today, we might think of dining at locally-owned restaurants or buying groceries at the farmers’ market, but for the Tongva, “eating local” meant living off of what the land provided them with.
When the Los Angeles and San Gabriel rivers still flowed freely, the land between them, where Long Beach sits now, was an estuary. Estuaries are formed where freshwater rivers drain into the saltwater of the ocean. The combination of fresh and salt water makes for an incredibly diverse ecosystem, so the Tongva that lived in this region were surrounded by a wide variety of plant and animal life. They had access to plenty of fish, shrimp, and mussels when they were near the coast, as well as small game, like rabbits, when they were further inland. To round out their diet, they collected seeds from wildflowers and chia plants, gathered leafy greens like white sage, and made bread from the heads of cattails. They were even able to preserve their food with salt from salt marshes, so that they could go for long periods of time without worrying about finding their next meal.
While much of Long Beach’s wetlands are gone today, small pieces of it still remain, like the Los Cerritos Wetlands near Second St. and Pacific Coast Highway. Nature preserves like these can give us small glimpses into the past and help us appreciate the way people lived off the land before we developed it.
Location, Location, Location
Although much of Long Beach’s topography has changed, many of the same things that the Tongva valued about the area are the same things that people love about Long Beach today. In addition to having plenty of food options, Long Beach has always been conveniently located. While most of the Tongva lived along the coast, they would regularly travel from village to village as far north as Malibu, south into Orange County, and inland to the mountains of Riverside County.
“When anthropologists describe Indigenous Peoples, they like to use the word nomadic,” explains Dr. Gregor, “but I ask my students all the time, ‘Do you stay put in the place where you live?’ No, you travel to go to work, you travel to socialize, you travel to get rest, you travel to get help with your health, you travel to get food.” Just like we might drive to L.A. to try a new restaurant or head down to Orange County to visit a friend, the Tongva would trek to the mountains to hunt deer and gather acorns or meet with the neighboring Chumash and Acjachemen tribes to trade.
Although much has changed after European colonization, we can still find similarities in the way we value the place we call home. We no longer have easy access to natural resources, but we take time to appreciate the natural spaces we still have left and work to preserve them for future generations. We’ve lost important pieces of indigenous history and connections to the past, but we continue to value the connections we make with our neighbors today.