An LMU professor sent her students on a mission to educate strangers about the Tongva, Playa Vista’s original residents
By Andy Vasoyan | Photos By Maria Martin
A bunch of students carrying signs has become a relatively common sight around Los Angeles in today’s political climate, but not necessarily in Playa Vista. Yet in early December of last year, that’s what greeted shoppers and diners at Runway: groups of Loyola Marymount University students descending on the area around lunchtime.
“One of the things [the students] had to do,” says LMU Professor of History Elizabeth Drummond, “was figure out, OK, how do we actually go out and begin these conversations and make it clear we’re not there protesting. There were some people who thought they were there protesting Whole Foods!”
The students’ mission was to give passersby free history lessons. The young historians, as Drummond calls those enrolled in her “Telling History in Public” class, were there to discuss the Tongva, a group of native peoples who thrived here before the arrival of Europeans.
“This is such a dynamic space, and there’s so much going on in terms of technology and new urbanism, but there’s a longer history to Playa Vista,” Drummond says. “These are the original homelands of the Tongva people who were displaced, who suffered from extreme depopulation because of, originally, Spanish colonialism, but also the continuing effects of U.S. expansion as well.”
Holding up a sign that reads “What happened to the Tongva during colonization?” and trying to give a free history lesson might not seem like the easiest task, and Drummond admitted that it did take some getting used to. “That’s, I think, nerve-wracking for college students sometimes — to have go up to strangers and say, ‘Hey, do you wanna learn some history?’”
Nevertheless, Drummond said the students soon got some takers: “They had some short conversations with people who were eager to get to yoga or back to work or lunch, but they also had some really extended conversations,” Drummond said. “One man said initially, ‘I don’t believe you, I’ve never heard of these people.’ Then he looked the Tongva up on his phone, and said ‘OK, what you’re talking about is real.’”
That so many people aren’t necessarily aware that the Tongva even existed is part of why Drummond chose to highlight that aspect of Playa Vista history, though there were a number of other reasons.
“I wanted something that had that element of recovering histories that have often been forgotten,” said Drummond, “and something that tapped into questions of social justice and environmentalism, and also the history debates we’ve seen in the broad public.”
Drummond cribbed the idea from the public history debates around the monuments to Confederate soldiers, where historians in North Carolina have been giving free history lessons as a type of public intervention.
Another group from her class gave similar lessons on LMU’s campus about Junípero Serra, a Spanish missionary and Catholic saint celebrated for founding numerous missions throughout California, but criticized for his use of forced labor among the native peoples.
“Part of the framing was about how we think about this history in terms of social justice.” Drummond said. “The [Tongva] people were dispossessed of their lands, have suffered under oppressive policies of the U.S. government, and still aren’t recognized as an Indian Nation, which means they don’t have access to certain resources, certain protections.”
There are still Tongva people living in the region. When Playa Vista as it stands today was being developed, builders uncovered tribal burial grounds in the area, and had to work with Tongva representatives to relocate the hundreds of remains in a respectful fashion. The bluff roadway that passes behind LMU residence halls has a memorial to the Tongva, which overlooks the surrounding area.
Getting the history of the Native peoples, the area they lived in, and the struggles they face is paramount for Professor Drummond. “With the Tongva, and the recent history with Standing Rock, and discussions around native rights and native lands, I thought it might make sense to kind of tap into those discussions about indigenous peoples and lands and space,” Drummond says. “There really is this long and fascinating history just in this space around us here.”
• The native Tongva people have lived in the Los Angeles basin for 7,000 years. They settled in Playa Vista, the Ballona Wetlands and the Westchester bluffs about 200 A.D.
• Hunter-gatherers, the Tongva lived in this resource-rich area undisturbed until the 1800s when the Spanish arrived. The Tongva were enslaved and forced to build Catholic missions.
• During the development of Playa Vista, the remains of Tongva people were exhumed. In 2008, the remains were laid to rest in
a sacred burial ceremony near the Westchester bluffs.