Tongva Writers Today: The Past, Present, and Future are Unfolding Simultaneously

July 21, 2021   •   By Christopher Soto

TONGVA PEOPLE HAVE LIVED in the Los Angeles Basin since time immemorial. As someone raised in the outskirts of Los Angeles, I knew very little about Tongva history or culture until my mid-20s, even though I had to study California history in the public schools here. The first Tongva person whose name I learned was Toypurina. I read about her online, while browsing articles about settler colonialism and histories of Indigenous resistance in Southern California. Since then, I have come to recognize her face in murals and on a poster inside one of my favorite venues — the Beyond Baroque Literary Arts Center in Venice. Toypurina was born in 1760 and is best known for leading a rebellion against colonization by Spanish missionaries.


As the years have passed, I have read and heard about other women in Tongva history, too, including Victoria Reid, Juana Maria, and the Water Woman. I also learned about the work of Tongva scholars and educators Kelly Stewart, Theresa Ambo, and the late Julia Bogany. Maybe it is because I identify as non-binary, or because I come from a family filled with strong women, but my learning process often begins with histories of women. Since I am also involved in the literary arts world — I serve as a Board Member of Lambda Literary and teach poetry in the Honors College at UCLA — creative writers and visual artists are often centered in my learning, too. As my knowledge of Tongva culture and history expanded, I started following the work and careers of several talented contemporary Tongva visual artists: Weshoyot Alvitre, River Garza, and Mercedes Dorame. My reason for dropping all of these names is not to stake some kind of group connection, but rather to give readers some grounding as they undertake their own readings about Tongva history and culture.


As a guest on this land — since Los Angeles is land stolen from the Tongva people — I feel it is my obligation to know to whom my respects are due. As a person living in Tovaangar (the name for the Los Angeles Basin in the language of its ancestral caretakers), my responsibilities fall first to the people who have stewarded this land for thousands of years, before the recent centuries of colonization. Through the last three centuries, the Los Angeles Basin has been colonized by Spain, Mexico, and the United States. With each wave of colonization, the Tongva people were besieged not only by settler violence but also by multiple waves of diseases those settlers brought along with them, including smallpox, influenza, and, more recently, the Coronavirus. The spread of these deadly diseases, alongside the histories of incarceration and genocide, the enduring pressure for Indigenous peoples to assimilate to the culture of their conquerors, and so many other forms of violence continue to contribute to the loss of Tongva culture, knowledge, and history. Colonization is not something that exists solely in the past, but rather percolates through the present in an unending chain of often unacknowledged atrocities.


I wanted to interview contemporary Tongva writers in order to not only raise awareness of their work, but also to raise awareness of the histories of the land currently called Los Angeles. The conversations below with five Tongva women writers — Cindi Alvitre, Jessa Calderon, Casandra López, Kelly Caballero, and Megan Dorame — offer an opportunity to hear them speak about their current creative projects, what inspires them, and their goals on the horizon. Following their lead, I hope we can continue fighting for Indigenous sovereignty and reparations. As a person who puts great stock in the power of literature to preserve culture and inspire change, I hope that reading the work of Tongva women can give everyone a glimpse into the past, present, and future of Tovaangar.


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Cindi Alvitre


Cindi Alvitre teaches American Indian Studies at California State University, Long Beach. Her most recent book is Wa’aka’: The Bird Who Fell in Love with the Sun (Heyday Books, 2020). In the late 1980s she cofounded Ti’at Society, sharing in the renewal of ancient maritime practices of the coastal and island Tongva.


What are you currently working on?


My book, Waa’aka’: The Bird Who Fell in Love with the Sun (Heyday Books, 2020), is the culmination of a longtime collaboration with Carly Lake, who beautifully illustrated our book. It is partly a traditional creation narrative that reveals how the sun, Tamet, came to make his home in the sky. Waa’aka’, the Black-Crowned Night Heron, was added to the narrative and emerged while I was living on Pimu, Catalina Island, after I first encountered this bird awkwardly perched on the bow of a fishing boat in the harbor that “barked.” The relationship between Waa’aka’ and Tamet is one of reciprocity, give and take, and the consequences of either and both! This story speaks to relationships and reciprocity, two important values in our Tongva community.


Beyond this project, I am a textile artist currently working on my Dream panels, maritime creation stories designed and constructed with a variety of textiles. And I do have another children’s book in the works that will be a contribution to children’s perspectives about the winter holidays and what is practiced in the Indigenous communities.


What’s next for you?


Presently, I teach in the American Indian Studies Program at California State University, Long Beach. I also oversee NAGPRA Collections (Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, 1990) that basically means taking care of the ancestral remains and accompanying artifacts, which continue to be threatened by development throughout Southern California. I never intended to teach at a university, it just ended up that way. I was a single mom with four kids who grew up in the public schools of Southern California, where I was taught that our people, the Tongva, were extinct and that little boys shouldn’t have long hair. It was either rage or educate — I did both.


Our tribe was once regarded as the largest and wealthiest of all tribes in California and “haveekam,” the beautiful ones. Our practices as writers, artists, narrators, and actionists are part of the healing from intergenerational unresolved historical grief that we all feel on a daily basis. We are in a constant state of mourning. Our narratives are part of that healing and ceremony where we travel back to that time of purity and renew our commitment with our ancestral connection to nature. It is what survives! And taking care of nature means having a relationship with her at all facets and dimensions of her presence — and the joy of acknowledging the details of our existence. These days my thoughts are centered around the impacts of this pandemic we are collectively experiencing and how to reconstruct a society that is centered around Indigenous sensibilities, in other words, that knowledge that all of our grandparents had before religion disconnected humans from the natural world.


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Jessa Calderon


Jessa Calderon is a singer, song writer, rapper, and poet. Since 2019, Jessa has worked with the Dream Warriors Collective, which is an interdisciplinary artistic collective focused on artistic healing and community building. She is also a mother and massage therapist.


What are you currently working on?


I am currently writing a book called SisterHOOD. It is a book about a group of young women raised in the hood, who become successful despite the challenges they faced. I also recently dropped a song called “Youngster” that tells a story of challenges in the hood for some youth. For those who struggle with anxiety, depression, want to change their thought processes, or want to begin meditating — I have a guided hypnosis meditation called “Shyee’a Motaax Self Heal.” It’s intended to be heard with headphones. Both projects can be found on all music platforms. I’m working on a few other music projects including one that will have my mother and I singing together.


What’s next for you?


To anyone who has a desire to write, but does not know how to start, just start by writing your thoughts. In my opinion, there is no one way to do things. Bring your flavor to the table. As far as my mother and I, we are writing songs (mostly her) in the Tongva and Chumash language. And we are working on making an album to share these songs. We don’t have the album name or group name officially. I also just released a short poetry film available on YouTube called “Before the Noise.” It was commissioned by Christine Suárez for a collaboration called Mapping Our Stories. I am also appearing in a short film called “Woman Who Blooms At Night.” It is about a woman struggling in life and relationships. She finds her strength through the connection to her culture.


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Casandra López


Casandra López is the author of Brother Bullet (University of Arizona, 2019). She teaches at Northwest Indian College on the Lummi Reservation in Washington State. She is also a CantoMundo Fellow.


What are you currently working on?


I’m working on a memoir, A Few Notes on Grief. Since witnessing my brother’s murder nine years ago, I’ve become compelled to write about my experience and the cycle of violence that is prevalent in my hometown of San Bernardino, California. I’m interested in exploring what justice might mean for my family and community as well as what could make one brown man kill another brown man. These questions have directed me to examine my family history, California history, and local history. The research can be interesting, but also difficult. I have found it best to be curious and to be open to where the work takes me. I have one chapter that is going to be published with the Cincinnati Review that is about San Bernardino, fires, violence, orange trees, and my body. I also recently published a poetry collection called Brother Bullet (University of Arizona Press, 2019).


What’s next for you?


There has been a long history of erasure of Tongva people and other California Indians, so it is necessary and exciting to see the work of Tongva creatives and knowledge keepers being recognized. I’m appreciative of all the work that is being done to recognize our histories and contemporary experiences. It is encouraging to see the work and I hope that it inspires other emerging Tongva creatives, scholars, and leaders.


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Kelly Caballero


Kelly Caballero is a singer-songwriter, performer, poet, and jeweler. Her body of work focuses primarily on highlighting the multifaceted and complex lives of Indigenous peoples born and raised in urban settings.


What are you currently working on? 


I have been writing songs and performing music for a few years now, but all my gigs ceased during the Coronavirus. This is the first year I’ve committed to writing and sharing poetry and with this downtime. I am motivated to write and self-publish a poetry chapbook by the end of the year, as well as create a show that incorporates my music and poetry that I can hopefully share once things open up again.


What’s next for you?


I have many! I’d love to continue to expand and grow into my music and poetry and be able to sustain myself that way. My greatest motivation is elevating the voices from our Tongva community, California tribal nations, and native nations as a whole. I hope to write and create material that sheds light on our community, our struggles, and our triumphs as well as my own personal journey of self-discovery and life as an “urban Indigenous” woman. I would hope to leave something behind that can be read or heard 50 years from now for future native generations, especially the Tongva.


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Megan Dorame


Megan Dorame is a Tongva poet who lives and writes in Santa Ana, California. She holds a BA in anthropology from the University of Oklahoma and works to reclaim and revitalize the Tongva language through her writing. Megan was a 2020 PEN Emerging Voices Fellow and several of her poems have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. Her work has appeared in Dryland, The Offing, Best of the Net 2019, the Los Angeles Times, and Netflix’s City of Ghosts, among others. Megan compiled and edited the forthcoming anthology Totoongvetamme Maaynok / Tongva People Create, which brings together art and writing from the Tongva community. She is currently working on her first poetry collection.


What are you currently working on?


Currently, I’m working on an anthology called, Totoongvetamme Maaynok / Tongva People Create, where I’m collecting writings and art work across various forms of media to highlight the talent in our community. So much of what exists in the Tongva archive was not documented or written by us. For the most part, much of what has been written about us was written through the white male lens. Further, so many of the writings about us place us in the past tense. I wanted to create a platform for our voices, our art, our stories to be told by us, on our own terms, to push back against our erasure here in our homelands, and also to show that we are thriving in the present tense.


I’m also working on individual poems, and my main focus this past year has been improving my craft while also taking care of the self holistically, which, in turn, nurtures the creative process. I’m thinking about how I can give agency to land (and water) on the page as entanglements with settler colonialism continue to occur. I also think a lot about time, how past, present, and future are unfolding simultaneously. How can I use the knowledge passed to me from my ancestors to reconstruct the present in such a way that I am reimagining or building a better future? I think with my work, I’ve been striving to humanize my people. To show how the occupation of our homelands is affecting us daily: our access to our ancestral foods, medicines, that we don’t have space to gather or hold ceremonies, that our ancestors are literally being dug up to widen freeways and build strip malls and high-density housing, etc.


What’s next for you?


I never saw myself reflected in any book, TV show, or movie when I was younger. It’s my dream that young Tongva folks will eventually see themselves represented across all forms of media. I intend to do all I can to elevate all the voices that aren’t always heard so we can create a shift in representation. I’ve also been studying the Tongva language for two years now. My goal is to be able to offer an online course that all folks in the Tongva community can have access to. Right now, we’re relying on UCLA professor emeritus Pam Munro to teach us the language, but I think it’s important for us to eventually develop a more community-based approach to revitalizing our language.


For many Tongva artists, we sometimes only hold shards of traditional knowledge. We have tried to fill the holes of the vast amount of cultural knowledge that’s missing by innovating. Making art is a sort of means for cultural revival, I guess you could say. The works of the Tongva writers are not simply creative works, but also assertions of Tongva sovereignty.


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Christopher Soto lectures with UCLA’s Honors College and also works with UCLA’s Ethnic Studies Research Centers. He sits on the Board of Directors with Lambda Literary. He edited Nepantla: An Anthology Dedicated to Queer Poets of Color (Nightboat Books, 2018) and received his MFA in Poetry from NYU. His debut poetry collection is forthcoming from Copper Canyon Press.


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Featured image: “Bench (Tongva)” by Laurie Avocado is licensed under CC BY 2.0. Image has been cropped.