Catalina's First Islanders were Ingenious in their Use of Natural Materials
Catalina Island Conservancy
Humans have been living on the Channel Islands for upwards of 15,000 years with the oldest known habitation dates on Catalina Island at least 8,000 years ago. The Los Angeles basin and other southern Channel Islands, including Catalina Island, were inhabited by Native Americans, known as the Tongva or Gabrieliño, the latter name coming from the San Gabriel Mission.
Long before the invention of barges, ferries, planes and helicopters, several thousand Tongva lived on the Island, which they called Pimu or Pimungna. Catalina Island provided a landscape rich in fresh water, edible plants, marine life and mineral resources.
On Catalina Island, the Tongva had multiple settlements in most large Island coves, as well as interior locations, like Big Springs Canyon where there was perennial fresh water. Some of their largest settlements were at places where large numbers of humans live and work now: Two Harbors, Avalon, Little Harbor, Empire Landing, White's Landing and Toyon Bay.
The Tongva lived in houses made of thatch called ki'shes, which were framed from willow branches or whale bones and roofed and walled with mats made from willow branches, rushes, sedges, grasses and animal hides.
Father Antonio de la Ascensión, a passenger on the 1602 Spanish ship of explorer Sebastian Vizcaíno, who named the Island "Santa Catalina," reported that these roofs and walls were so densely woven that "neither rain nor the sun penetrates them."
The Tongva had a rich material culture and manufactured all of the things they needed from natural materials. They used rushes to create water bottles, tarred on the inside with natural asphaltum to prevent leaking. They used local plants and grasses to weave beautiful and functional cooking, storage and ceremonial baskets.
They made needles, fish hooks, axes, weapons, jewelry and other tools from shell, stone, bone and wood. Clay and minerals were used to create paints and dyes. Catalina is also famous for the more than 200 soapstone quarries the Tongva created to obtain this soft, reheatable metamorphic rock to make bowls, jewelry and other implements.
Ingenious in their use of natural resources, the Tongva developed a renewable food system utilizing the Island's flora and fauna, which has been characterized as "intensive horticulture" with burning, coppicing, cutting and sustainable harvesting of terrestrial plants. They also had a maritime culture that developed sophisticated techniques for harvesting shellfish, fish and marine mammals and the beautiful and functional "plank boats" called Ti'ats.
They judiciously managed the distribution of supplies, even to the point of punishing individuals guilty of mismanagement. To minimize any privileges for successful hunters and fishermen, these game gatherers were encouraged to contribute their catch to a communal supply rather than eating it themselves.
Since the 1800s, artifact hunters and scholars have looted or damaged Tongva sites on Catalina, taking or destroying cultural artifacts and human remains.
The Catalina Island Conservancy has had a long-term relationship with several archeologists working on Catalina Island, including Dr. Wendy Teeter, Curator of Archeology at the UCLA Fowler Museum. Recently, at a symposium sponsored by the Catalina Island Conservancy, Desiree Martinez, Tongva archaeologist, and Cindi Alvitre, director of the Ti'at Society and Traditional Council of Pimu, discussed how building a relationship that included the Conservancy, local islanders and the Gabrielino (Tongva) community led to the development of a plan to protect ancestors who are inadvertently encountered during development or maintenance activities.
At times, while maintaining the Island's infrastructure (roads, pipelines, etc.), Tongva artifacts are unearthed. When this happens there is a detailed process that involves Tongva representatives to develop a plan for how to respectfully proceed.
These relationships and the methodical, respectful management of these resources have led to an increased understanding of the Pimu Tongva.
If you suspect you have discovered cultural resources, please immediately contact a Conservancy Ranger or other staff person with a precise location of the resource found. Always leave any resources where they were found because movement or removal of them can be disrespectful especially where human remains are unearthed or artifacts are associated with human remains. Moving an item also destroys the scientific context of the resource and our ability to learn more about this rich and sophisticated culture.
This article was written by Alexa Johnson, the Catalina Island Conservancy's Outreach and Naturalist Training Specialist. Thanks to Wendy Teeter, Desireé Martinez and Karimah Kennedy Richardson for sharing their knowledge of Catalina's first people.